John Harbison is an American composer whose work is notable for its astonishing range and diversity. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance and is also considered original and accessible for a wide range of audiences. His major works include four string quartets, four symphonies, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata The Flight into Egypt and three operas, including "The Great Gatsby," which was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and first performed in December 1999. Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Santa Fe Chamber Festival, the American Academy in Rome, Tanglewood, the California Institute for the Arts and Chamber Music West. He is also an Institute Professor at MIT and the Acting Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music. Harbison holds an MFA from Princeton University.
Question: How do you compose?
John Harbison: Sometimes the joy is just an absorption. It doesn't always happen that way, and sometimes I have to work on things in quite a different manner, quite deductively and dispassionately. But when there's absorption, and when there’s a sense that I'm not having to work very much at something, I feel both a little bit guilty because often I'm being paid, and you know, I haven't quite reconciled the problem of being paid for something that I enjoy that much. But that's the situation in which I feel tremendous happiness that I am discovering things almost for free. Like I haven't had to pay anything like the price I might expect for that kind of enjoyment.
Well, the challenge is how difficult it sometimes is to apprehend an image, to pull it in. It sometimes takes a very long time between the sense of possibility and the realization. That can become irritating, and in fact very anxious-making, and can make my profession seem very unfriendly.
Often … this sounds more composed than it is, but often by waiting it out. That's never a decision. It's only a submission to realizing something can't be there when you want it to be there. Well often, I would say it would be to be invited somewhere to present vocal music. Probably because there are a couple of areas where I've made an unusual investment of energy. One is one that's not visited too much by composers of my sort; that is, you know, let's just say fairly demanding kind of concert music, and that's the kind of music for chorus. And I've written a lot of music for choir, most of it in the last decade and a half. And i's become very interesting to me, the whole issue of communicating with the choir, and how their mentality’s more like a sports team than other kinds of musical ensembles. And the dynamic, the investment they have to make, the difficulty, the sense that they have to hear the notes out of their ears without any apparatus. This is dramatic to me, and so I've become very engaged by chorus. The other thing that I do often is make pieces for a singer, an ensemble, or singer orchestra, and there my old interest … my very old interest in text, and really in a sense making friends with, not literally, an author or poet until I feel like I've engaged it sufficiently to move somewhere else. So often my experience has been to work with a certain author's text more than once until I get the point that I feel I've apprehended something of it. Yeah. I think so. And it also makes me appreciate much more … you know, those are the pieces that if there're commissions I feel like I've earned my money. And sometimes if I have a commission and I am very wide open, and immediate, and apprehending things easily, when I get the money I think. My gosh. I didn't even earn this. But then I think it evens out. My fee schedule is probably based on the average in terms of these work experiences.
Recorded On: 6/12/07