Question: How does religion inform your work?
John Harbison: It’s probably the hardest thing for me to articulate because most of my life as a performer deals with forms of religious music. And I certainly feel that when I conduct a Bach cantata that I am absolutely engaged by – not in an abstract way at all – the issues, and the stories, and the experience. But I can’t find a formal structure for that. And when I write a religious text, I would have to say that I am as gripped by the ancientness and the sound of the words, and this feeling that they are carrying significance, almost that has been sort of gradually attached to them over centuries. I would like to feel that all of the assertions were things I can insert. And that’s not really how I feel. So when I said a religious text, I would say first of all it’s the text I’m in love with, the way the words sounds, and the King James Bible I could read over and over. The King James Bible I’ve come back to so often for text. And it was really translated at a moment where the English language had an extraordinary rhythmic and verbal variety. It’s Shakespeare era. And I find sometimes the passage that attracts me as unusual words or rhythms that I just find absolutely irresistible. In addition to, of course, it’s accumulated significance; but it’s as much just a deep affection for a text, a love for a text, as it is the whole world doctrine from which it emerges. And of course like a lot of people who are dealing with church music, and I actually work as a church musician some of the time, it’s terribly unsettling to have to contemplate how much of the conflict in the world, to this day, is generated by religious groups; by people who are fired up about the doctrine. And it’s difficult for someone like myself to embrace the institutional issues, having from a semi historian’s point of view, a pretty firm idea that they often lead to people fighting each other about them.
Recorded On: 6/12/07