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 is your counsel?
John Harbison: Well I think the biggest American problem, the thing that would probably improve civilization or people’s experience of it the most, is if we were able to somehow encourage a belief structure that did not equate money and volume with value. Because really almost every decision about what’s worthwhile in this country has to do with its economic power. And it would be very amazing if perhaps over some … it would have to be belief structures that would be changing. We would begin to think that we’re making our own decision about what’s valuable. And if it’s not earning a lot of money, it may not be useless or worthless. Obviously that’s the perspective of the artist. I mean, the artist is saying, “I can’t compete at the level of economic heft; but what I’m offering is something that will make your life richer.” And maybe that’s always a minority view. 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