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 contribute?
John Harbison: Well, it would have two possible consequences impact. The impact, of course, that I want primarily is the very conventional one of the listeners who retain something. That’s the primary issue that, at some afterimage, not necessarily in detail, in some portion of the audience, it could be quite small, it’s prevalent. That’s probably, when I get evidence of that, the most significant part of what I do. It doesn’t matter who that is. And I think it’s always a mistake to think only in terms of professionals in our field when we’re evaluating that. It’s much broader than that. Obviously I like it when other people who are composing are interested in what I’m doing. And I like it when I’m in a situation where the reaction is strong enough where it can even be contrary. As long as it’s a reaction, and as long as there’s something that’s retained. To me the biggest issue in music that’s being written today is memorability or the lack of it. It’s not even a specific tune, or rhythm, or cord is remembered, but that something unique about the profile is retained. And I guess the big … my happiest index is when some group of performers decides to perform something again. Then I know that the afterimage has had some tenacity. In the sense that many of us who are more or less my age began working in this music at a time of rather stringent, stylistic restriction. That is an assumption almost worldwide that significant concert music would accept certain premises. And to the extent that our generation in various ways … most of us who’ve achieved some significance needed to find cracks, or evasions, or contradictions to this assumption. I feel like I was part of a significant movement towards reopening a number of compositional roads. And the strange part about that was to observe in the later ‘60s, early ‘70s, to notice the number of strange tributaries and sort of rear guard actions that were going on among … and always at that point I would say to the pretty uniform displeasure of our former teachers, and to a certain level of establishment thinking that so many of us felt it was necessary to really fundamentally question. On the other hand, we wind up at this point probably many of us grateful for having learned a discipline; for having come through at a time when certain very demanding skills were being taught. And in that sense we are a link with a very much older tradition in terms of communication of concert music discipline and I don’t envy my own Tanglewood students now coming from a very different world where almost anything, any note they put down is right. Because having had to go through a time where the criteria were clear I think does train one’s ear in a way that can be useful. So I think what I recognize, people have asked me why there are a lot of composers born in 1938 who have done good music. And I think the answer would be that we all went through hell. We were in kind of a boot camp together; and in feeling like we needed to survive that and reorganize it, we became quite strong. I think my proudest achievement is to regroup and continue to explore, and continue to essentially far away, even after what is for many composers a very dislodging experience, which is to have an opera done at tremendous expense which most of the critics disapproved of. I think we learn … they say you learn the most from what is regarded as failures. I think I found that out. I had to actually almost eliminate that piece from my thinking. I had to divorce it for a number of years; and in doing so I took other roads. And I think I built up some muscle. I think if my music were to be perceived really accurately, in say 25 years, it would, I hope, be heard as one of the most ambitious enterprises towards transforming and retaining a number of already dismissed traditions. That is to say, I think my specialty is finding value and liveliness in discarded debris of early traditions. And if that were to prove … if it were to just show in general that the refuse heap has a tremendous amount of interesting material in it, I think that would be a valuable contribution. They say everything that moves forward destroys something, and that’s true. I think the question I’ve asked is, “Does it destroy as much as we think it does?” Oh, they all ready are. I have students in the profession with whom I know I had significant encounters which maybe opened up . . . usually the useful ones were opened up a gate to some unused part of their arsenal. And so I’m confident about that already. There’s good evidence out there. Every once in a while I’ll go to a concert where one of my Tangelwood class … maybe even back from 1984 and I feel … I can remember almost the day the new encounter took place. That was valuable. Well I’d like to actually have all of my skills and interests viable and functional. That is to say, I’m actually rebuilding myself as a jazz musician now. I really feel like the idea that as you go along that you should put things away is what I’m working against. I’d like to be able to play the instruments I’ve always played. I like to sometime to be able to conduct even on short notice with considerable communicative skill, and I’d like to be writing pieces which did things that I am unfamiliar with. If their young, it’s that they are expected to, or perhaps driven to assimilate so many possibilities that the excitement of limitation, or the focus of limitation, is very hard for them to find. Because now, of course, communication is so vast that any music in the world is available instantly. And there are so many cultures that do interesting things. There’s about 900 categories of pop music that we see every year at the Grammys. All of that is very difficult to file down and shape into something very perspicuous and powerful that is not all those things, but is a selection. I think that’s … I’m very grateful that I’m not starting out now, and what I try to do with the people I work with that are starting out, is I try to impress upon them that every talented composer will write one good piece, but writing a lot means a broad and very substantial base which is wide and doesn’t topple.
Recorded On: 6/12/07