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: Where are we?
John Harbison: Well I think the general idea of whether living citizens today are capable of imaging the world when they are not there anymore. That seems to be kind of the hardest leap for the general citizenry to take. The idea that there are many things that they could do which would be very helpful to people who are not yet here. And I’m not sure whether civilization’s ever been able to do that, but there are certainly a lot of impetus for that now. And so many issues come back to that. What do you wish to give up, perhaps, or change in very small increments that would make a tremendous difference? But it is true that the counterforce is an extraordinary urge deep within human beings, apparently, to just look after themselves, and fight their way through. And that’s that sort of “from the jungle” quality. So I think this sets a course where my profession seems to me to have potentially some meaning, which is that the person who has allowed the imagination to at least take over some of their life might be less likely to just think only of their own existence. It’s not guaranteed of course, because we don’t know whether people can change. I think the biggest challenge is going to be trying to … well, the redistribution of resource. There’ve been encouraging sign, which is that some of the richest people have decided that the flint beyond the herd of scale might be able to change some of the most horrible situations, particularly African and medical situations and so forth. That’s encouraging. I think that probably a much more radical idea of redistribution of resources is necessary. And locally right now on a graph we are going the other direction. We are certainly quite content with people at the upper scale getting much richer, and people on the bottom disappearing. There, of course, one could argue that the lack of a primary truly genuine, spiritual, religious impulse may be one of the reasons it’s so hard to settle the idea of distribution of resources.Well, just one is that it’s not going to be as dominate a force over the next quite soon years. Particularly China, and India, and other regions of the world have the latent resource and power which we barely imagined, and the United States will not too long from now begin to adjust to not having the kinds of controls that it has. Already it’s adjusted to being essentially a third world economy; but a much more fundamental, psychological adjustment will have to take place, something like that which England experienced around the Second World War. And we’ll see whether we have the innate civility to do as well as England did with it. Well I would react probably just in terms of my own experiences day-to-day. I think that the medical bureaucracy and the people with no access to medical care is probably as large a scandal as we have. And some sort of ability to face that we’ve made, that we’re in a terrible state towards the rest of the world and with very, very little respect, and probably the idea that … It’s what I was talking about before in another context, that this country has a terribly hard time saying that they were wrong and that they made a mistake. The few times we’ve been able to do it has been very beneficial, but it is gonna have to happen. It’s amazing so soon after the withdrawal from Vietnam that we seem to be bent on trying to string out and draw out this very damaging process which will damage, it will hurt and kill people, but will also tremendously damage our psychological makeup.
Recorded On: 6/12/07