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's your advice for young artists?
John Harbison: I don’t envy my own Tanglewood students now coming from a very different world where almost anything, any note they put down is right. Because having had to go through a time where the criteria were clear I think does train one’s ear in a way that can be useful. So I think what I recognize, people have asked me why there are a lot of composers born in 1938 who have done good music. And I think the answer would be that we all went through hell. We were in kind of a boot camp together; and in feeling like we needed to survive that and reorganize it, we became quite strong.If their young, it’s that they are expected to, or perhaps driven to assimilate so many possibilities that the excitement of limitation, or the focus of limitation, is very hard for them to find. Because now, of course, communication is so vast that any music in the world is available instantly. And there are so many cultures that do interesting things. There’s about 900 categories of pop music that we see every year at the Grammys. All of that is very difficult to file down and shape into something very perspicuous and powerful that is not all those things, but is a selection. I think that’s . . . I’m very grateful that I’m not starting out now, and what I try to do with the people I work with that are starting out, is I try to impress upon them that every talented composer will write one good piece, but writing a lot means a broad and very substantial base which is wide and doesn’t topple.
Recorded On: 6/12/07