John Harbison
Composer; Institute Prof. of Music, MIT

What sparks your creativity?

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On composing around the digressive, self-centered poetry of Newash.

John Harbison

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 sparks your creativity?

John Harbison: 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. 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.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.

Recorded On: 6/12/07