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May 17, 2004

Grateful Dead foundations help preserve UCSC archive of renowned composer Lou Harrison

By Scott Rappaport

Two foundations established by members of the Grateful Dead have contributed funds to help preserve the archive of the late composer Lou Harrison at UCSC.

The late Lou Harrison, shown in August 1991, above, on the occasion of his first gift to his archive in Special Collections at McHenry Library.
Photo by Rita Bottoms

The Grateful Dead

The Rex Foundation, founded by the Grateful Dead and friends in 1984, and the Unbroken Chain Foundation, established in 1997 by Phil and Jill Lesh, have each donated $10,000 to UCSC to support the Lou Harrison Archive in the University Library Special Collections.

Harrison chose to establish his archive at UCSC over a decade ago because of his 50-year residency in Santa Cruz and his longtime association with the university. After he passed away on February 2, 2003, Harrison’s will designated the campus as the site for all of his remaining artistic materials, including his extensive collection of musical instruments.

“The Grateful Dead all knew and recognized the contributions of Lou Harrison, and they performed on programs with him and Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony,” noted Fredric Lieberman, professor of music at UCSC and coauthor with UCSC professor Leta Miller of Lou Harrison: Composing a World, a biography published by Oxford University Press in 1998 (paperback reissue, University of Illinois Press, 2004). A CD of Harrison’s music included in that publication was made possible by the generosity of Phil Lesh and David Gans, who edited and mastered the disc.

Internationally recognized for his highly inventive and original work, Harrison was the last living link in a tradition of American experimental music that includes Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, and John Cage. He is most well known for his fusion of Asian and Western musical styles and development of new percussion instruments. Harrison left behind a legacy of more than 300 compositions, and his music was frequently featured over the past decade in San Francisco Symphony programs, as well as on the San Francisco record label New Albion.

Lieberman approached both foundations for assistance after learning that Harrison’s estate might be forced to sell archival materials to meet remaining taxes and legal costs. He hoped to enable the UCSC library to purchase the most essential and endangered archival material from the estate in an effort to maintain the fullest possible integrity of the archive.

The UCSC archive currently includes more than 600 reel-to-reel tapes that date as far back as 1949, containing personal copies of performances of Harrison’s music that are almost all unreleased. It also contains some unique one-off acetate discs of recordings by the Harrison and Cage percussion ensemble in the early 1940s, which need immediate attention and preservation.

“When I learned of the perilous state of the Harrison archive and the potential danger that it might have to be sold, I immediately asked both foundations for assistance,” Lieberman said. “The Rex Foundation has recently begun funding projects involving digital preservation, and this is one project they responded to.”

“In recent years, the Dead have explored technology in their own recordings and looked at the problems of archiving the music in their own vault,” Lieberman noted. “Mickey Hart was also recently appointed to the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where he leads a committee on the digitization and preservation of the center's huge collections.”

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