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An Interview with Eva Soltes about composer Lou Harrison

August 02, 2012

While doing research for The Universal Language, I kept an ongoing list of noteworthy people who have been associated with Esperanto over the years. Most of these are familiar names: George Soros, Tito, Tolkien. But one lesser-known name that always intrigued me is the American avant-garde composer Lou Harrison. There’s a new documentary film about Harrison made by Eva Soltes, a music producer, dancer, and longtime friend of the composer’s. I reached Soltes by phone at her home in Joshua Tree, California to talk more about the Lou Harrison-Esperanto connection.

Sam Green: So, Lou Harrison is one of the most notable speakers of Esperanto, but I would guess that most people in the Esperanto world don't know who he is. Could you start by just explaining who Lou Harrison was?

Eva Soltes: Lou Harrison was an historic composer, one of the visionaries of American music as we know it now. He had a very long history, beginning in the 1930s in San Francisco, working with innovative music forms. You know, he worked with the composer John Cage––they created percussion orchestras together. And during a decade following that that he spent in New York he was an important music critic. He worked with Henry Cowell, with Virgil Thomson. He also became a very important composer in the dance world. He worked with a great lineage of dancers, beginning with Merce Cunningham, and more recently in his later years with Mark Morris, who commissioned him, who, you know, really really loved Lou's work.

Lou was important also in bringing World Music into the American music palette, into the American music sound and consciousness. And, as you can imagine, because of his devotion to Esperanto, he was equally devoted to World Music because he really felt that we were a one world culture, and that everybody had something to contribute and was interesting.

Soltes and Harrison

SG: So what was his connection to Esperanto? What drew him to the language?

ES: I think it was the idea that everybody could communicate together, that there was one world language. It was a complete recognition and an activism towards the goal, that we were not separate, separated by imaginary cultural things. So, Lou's knowledge of Esperanto, and his love of Esperanto, really grew from a very deep place within him and a deep belief that it's a one world family.

SG: How did he come across Esperanto and what sort of involvement did he have in the Esperanto movement?

ES: You know I'm not entirely sure where he was first introduced to Esperanto, but I do know in 1961, when he had his first trip to Asia, to Japan, and then visited Taiwan and Korea, he reached across the ocean to the Esperantists. So it was fellow Esperantists in Japan that became his guides and that showed him around the country.

SG: Did he have Esperanto pen pals? Did he go to the universal congresses?

ES: I believe for one of the universal congresses he wrote a new work called "La Koro Sutra," "The Heart Sutra." I think it was 1971, so I think he was part of that congress and he wrote, and his partner William Colvig built instruments. And so he scored a rendition of "The Heart Sutra" that was translated into Esperanto, and that remains one of his great works.

SG: Will you talk a little bit more about the song? What is it?

ES: "The Heart Sutra" is a Buddhist text, one of the primary Buddhist texts, and, you know, it eventually turns into the enlightenment of Buddha and so forth––it's a very central text to the Buddhist religion and practice. It's something that is about bring people together and about healing and so forth, and so Lou took that text and translated it into Esperanto.

Actually I was with him when that was performed in Japan, and it made the older Japanese people, of the generation that had been in the war, really weep, openly, which was unheard of. I'd never heard of anything like that in that culture, those people. The elders were so stoic and never showed their emotion and Lou's work––that work, "La Koro Sutra," "The Heart Sutra," made them weep.

SG: How can people learn about Lou and your project, your movie?

ES: I have a website: harrisondocumentary.com.

SG: Is the movie subtitled in Esperanto? Is there an Esperanto version of it?

ES: You know what? No, there isn't, and what a wonderful idea, to do that.

SG: Maybe by posting this somebody will take the initiative and get in touch with you. Let's hope it happens, because Lou was a lovely person and his story is an important piece of Esperanto history.

ES: Yeah, what a wonderful idea.

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