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: What inspires you?
John Harbison: Well I just feel being away … when I’m away from sound I wanna be around it, and almost just sitting down and knocking out a cord on the piano can be enough. Though sometimes I … since I am a reader, it can be not something I want not necessarily to deal with, but would suggest some world that I’m interested in or could become interested in. I like the company of writers because their world of making thing up is so different from ours. It deals with certain kinds of specifics that I think are very valuable. So I can be inspired by almost anything, even just a change of scenery. But inspiration has never been difficult for me. Sometimes the more difficult thing to find is … and this is probably a deep sort of early psychic thing … is the confidence that the response to the inspiration is durable. Because at a certain point I have to fight through the question part. And I’m much better at teaching or showing other composers how to get through that than I am getting through it myself.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. Well it tends to be … very often the text writer that I’m engaged with … Elizabeth Bishop. Because I don’t just read the writings of such a person. You know, I find out as much as I can. Because if you’re working with even six or seven poems, there’s so much there that you need to absorb. And so my kind of life history of literary friends is probably where I draw the most excitement. And right now it’s gonna be what next text I set, I’m trying to begin to inhabit it. And it means finding out a lot.Fairly unruly, and I just try to not listen too much to all the wonderfully, orderly, ways that everyone does things. I’ve decided everybody works differently, and the fact that I don’t have any routine and never have had … I’ve just kinda given up worrying about that aspect of it. I tend to work in very unpredictable moments, and I’m learning more and more as, I think, life gets more complicated. As you go along there’s more things you have to keep track of. I’m learning to honor the very brief moment that something might happen.I’ve gone through periods where I know I’m writing just to keep going; but I don’t think I’d be psychologically capable of not doing anything. I probably will just write a piece that can be more executed than actually … the fantasy element gives way somewhat to knowledge; but I would rather do that than not do anything.And it also makes me appreciate much more … you know, those are the pieces that if there’re commissions I feel like I’ve earned my money. And sometimes if I have a commission and I am very wide open, and immediate, and apprehending things easily, when I get the money I think, “My gosh. I didn’t even earn this.” But then I think it evens out. My fee schedule is probably based on the average in terms of these work experiences.
Recorded On: 6/12/07