What do you do?

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. 

  • Transcript


Question: What do you do?

John Harbison: Well I live with, and around, and amid music. I compose, play, listen, coach and teach. It’s really hard to define other things independent of that. Even when I watch sports I relate the flow, the pattern to musical images. I think composers are people who have not heard exactly a music that they would like to hear. That is to say, I think if all the music you wanted was in the world, you’d probably be a performer if you wanted to be a musician. But if there is something slightly different or radically different even, I think that’s what composers do. They look for something that they feel is missing. I wanted to hear . . . I wanted to hear something that carried the qualities, that joined the qualities of the music that first gripped me, which was really in equal parts the dramatic improvisation, the live kind of improvisational quality of jazz, and the intricate structures of Bach. And that’s really, I think, always been what has attracted me, that there was a region there that I thought could be fertile and could be broad enough to keep doing it a long time. 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 it’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.I’m working on a piece which . . . part of it is a large poem, one of the last poems by Newash, who I’ve said before . . . this was again, just what I referred to. The overrun of not quite having found my way of where I want to be with him. He’s a difficult companion and sometimes digressive, and sometimes in a very pleasing way, self-centered and unapologetic of how much in the face of every event he still seeks pleasure rather than plume. So I think I need that, but I’m trying to settle a score with him. And it’s a very large poem, and it has tremendous segments which are not easily solved musically, which is interesting and sometimes discouraging. And then I thought that was the piece, but then at a certain point as I started something about his attitudes in the poem disturbed me. I needed an answer to his attitude to consequences of loss. And so the first thing that happened was a response in the form of a poem by … for another singer. So I then informed my commissioner there was another singer and more music. And then that required a response because it felt formally upsetting to have a singer sing, and another singer sing, and not account for some other voice which might sum up two very, very, distinct viewpoints. So I then used a translation of a real good poem in which they could sing together in different characters than previously in the piece. So the text of the piece has been additive, and the approach to the piece also. And it’s a larger piece than I started out with.Many, many. I think it’s first of all a very strong moment for American concert music even thought it’s not particularly in the public eye; but it is certainly at a productive moment. Some of the composers who are going to be part of the Tanglewood Festival this summer whose music I’m familiar with, because I’ve been studying it for that purpose, I would mention William … and John … Joan Tower, David Del Tredici, Charles Worringham. Some younger people, Steven … Steven Mckee, James Primosch, Alan … Really a great number of composers in this country. And naturally some senior composers …. George Pearl, whose music has interested me more and more. And then some of the composers from a different sort of esthetic … Steve … and John Adamson. Always interested in their work, and then a number of young composers. If I started naming them it would probably be not fair to the many that I’m interested in, but those folks that I just mentioned are very established. At the same time obviously, if any one of them was doing exactly the music I’m imaging, I wouldn’t feel as interested in being a composer. So even when there’s that certain esthetic closeness, or some shared values, I’m always glad when I hear their pieces to recognize a certain parallel space where I’m able to function.

Recorded On: 6/12/07