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 overcome composer's block?
John Harbison: 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 I have to catechize myself. I have to talk myself into it. I think we’re all instilled with various levels of confidence. I’ve always been interested in reading Benjamin Britten’s statements. Almost his whole career is described in terms of level of confidence. I wrote that piece I was on a high level of confidence. Some people have that in great abundance, but others have to cultivate it like a garden. I guess what I would consider to be an ideal universe would be a universe in which everyone has spent part of the day reading a poem or, you know, building something on their house they think is beautiful; a society in which everyone’s contribution to it was to make their corner more of an aesthetic experience. And I think the only society that’s actually achieved that informally, partly because it’s kind of an innate hedonism, and partly because of talent, is probably the many, many, centuries from … , Italy where every house seems to be … in a little town, seems to have been made part of a composite work.
Recorded On: 6/12/07