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 reach your audience?
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.I have occasionally written pieces with very frankly political subjects. And I’ve spent moments in my life, you know, 1964 when I went with all of the freedom summer folks to Mississippi with a group from here. And we definitely experienced an amazing moment in the politics of this country. But when I’ve addressed things like that in my music, it’s been much more because it’s a part of a whole emotional complex for myself, than that I want to convert or influence opinion. Because unfortunately the audience for such a piece usually agrees. And I think, you know, if one were really to be serious about moving people through the arts, politically you’d have to almost find . . . select your way into an audience that doesn’t like what you’re saying. And very seldom of course do we ever do that.
Recorded On: 6/12/07