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Eva Soltes

A chat with the documentarian who put composer Lou Harrison’s world onscreen

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Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison: A World of Music

Screens for free Feb. 26 at 4 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, Washington, D.C.

Next weekend the Washington, D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble presents a landmark program highlighting the music and life of Lou Harrison, an under-heralded American composer with a remarkable finesse and ear for non-Western music who passed away in 2003 at 85. (See next week’s issue for full coverage of the event.) Dancer, music producer, and documentarian Eva Soltes met Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig in the summer of 1974 when she was studying classical Indian dance at the Center for World Music Program at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Berkeley, Calif. She soon got to know him as a composer through her work at a Berkeley music program. Her Harrison documentary, Lou Harrison: A World of Music, makes its world debut this weekend. City Paper caught up with Soltes, who was also producer/director of documentary projects on the Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Soviet Union performances and Conlon Nancarrow, by phone. She’s currently staying at the Joshua Tree artists’ retreat Harrison founded in his final years. (BM)

City Paper: Could tell me how Lou Harrison: A World of Music got started? Just some general background?

Eva Soltes: [Harrison] and his partner Bill were in an automobile accident [in 1982], and much to my surprise Lou phoned and asked if I could help him. Suddenly, his mortality came before him and he realized that his work was not well organized. He had bags and bags of correspondence. He called me and said, “Glub, glub, glub, dear, I’m drowning in papers—can you help me?”

I was working full-time but I was just so, how to say this, attracted to him personally in terms of who he was as a person, it felt like an honor. I said, “I would do this for nobody but you.” I was drowning in my own papers. So I began telling him, OK, don’t worry—let’s start twice a week. Let’s just think about it as a therapy appointment. So my life became interlaced with Lou’s for nearly 30 years.

CP: That’s a long time to work on anything, much less about somebody you know so well. Has that process been arduous?

ES: It’s a very big life and it’s a very big story, and this is part one. And I have finally resigned myself to the fact that one film cannot tell his whole story. It will probably end up as a 10 DVD set and I have most of those kind of rough cut. And, honestly, when I began this film my intention was to wrap it around the production of his opera, Young Caesar, that had been commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival and was scheduled to premiere in 2001.

So I was just documenting in the beginning because I thought, Wow, what if we heard Beethoven or Bach speak in their own words or in their own time?—and I understood Lou to be that caliber of composer, having worked closely with a lot of composers. So to answer this question, it’s a rugged task. But I feel like I have an insight into many aspects of his life that other people don’t have, so it becomes a unique situation. I feel there was a part of the story that I wanted and I should and I needed to tell, that I was in a unique situation to do this. And it’s not that Lou made it easy for me. . . . He wasn’t going to put his life on a stage for me.

CP: I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Harrison at all prior to hearing about this program, and the more I learned about him the more shocked I was about how ignorant I was of such an impressive American artist. Why is he so little known?

ES: He didn’t promote himself, he did his work. And that’s one of the things that made me interested in doing this. I’m interested in the composers and the artists who take care of and protect their muse and don’t water down what they’re doing and stay very pure. And that would be Lou. He cared about community. He didn’t step on anybody to get anywhere. And if you discover who he is, if you make the effort, he would go over the moon to help you. But he’s not going to get out there and promote what he’s doing. And that’s part of the reason it was difficult at times for me to make this film with him. He was not going to sell it out no matter what.

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