Michael Harrison (musician)

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Michael Harrison is an American contemporary classical music composer and pianist living in New York City. He was a Guggenheim Fellow for the academic year 2018–2019 (Anon. 2018). Harrison occupies a unique niche as an artist who has bridged the European musical traditions with those of North Indian classical music, forging an entirely new approach to composition through tunings and methodologies that employ and extend the ancient concept of "just intonation"; the quality of his work and personal vision has earned him the label of, in the words of composer Philip Glass, a "maverick, outside composer" (Glass 2006).

Early years[edit]

Born in Bryn Mawr, PA, Harrison grew up in Eugene, OR, where his father, David Kent Harrison was a professor of mathematics at the University of Oregon and a Guggenheim Fellow for the academic year 1963–1964 (Anon. n.d.). As a child and teenager, he spent summers in both Chatham and Concord, MA with his grandfather, George R. Harrison, a professor of experimental physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1930), and Dean of Science (1942–64), who had a seminal influence on him.

He studied piano from the age of 6, composition from the age of 17, and North Indian classical vocal music from the age of 18, and attended Phillips Academy Andover. Early passions also included backpacking and mountain climbing in the Oregon Cascades and Himalayas, downhill and cross-country skiing, and chess, he graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.M. in Composition, where he later received the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award, and then moved to New York City to study with La Monte Young through a Dia Art Foundation Apprenticeship-in Residency (Wise 2005). He later received an M.M. in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, studying with Reiko Fueting.

Aesthetic approach[edit]

Musical harmonies are said to be "just" when their relative vibrations form whole number proportions, like 2:1 (producing an octave) or 3:2 (producing a fifth); such harmonies occur readily in nature, and they are perceived as unusually pure and serene. In the East, they are the coin of the realm. In the West, the idea also occupied musicians and philosophers from the time of Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.E. However, the evolving Western reliance on tonal harmony and its attendant structures made "Just Intonation" impractical, since those pure proportions, when multiplied across, say, a keyboard, produce different, clashing versions of any named pitches, collisions that become painfully obvious when played in the context of full chords. Eastern music, with its focus on melody and rhythm rather than harmony is less problematic in this regard.

Michael Harrison’s aesthetic seeks to "emancipate" the clashes—to make them an acceptable element of musical texture—much as Arnold Schoenberg sought to emancipate dissonance from the rules of tonal harmony; the result has been, as Vivien Schweitzer wrote of his collaboration with the Grammy-winning vocal arts project Roomful of Teeth, "a celestial soundscape of gorgeous harmonies… like a jubilantly microtonal choir of bells" (Schweitzer 2016). His catalog of works takes listeners on a journey of sounds ranging from the cloudlike and vaporous to those of colliding worlds, thunderous drummings and angelic choruses; these striking effects are not obtainable through the commonly used modern tuning known as equal temperament because of that tuning’s acoustical limitations.

Harmonic theory[edit]

A string set in motion will create not only its fundamental frequency, but also a spectrum of softer "overtones," defined by whole number proportions in relation to that fundamental—2:1 (octave), 3:2 (fifth), 4:3 (fourth), 5:4 (major third) and so on; these barely heard harmonics help contribute to an instrument’s sonority, making a clarinet sound different from a violin. They also create a conundrum.

An E that has been determined through a 5:4 ratio based on a fundamental of C (that is, the pitch a pure major third above C) is not exactly the same pitch as an E that has been determined through a 3:2 ratio based on a fundamental of A (the pitch a perfect fifth above A). Any instrument with fixed pitches will be incapable of offering both versions of E; the difference between them is known as a "comma," and attempting to maintain the "just" proportions on such an instrument will produce a comma-filled tuning with clashes known as "wolves." Other tunings were created to allow the scale tones to blend more easily, but modifying the natural proportions has an impact—Isaac Newton compared the resulting harmonies to faint and soiled colors. Modern "equal temperament" abandons the pure musical proportions by dividing the octave into 12 equal parts—it avoids wolves.

But in a tuning that maintains the pure ratios, the overtones can reinforce each other, so that in Harrison’s music, perceived pitches sometimes ring out high above the tones he is actually striking on the keyboard, he also employs a technique invented by La Monte Young in which specific sets of pitches are played in fast permutations between both hands, producing "tone clouds." The commas he utilizes in works like Revelation can produce shimmering effects that leave a listener’s body abuzz.[citation needed] These include the well-known Pythagorean comma (the difference between any note and the almost identical note that comes about after the circle of fifths is traversed), the syntonic comma (81:80), and most important to Harrison the pulsing "celestial comma" (64:63, also known as a "septimal comma").

Other examples from Harrison's works[edit]

These musical tools generate dramatic results. Applying them in Just Ancient Loops for multi-track cello, explained Maya Beiser, for whom it was written, created an effect "as if you are turning all the artificial lights off and letting the rays of sunlight into your space" (Beiser 2015). In Just Constellations, composed for Roomful of Teeth, Harrison employed an ensemble of singers (using nom-tom syllables, sung by Indian vocalists for centuries) to explore four interconnected constellations of tones: the first three using regions of La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, based on the harmonic primes of 2, 3 and 7, with "The Magic Constellation" exploring three variations of "The Theme of the Magic Chord" from Young’s piece; the fourth "Acoustic Constellation" is based on the 4th octave of the harmonic series, using the "acoustic" mode, comprising the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, and 27th partials of the harmonic series.

Harmonic Constellations, composed for violinist/electronics specialist Mari Kimura, is scored for violin with 13 pre-recorded violin tracks and sine tones. In a bow to the idea of total serialism, the frequency relationships between each tone (in whole number proportions) determine the durations and envelopes (attack, sustain and decay) of each tone, as well as structural elements of the work. However, since the musical aesthetic involved is not at all like that used in 12-tone serialism, and because non-pitched musical elements are determined directly from the frequency relationships themselves, which is not the case with serialism, Michael Harrison, calls his approach "integrated proportionality". One aspect of this piece is that the periodic composite waveforms produced can be experienced as a sonic hologram: the listener can move the position of his or her head, or gradually cup their hands over their ears, to hear different tones in every part of the room, and the work will never be heard the same way twice; because each constellation includes between 7 and 30 tones, acoustical beats created by their overlapping continually shift and evolve over time.


As La Monte Young’s composition and tuning assistant from 1980 to 1987, Harrison prepared the specialized tunings and scores for Young’s 6 ½-hour work, The Well-Tuned Piano, and became the only person besides the composer to perform it.

Building on this experience, in 1986, Harrison designed and produced the "harmonic piano", an extensively modified grand piano with the ability to play 24 notes per octave. Hailed by critic Kyle Gann as "an indisputable landmark in the history of Western tuning" (Gann 1991, 86); the instrument is described in the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Libin 2010). Like his colleagues Terry Riley and Philip Glass, Harrison has been a serious student of Indian music, first as a disciple of master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath (1979–1996), and currently, a protégé of Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan (1999–present), he is also the co-founder and president of the American Academy of Indian Classical Music (AAICM).

Harrison’s evolution as a composer is rooted in these interests, but his catalog of works also reveals an inquisitive, open mind, his early solo piano CD, In Flight (1986), shows the influence of lyrical jazz and minimalism. Yet his apprenticeship with La Monte Young had a lasting impact, and Harrison’s music generally falls into five broad categories:

  • Extended works for piano in just intonation, including the CDs From Ancient Worlds (1992) and Revelation (2007);
  • Orchestral works, including Symphonic Cortege (1990), Tessellations (2014), Orchestral Modules (chamber orchestra, 2014; symphonic orchestra, 2015), Chorale (from Just Ancient Loops, string orchestra, 2016), and Two Movements for Chamber Orchestra (2019);
  • Works for strings, voices, and piano in just intonation, including Tone Clouds (2009); Hijaz (2011), Raga Preludes (2011), the Time Loops CD (2012), Just Ancient Loops (2012), Just Constellations (2015), and the Harmonic Constellations CD (2016);
  • Works using materials from Indian classical music, including Raga Preludes (2011), Jaunpuri (Rendition of a Raga) (2012), Tessellations (2014), Tarana (Raga Yaman Kalyan) (2016), and India Blue (2018);
  • Electro-Acoustic works with "Integrated Proportionality," such as Radians Phase and Radians Phase II (2015), Harmonic Constellations (2016), Cello Constellations (2017), and Tone Rooms (2019).

Harrison’s professional engagements have included associations with filmmakers, choreographers, visual artists and architects, including filmmaker Bill Morrison, Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth, cellist Maya Beiser, Bang on a Can, the Stuttgart Ballet, the Kronos Quartet, the JACK Quartet, the Del Sol Quartet, the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, and Contemporaneous, as well as with his mentors, composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Recent commissions include New Music USA for a collaboration with Indian vocalist Mashkoor Ali Khan, violinist Mari Kimura, cellist Clarice Jensen, and percussionist Payton MacDonald.

His compositions have received performances at Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ's Minimal Music Festival, BAM Next Wave Festival, New York's Museum of Modern Art, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, Lincoln Center, MASS MoCA, Park Avenue Armory, Spoleto Festival USA, the United Nations, Ojai Music Festival, Bang on a Can Marathon, Big Ears Festival, National Sawdust, Other Minds, Klavier Festival Ruhr, Quattro Pianoforti in Rome, American Academy in Rome, Strings of Autumn in Prague, Havana Contemporary Music Festival, Sundance and other film festivals throughout the world.

Time Loops, his CD with cellist Maya Beiser, was selected by National Public Radio as one of the Top 10 Classical Albums of 2012. Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation, his 75-minute work for solo piano, was chosen by The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Time Out New York as one of the Best Classical Recordings of the Year, and received awards from the Classical Recording Foundation and IBLA Foundation. Critic Tim Page wrote: "Say it plainly—Michael Harrison's ‘Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation’ is probably the most brilliant and original extended composition for solo piano since the early works of Frederic Rzewski three decades ago" (Page 2009). Recordings of his music have been released on Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe Music label, New World Records, New Albion Records, Important Records, and Fortuna Records. Chapters are devoted to his work in the books Grand Obsession (Perry Knize, Scribner) and Temperament (Stuart Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf).

Academic appointments[edit]

Harrison has been on faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design, Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance Program, and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute at MASS MoCA, he is music director at Arts, Letters & Numbers.

Awards and residencies[edit]

Grants and fellowships include a Guggenheim Fellowship (2018), New Music USA (2016), American Composers Forum Competition and Residency in Cuba (2015), University of Oregon School of Music Distinguished Alumnus Award (2014), Aaron Copland Fund for Music recording grant (2012), Classical Recording Foundation Awards for both Time Loops (2012) and Revelation (2006) albums, and the IBLA International Competition Grand Prize (2004).

Harrison has received fellowships and residencies from the MacDowell Colony, where he serves on the Fellows Executive Committee, the American Academy in Rome, Dia Art Foundation, MASS MoCA, Yaddo, McColl Center for Art + Innovation, Château de la Napoule, Djerassi Artists Residency, Ucross Foundation, Millay Colony for the Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Atlantic Music Festival, Bogliasco Foundation, Marble House Project, I-Park Foundation, and the MELA Foundation.


  • 2018 For this from that will be filled, Clarice Jensen (Miasmah Recordings 041)
  • 2017 Histories, Sophia Subbayya Vastek (Innova Recordings 974)
  • 2016 Harmonic Constellations, Mari Kimura (New World Records 80776-2)
  • 2012 Time Loops with cellist Maya Beiser (Cantaloupe Music 21086)
  • 2012 Rumi: Lovedrunk (remastered)
  • 2009 The Harmonic Series – A Compilation of Works in Just Intonation (Important Records 272)
  • 2007 Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation (Cantaloupe Music 21043)
  • 2001 Windham Hill 25 Years of Piano (Windham Hill Records)
  • 1992 From Ancient Worlds (New Albion Records 042)
  • 1987 In Flight (Fortuna Records 17042-2)
  • 1985 Windham Hill Records Piano Sampler (WH 1040)


  • Two Movements for Chamber Orchestra commissioned and premiered by Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, conductor, Sheldon Hall, St. Louis, MO, 2019
  • Mureed for string quartet (commissioned and premiered by Del Sol Quartet, Pacific Pythagorean Music Festival), 2019
  • Tone Rooms installation with media artist Jonathan Turner, McColl Center for Art + Innovation, 2019
  • Constitution, versions for string quartet, cello and piano, violin and piano, clarinet and piano, and solo piano (premiere: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art), 2019
  • Just Ancient Loops (cello octet) commissioned and premiered by Cello Octet Amsterdam, Singelkerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2018
  • Cello Constellations for cello with 21 pre-recorded cello tracks and electronics (commissioned and premiered by Clarice Jensen, The Kitchen), 2017
  • Bairagi Bhairav for just intonation piano, Indian vocals, tabla, and optional tanpura (premiere: Carnegie Hill Concerts, Church of Advent Hope), 2017
  • Harmonic Constellations for violin with 13 pre-recorded violin tracks and electronics (commissioned and premiered by Mari Kimura, National Sawdust), 2016
  • Chorale (from Just Ancient Loops) for string orchestra (premiere: String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Roulette), 2016
  • Malkauns: Polyphonic Alap for Indian vocalist and pre-recorded media (commissioned by Payton MacDonald for the Sonic Divide Project and Film), 2016
  • Hijaz Prelude for piano with optional tabla and tanpura (premiere: Sophia Vastek, Nitin Mitta and Michael Harrison, Queens New Music Festival), 2016
  • Kind of Glass for piano (premiere: Michael Harrison, Queens New Music Festival), 2016
  • Tarana for male Indian vocalist, soprano, piano, tabla and optional tanpura, 2016
  • Just Constellations for vocal octet (commissioned and premiered by Roomful of Teeth at MASS MoCA), 2015, revised 2016
  • Radians Phase II for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and electronics (premiere: Third Sound, Havana Contemporary Music Festival), 2015
  • Orchestral Modules for symphony orchestra (premiere: Manhattan School of Music Composers Orchestra), 2015
  • Radians Phase for string quartet, two flutes and electronics (premiere: Tactus, Manhattan School of Music), 2015
  • Jaunpuri (Rendition of a Raga) for piano, Indian vocals, tabla and tamboura (premiere: Kimball Gallagher, Mashkoor Ali Khan, Anirban Chowdhury, Michael Harrison; Carnegie Hall), 2015; version for cello, piano and tabla, 2014
  • Yaman Alap for vocal octet (commissioned by Roomful of Teeth, (premiere: MASS MoCA), 2014
  • Yaman Tarana for vocal octet (commissioned by Roomful of Teeth, (premiere: MASS MoCA), 2014
  • Tessellations for chamber orchestra, countertenor, tenor, tabla and tamboura (premiere: Contemporaneous, Park Avenue Christian Church, NYC), 2014
  • Orchestral Modules for chamber orchestra (premiere: Contemporaneous, Park Avenue Christian Church, NYC), 2014
  • Piano Modules for duo piano (premiere: Allison Franzetti & Benita Meshulam) 2014; version for solo piano, 2012
  • Harmonic Studies in Just Intonation for computer generated sine tones, 2014
  • Raga Prelude No. 2 (Hijaz Bhairav) for cello and guitar (premiere: Ashley Bathgate and Mak Grgic), 2014; version for cello and piano (premiere: Maya Beiser and Michael Harrison, Atlas Center for Performing Arts), 2013
  • Hijaz for SATB chorus, cello, piano, tabla & percussion (commissioned by Francisco Núñez, premiere: American Choral Director’s Association Director's Choir, Florida Theatre), 2013
  • Revelation Remix for electronics with prepared piano in just intonation, 2013
  • Bhimpalasi (Rendition of a Raga) for Indian vocals, just intonation piano, cello, vibes, and tabla, 2013
  • Just Ancient Loops for multi-track cellos with film by Bill Morrison (commissioned by MELA Foundation, premiere: Maya Beiser, Bang on a Can Marathon), 2012
  • Chant for string quartet (premiere: JACK Quartet, Metropolitan Museum of Art), 2012
  • Bragdon's Pavillion – multi media installation with artist Loris Greaud, Centre Pompidou, 2011
  • Raga Prelude No. 1 (Yaman Kalyan) for cello and piano (premiere: Maya Beiser and Michael Harrison, Atlas Center for Performing Arts); versions for violin and piano; viola and piano, 2011
  • Hijaz for youth or women's chorus, cello, piano, tabla & percussion (commissioned by Young People's Chorus of New York City, Francisco Núñez, director; premiere: Maya Beiser, Michael Harrison, Payton MacDonald; Kaufmann Concert Hall), 2011
  • Tone Clouds for string quartet and just intonation piano (Revelation tuning) (premiere: Del Sol Quartet and Michael Harrison, Other Minds Festival), 2009
  • Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation for just intonation piano (Revelation tuning) (premiere: Michael Harrison, Klavier-Festival Ruhr), completed 2007
  • Wedding Song for voice and piano (premiere: Theo Bleckmann and Joshua Pierce), 2004
  • From Ancient Worlds for just intonation piano ("From Ancient Worlds" tuning) (premiere: Michael Harrison, Quattro Pianoforti Festival, Rome), 1992, revised 1999
  • Blue Camel for piano (premiere: Michael Harrison, Quattro Pianoforti Festival, Rome), 1999
  • For My Father for flute, violin, cello and piano, 1994
  • Song of the Rose for cello and piano, 1993
  • Symphonic Cortege for symphony orchestra (premiere: Eugene Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor), 1990
  • Birds of Paradise for jazz ensemble, 1990
  • 1001 Nights for jazz ensemble, 1990
  • African Child for world music ensemble, 1988
  • Tactus for trumpet, piano and percussion, 1984–85
  • In Flight for piano, 1984
  • The Swan Has Flown to the Mountain Lake for flute, harp and cello, 1984; version for piano, 1983
  • Ecstatic poems of Rumi for soprano and piano, 1983–84
  • For Oboe for oboe, 1983
  • Reminiscent Dances for string Orchestra, 1982
  • Choral Work No. 1 for vocal quintet, 1981
  • Choral Work No. 2 for vocal quintet, 1981
  • Crystal Kyrie for two sopranos and 13 tuned crystal goblets (premiere: American Festival of Microtonal Music), 1979
  • Zikr for SATB chorus with soprano soloist, 1979
  • Atlantis for flute, clarinet, piano and tabla, 1979
  • Call of the Beloved for soprano, flute, harp and piano, 1979
  • Dance of the Sorcerers for flute, cello, piano, tabla and tamboura, 1978
  • Sonnet XVIII for alto and piano, 1977


Further reading[edit]

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