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Soundings is a publication of the School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT

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"Concert music has some kind of magnetic force. It must be like a germ that you just can't stamp out."

Soundings - School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT
John Harbison

Acclaimed composer John Harbison, whose work is known for its wit, intellectualism and exceptional expressive range.


Ears need to be broad

Institute Professor John Harbison is one of America's most prominent composers. His principal works include three symphonies, three string quartets, three operas and numerous concertos, chamber pieces and vocal works. Winner of a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for The Flight Into Egypt, Harbison also was honored with a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 1989, a Killian Faculty Achievement Award in 1994 and a Heinz Award in 1997. Frequently serving as a composer-in-residence and conductor with major orchestras and chamber groups, Harbison is an equally gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and has been recognized as an outstanding poet. The Great Gatsby, his opera commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera, makes its world premiere in December.

What drew you to The Great Gatsby?

In every piece I write, with or without words, I'm just looking for musical opportunities. That's all composing is for me. It's hard enough to have live musical ideas all the time without giving them baggage they don't have to have. So making this libretto was really a series of channels for music. That's what making a symphony is"—creating force fields that will attract musical ideas. The reason I was attracted to Gatsby was I heard music that attracted me.

Gatsby presents a world of glitz, with a lot of yearning, despair and marriages that don't seem to work. Is there something in the theme that also drew you?

Well yes, yearning and despair are very big operatic themes. And in terms of opera, through scenes that are formalized, like parties, you can show how people behave when they're being watched, as opposed to how they behave when they're just with very few people around. That's one of the big issues in Gatsby—what sort of personality he projects, what his myth is, as opposed to what's really going on in his life. The opera provides many opportunities to look at both sides of that, to understand to what degree he's an impostor and to what degree his story is real, which is a big American theme in general.

What do you find attractive about Gatsby the character?

I like that he takes a lot of risks and is steadfast and loyal to some vision that is not realistically possible, which is his love for Daisy, and that he is a rich bigshot, which of course is not really true. It's all on a house of cards. But even that has a certain flair.

When you were just starting out in your career, the composer Walter Piston told you that under no circumstances should you pursue composing.

Yes, he did. He was a good teacher, a good, compassionate man. He just called it the way he saw it.

How did that affect you?

I was shocked, devastated. And it's not particularly approved of as a method for teaching young composers. So he must have really had a conviction about it. Perhaps he was right, in the sense that he thought I was fit for Broadway. Unfortunately, it wasn't what I was interested in. But it was a very important point in my life, because I essentially had to disagree with the strongest teaching figure in my life.

That echoes the theme of your vocal work, Samuel Chapter [which deals with the coming-of-age of the young boy and future priest, Samuel, delivering God's condemnation to his teacher, the high priest Eli.]

Yes, it's interesting. I've been attracted to this issue about mentorship ever since. And in my own teaching I've taken the attitude, perhaps to a fault, of ‘wait and see,' because I find it quite hard to tell about the potential of very young composers and musicians.

John Harbison, Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw John Harbison (seated) with Gatsby principals Jerry Hadley, in the title role, and Dawn Upshaw, as Daisy Buchanan.


You are known for being a devoted teacher.

I spend an awful lot of time answering letters and listening to pieces sent to me. I don't think I'd do it unless I had felt when I came into the profession that most of the seniors weren't doing that. I was so angry that the experienced people were not paying attention to younger composers. If I were perhaps a little bit more hard-boiled about it now, I'd say, "Well, that's many days of my year. Why am I doing that?" But it's a compulsion.

What is your goal in teaching composition?

I'm trying to get my students to have a healthy diet, that what's going into their ear is going to be nourishing, broadening and will allow them a base to stand on. Because musicians are very shaped by what's gone into their ear. One of the things I'm avid about as a teacher is to get people to listen widely and in a challenging enough way that 30 years down the road, they are not just digging into the same soil all the time.

What attracts you about teaching?

Well, it puts me in contact, in a social way, with other musicians. One of the things I try to teach when I coach chamber music is to get the group to talk to each other diplomatically and productively. Chamber music is one of the most sensitive, tricky things. People have to be able to collaborate and say things to each other that are difficult to hear. The history of chamber music is notorious for people exploding and imploding and being unable to live with each other.

But your mission must go beyond the psychological?

Yes, all I ever do when I coach my own pieces is try to get people to read the score closely. If it says to play loud, they should play loud. If it says to slow down, slow down. That's something which is remarkably difficult for people to actually do. They need to learn to be true to what's on the paper and how vividly the instructions are meant to be carried out. If Beethoven wants a crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo, I guarantee you that in 99 out of 100 cases, the way it's initially done is half baked.

Why is that?

People instinctively don't want to work that hard. Or they can't believe the extremity of musical expression. They find it almost impossible to accept how far the distance is from a Beethoven pianissimo to a fortissimo. Both are uncomfortable to produce. If you really play soft enough at the beginning and really loud enough at the end, you've worked as hard as if you've showed up for swimming practice and done 25 laps. It's very punishing. Most people would rather do it in a more comfortable way.

Does the pursuit of comfort explain, in part, why concert music has such a small audience?

We do have an image problem, at the very least. People do not like unfamiliar things in general. I went to a Dawn Upshaw concert in Jordan Hall and she came out for her encore and said, "Now I would like to sing a song by Schoenberg," and the audience gasped. It was almost as if she said, "Now I'm going to electrocute your seats" or "Now I'm going to release poisonous gas into the auditorium." What is that conditioning? It's very deep. No one ever died from hearing an atonal piece, or even had a heart attack from it, as far as I know. The importance of hearing this music is that ears need to be broad and need to have broad experience. So the public really needs to embrace these opportunities of challenging music . . . deal with it and love it for what it is.

What is your opinion of the status of concert music today?

You know, our profession doesn't fit the People magazine idea of a sensible career. One of the people who interviewed me about Gatsby said, "Aren't you really surprised that someone just completely unknown, like you, could get a commission for a Metropolitan opera?" I'm in one of the few professions where I could be performed by all kinds of orchestras and still be absolutely unknown by the general public.

Another version of this involved my friend Shem Gibori, who plays in the Met orchestra, where 2,000 people come. But when the MTV awards came to the Met and he saw the unbelievable amount of media and limos and crowds waiting to catch a glimpse of Mariah Carey, he realized that concert music is a tiny, tiny sliver [of the music industry]. Compared to two nights of the MTV award, the Metropolitan Opera is piddling. It brings one rather quickly to the realization that in large-scale, all-time American terms, the symphony, the opera, all of it, is fringe. The broad perception is that music means pop music; economically, pop music is 98% of sales. And of the little 2% in which we float around, I'd say 98% of that is ‘celebrity classical.' So we're dealing with the 2% of the 2%.

Does this give you cause for pessimism?

No, it doesn't, because I've long since come to believe that the energy, the sort of heat around that little sliver, is so strikingly high that the survival of the medium is inevitable. It is the artistic yeast of concert music, which I think is what we depend on to drive it into the next century and the century after that. Where you find it is in these strange summer get-togethers, like Tanglewood or Aspen, where, against all odds, 1,000 young musicians show up"—with what prospects, I have no idea"—with a tremendous devotion to learning the art. Anything that attracts that kind of talent has some kind of magnetic force. It must be like a germ that you just can't stamp out.

Yet you have said that what music needs at this moment is something inaccessible.

I'm always trying to argue against the accessibility mania, because if the goal of concert music is constantly described as being accessible then it becomes indistinguishable from purely commercial music. The goal of concert music has to be to give people experiences that are different and challenging and elevating. I marvel at the persistence of Wagner, one of the most esoteric, crazy artists who ever lived. His five-hour pieces still get put on and they still find 2,000 people who go. What a triumph for that maniac, that he creates lofty, high art"—practically on a pedestal"—and a century plus later there are still candidates for this. Unbelievable.

I want to segue to MIT. Why have you stayed at MIT these past three decades?

I like the mentality of MIT students. Since it's to a great degree scientific and engineering, they don't pretend to know anything they don't know. It means that dialogue with them is very satisfying. Also, MIT as an institution has a respect for people who make things or undertake ventures that don't prove out immediately, which is extremely favorable for people in the arts.

I'd like to ask you about program notes. Musicians routinely are asked to write commentary to accompany their work.

Oh, and do we ever! The pressure is tremendous. I stopped writing program notes for about five years. It just got so I couldn't do it. And my publisher and the presenters said, "What do you mean, no program note?" Then I turned it over to other people to write for a while and it got worse. Finally, after this five-year swearing off, I went back because it was less annoying to deal with it than to try to explain why there weren't any. But it is the currency now. It's what presenters base their public relations on. It's what critics base their reviews on, because they aren't confident of taking off on their own track and they figure if the composer said this, its must be a basis on which to proceed. The program note is a gigantic industry. It's the core of marketing the piece. So if you don't spend time at it and work it with care, you are made to regret it. You know, I revise my pieces very little, but I revise my program notes practically every couple of years.

You revise for the re-marketing of your music?

Because someone takes off on a sentence and goes off in the wrong direction. It means you've got to be careful with the words and not do some ‘off the top of the head' things like I used to do, which I live to regret. For the Four Psalms from my Israel piece, it took five drafts to create the program note. It was infinitely pored over and finally reached perfection. Not the piece"—the program note"—reached perfection. It's an amazing situation.

On the subject of perfection . . . you once spoke of the importance of finding the sublime in everyday life. Can you elaborate?

Sometimes I get to the end of the day and I feel something is very missing. Usually it's even 30 or 40 seconds of communication with music, with some aural thing outside the motion of the day. Music affords for people who really need it every day this other plane of experiencing, a parallel world with its own time and own kind of circulatory system"—a place quite different from the ongoing pulse of the world.



Copyright © 2000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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