John Harbison: Redefining Traditions

John Harbison interviewed by Alexandra Gardner
American Academy of Arts and Letters
October 3, 2011—4:00 p.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Videography by Stephen Taylor
Condensed and edited by Alexandra Gardner

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Composer John Harbison says that he is trying to “defeat the idea of style.” That is, he tries to approach every new composition with completely fresh ears and eyes, working with totally new musical material and strategies well apart from anything that preceded it. While the idea of constant musical reinvention may seem daunting, it obviously serves Harbison well, given his ongoing success in music spanning operas, symphonies and choral works, to wind quintets and pieces for solo piano.

Jazz inflections can be heard in much of the music, stemming from his early years as an active jazz pianist. At that time Harbison was also playing viola and conducting, and for a time he traveled down somewhat parallel pathways in jazz and classical music. Eventually the classical side won out as he became increasingly steeped in choral conducting—first with the Cantata Singers, and then as the principal guest conductor for Emmanuel Music in Boston. These experiences played a crucial role in shaping his compositions and his life as a composer, and in fact he considers the Bach cantatas a primary inspiration for his work.

Harbison has a clear view of both the forest and the trees—he seems to find equal delight in the nuts and bolts of composition, as well as in tackling broad-reaching, sometimes archetypal themes in his music. Again the Bach cantatas come into play as he talks about both the importance of line and narrative in many of his works, and of the importance of the listener’s experience and the sense of community that can be created through musical performance. The phrase “good musical citizen” is an apt description for the composer—whether teaching at Tanglewood or MIT, premiering a new composition, or running and performing in the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on his family farm in Wisconsin, he is eager to share musical knowledge and insight with those around him.

His good-natured conversation reveals a smart, funny, and generous person, as well as a dedicated teacher. As he says to his students, “It’s about everything that you do; it’s about your taking in what’s out there in the world. It’s about getting out and walking in the woods. It’s a highly intricate ensemble of things that go into what you want to do as a composer.” Harbison possesses a deep understanding of music, but the richness of his music is also a byproduct of his broad interests beyond music—such as poetry and history—as well as his untiring curiosity about and appreciation for the world in which we live

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Alexandra Gardner: Although I knew that you’ve been involved in jazz music in the past as a pianist, I had no idea that jazz was essentially your first love, and the beginning of your life in music. How did that come about, and when did classical music enter the scene for you?

John Harbison: I was originally just learning instruments and improvising, and I had a pretty big resistance to actually learning pieces.  I just would go to the piano and make up pieces.  I would have little fragments that I would play over and over, which my parents found pretty annoying, and so they suggested that maybe I should take up a string instrument. So they got a teacher for me—I remember her very well.  She was a woman from New York, and I still kind of remember her perfume, which was very powerful—it was almost overwhelming. I associate it with playing wrong notes.

From going to concerts I was interested in viola, because it seemed like it was kind of in the middle of everything.  It’s a good spot.  But I began by studying violin because they said I had to get large hands to be able to play the viola.  So I just did violin very provisionally, and I waited until I was given the green light to switch to the viola.  In the meantime, I began to hear some jazz on the radio.  I was pretty young.  At about the age of 11, my closest friend at the time, Tom Arden, and I discovered that we’d been listening to the same jazz.  We had been teaching ourselves to play based on what we were hearing, and we were hearing really old traditional players like Louis Armstrong.  So we put together a band in junior high school.  I think it was sixth grade.  We tried to teach the other players the music.  They weren’t too interested, but we got the necessary instruments, and we played for quite a long time in that band.  It was a Dixieland group, playing really loud, extremely powerful stuff.  Both Tom and I got quite good at jazz.

In high school I played piano as a sub on weekends, like at Princeton University reunions. I played maybe for a few hours with some of the great jazz players of the time, and  I had a few unsolicited pretty hard lessons.  I was in a band one afternoon when the piano player had dropped out, and they somehow knew that they could call me up. I was maybe 15, and Buck Clayton was playing trumpet and Vic Dickensen was playing trombone. It was a great Basie assignment. Buck Clayton came back after I’d played behind his solo and said, “Real nice chords kid.”  And I said, “Thank you.” He said, “You know what the problem is, they’re not in the tune.”  I thought, what does he mean by that?  You know, I was playing what I thought were very sophisticated kind of alteration things, showing off a little bit.  But that was useless to him because what he was thinking, as really all great jazz players are, is they’re not just playing chords, they’re playing that tune.  And the inflections of the chords in that tune are what they want the rhythm section to be putting out.  So obviously, I never forgot that.  People who talk about jazz come back to that point over and over.  I mean, Monk always said, “You don’t play changes.  You play the tune.”  In fact, you play the words.  So that was a very strong guide point from playing with the players at that level.

Then we graduated.  I played with a lot of college groups and really did some quite interesting jazz stuff.  I was also at the same time interested in concert music. I played the viola finally—I was allowed to switch.  I spent a whole summer learning the viola; my teacher just said show up every morning at ten, and we would read a Haydn quartet.  And he and his wife, who was a violinist, and my friend John Sessions—who was the son of the composer Roger Sessions, sort of beginning my connection—would play these Haydn quartets every day for about two or three months.  By the end of which, I played a lot of Haydn quartets, and I could pretty much play the viola.  Or at least understand the clef and all that.  So that was going on at the same time, and I was a little bit split between where I was going to wind up at that point.  In college, I did a lot of jazz work because I was earning a pretty good amount of cash.  I was in a couple of bands, one of which played things like Dartmouth Winter Carnival and a lot of big college festivals that, you know, you go for the whole weekend and sleep on some floor, and play about six or seven times.  It was pretty close to a professional commitment in terms of the way we thought of ourselves.

We entered a big intercollegiate contest, which is one of the things that jazz players liked to do in those days.  Our band went in and we didn’t win, but our bass player won the best player award and was sent to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which was in those days a big deal.  He got off the plane and was met by his band mates, who were a bass player and a drummer, at which point I think it was realized that some kind of problem had ensued.  Bass, bass, and drums would be nowadays a pretty progressive kind of combo, but I think in those days….

By that time, I was really weighing applying to the Lenox School of Jazz, which was starting up for its first year.  But I also thought, well, our band had played this contest, and maybe we weren’t at the top rung.  So instead I applied as a conductor to Tanglewood because I had been conducting an orchestra at Harvard College called the Bach Society Orchestra.  I was I think a junior in college, so it was a crucial decision point.  Then the word came from Fort Lauderdale, that I was the one who was supposed to be down there—I had won this performer award.  But by that time, I was at Tanglewood in the conducting program.  So I just kind of assumed that a rather large-scale decision had kind of been made for me.

I kept playing jazz for a while—I played with some really good people for a few more years.  Eventually I decided that I was going to drop out, but I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of jazz people. One in particular, the guy I formed the band with in junior high, we’re now back playing together in a band every summer.  So I have actually tried to recover as much of my jazz connection as I could at this point, having only very sporadically kept in touch with it all those years.  I imagine that my goal is to play as well as I played the year I didn’t go to the Lenox School, which is of course unmeasurable but still interesting.  I think my playing now has incorporated a lot of issues that I wouldn’t have been thinking about back then, particularly about constructing a solo. I’m getting a lot out of the jazz playing right now in terms of line and just the excitement of a very free form, high initiative kind of band that plays hard, that is not polite sounding.  I’m still addicted to this sort of Charlie Mingus or Monk ethic of, you know, you just take a real shot. For me, that’s why it’s still worth doing jazz. It’s something that in concert music there’s not much space for, that kind of improvisational thinking.

I’ve been taking advantage of the jazz playing to explore certain composers I’ve always been interested in as tune writers: Vernon Duke, and Jimmy Van Heusen, Arlen, a huge series of really great composers.

AG: People that you hadn’t had a chance to explore.

JH: Well, when I was a real jazz player in high school, I wasn’t aware of who wrote anything. I probably had in my head about three or four hundred tunes that I could play if they were called, but I didn’t know who wrote them.  It was of great interest later on when I was really not playing jazz much, just finding out how these voices really cohered.  I would have known in my ear 30 or 40 Irving Berlin songs without knowing they were his songs.  So that’s been an interesting thing for me, to reassemble that repertoire that I used to play in terms of who wrote it.  Finding out that, say, a Jimmy Van Heusen song is a very particular thing with certain kinds of strategies and certain very clear compositional points of view. It was really interesting to me to find how strongly profiled all of those writers of that era were in terms of how they approached their craft and, of course, it’s much more than a craft for most of them.  I’ve always been very admiring of what those writers did.  They did it all, the ones I’m interested in—did it all in a very short timeframe of less than 30 years.  And, they were apparently very generous with each other because there was so much room for them all, commercially.  There was a sense of a very functional culture, which I think we in concert music can look at with some profit, and some amazement, because there’s no genre within concert music that is as receptive to what I would call truly innovative explorative writing of the kind that so many of those composers did.

I remember 30 or 40 years ago when I used to say to my concert music friends that I thought Jerome Kern was a songwriter that we needed to think of in terms of Schubert and Schumann and people like that.  They all were very dismissive, but I would only say that maybe they hadn’t spent as much time thinking about his collective work as a set of coherent, highly articulate pieces, which is really what they are. The more I think about jazz now and play it again, I feel like the claims for its importance in American music can’t be exaggerated.  I mean, it’s just a huge thing, a very highly self-contained and complete language, and ideally it takes a couple of lifetimes of work to absorb it.

AG: So how does that color your view of the concert music world, given that it’s not as receptive to that sort of experimentation?

JH: Concert music has some areas where that kind of high refinement of a certain genre can work. I’ve noticed certain composers who craft their lives in terms of trying to bear down on something very specific.  Dave Rakowski writes 100 piano etudes—something like that makes a lot of sense to me in terms of what I learned about pop song writers and theater song writers.  They had one specific occasion for which they wanted to write over and over, and they simply brought their skills right down on that.  The great jazz arrangers of the big band era are also interesting to me in that way.  They developed a very wide range of sonorities, lots of very fresh ideas, but all dedicated to a quite self-enclosed culture, which had an economic logic to it of some sort.  Not much, because most of those bands were hardly making any money, but they at least had audiences, and they had a sense of purpose.  I think that’s one of the things that we have always to try to be looking for in concert music: Where can we make an enclave that seems to have a sense of purpose?

AG: Do you have a vision of what that would look like?

JH: Well, I think that’s a very important thing.  The composer has to find some sort of community that they can write for and be listened to in some reiterative way. My solution to that quite accidentally has been a very arcane one—essentially for 40 years I functioned as a church musician. This would be at Emmanuel Music in Boston, where I was the leader; I was actually for many years called the principal guest conductor.  The head of the ensemble, Craig Smith, was my very close friend, and I had actually been in that field a few years before him, conducting a group called Cantata Singers. We did some quite recent choral music as well, but pretty much, we did Bach cantatas.  So I was regularly performing music mostly at both ends of the repertoire scale—like before 1750 and since 1950. When I began to write for the choir, which I began to do quite extensively after I’d been there a long time, there was an ongoing audience connection because I was connecting—or re-encountering them—many, many months and years in a row.  So that became both a laboratory for me to work with the choir, but then with the audience also. There were many members who had been steeped in Bach cantatas and had heard, week after week, a literature that is very community oriented in its origins.  The idea was to bring together, in the case of Bach’s original situation, a couple thousand people every week who had studied a certain text, who were interested in a certain story and then would hear a composer’s rendering of this material.  They were essentially pre-warned what the subject matter was going to be, because they’re following a church day, which is going to be focused on certain subject matter.  So what I learned from this experience I think was the value of a set of exchanges with certain listeners who had drawn a number of impressions from other encounters of what to expect, and what not to expect.

Emmanuel Music itself was a kind of community in that it was also a group of players and singers with whom I functioned at many other levels.  Recently, there was a recording of a very early opera of mine from the early ’70s, and I would say that two-thirds of the cast members are Emmanuel choir singers. Craig Smith, my friend the music director of Emmanuel, was the conductor of many, many first performances of my pieces.  So it was a church music community, but also a very flexible performing instrument.  Eventually some of the Emmanuel performers are people that I wrote for, for very different circumstances.  For Sanford Sylvan, Jim Maddalena, and Lorraine Hunt, I wrote pieces that were based on our experience together at Emmanuel.  So I think that’s what I would mean by community, but it can take all kinds of shapes.  I have a couple of recent Tanglewood fellows who studied with me in the last few years who have made performance ensembles in which they perform and lead and do all the real entrepreneurial work and so forth.  I think that’s another way to generate some sort of a sense of community.  That people are performing together and working on some sort of goal that they believe in. I think it’s pretty necessary because the larger institutions are much more changeable; less likely to be there from year to year in terms of a given composer’s interests.  So I think it is part of what we need to do.

At Emmanuel, I also wound up, for three years after Craig Smith died, as the full-time music director.  That was an experience of the community at a much more fundamental level, and I think it was valuable for me; a kind of summation of what a kind of collaborative musical enterprise is really about because one of the things that we were doing in that period was trying to secure the future and find the right new conductor, find a way to move on without a founder who had been there for 40 years.  Which means trying to analyze what holds it together:  What are the people after?  Why is it a place that people want to come and work for, in many cases, way below what the market should bear, over many, many years?  That’s an interesting set of questions.  And we had to face a lot of them.  And we had to go through a lot of division and strife and hardship to try to sort out answers.

AG: So you created for yourself a really strong, large community and that experience as a church musician begins to explain the use of narrative in your work.  Whether it’s using a religious text or some other storyline, your music seems to always convey a strong sense of narrative, and also a sense of ritual.

JH: Oh, absolutely. I believe that’s part of what is so amazing about those Bach cantatas, which were the only body of music that I ever felt I had to study complete. As a young guy when I was in my late 20s, I auditioned for this job as conductor of this group called Cantata Singers in Boston. I got the job, and I thought, “What is my requirement for doing this job?  Well, I’d better look at every Bach cantata.”  So I spent a whole summer—I was living in Madison, Wisconsin—and I went into the library every day. I took down a volume of the complete Bach works—and the cantatas are the first 20 volumes—and I read through them from like morning to night.  I’ve never read through all the Beethoven quartets that way, but this is the one thing I actually really studied.  One of the things that struck me as I got to the end of that was this thing about narrative, and about the way the same archetypal story is told and retold with amazing musical invention, but also with this sense that some elements of it are foreknown.  That is, the point of view is foreknown.  So what happens in Bach and in Stravinsky and certain composers I really have great admiration for is that you find available for them a certain kind of elevation, and a certain kind of almost trance state which comes from the listener having bought into a bunch of very almost earthy, early premises that are holding the pieces up.  That is for me in great part why the cantatas have remained always in my head.  It was actually around the same time that I went through those cantatas that I had the experience in Santa Fe of being out there when all the Stravinsky operas were done.  Taking them all in, in sequence like that, there was something about that whole aesthetic that was tremendously impressive—that whatever the subject matter was on the surface, what he’s after is always in some ways the same kind of thing.  He wants to have people investing in this collective sense of celebration, of some sort of known set of values, or ideas, or whatever.  That seemed to be something that happened in certain Bach cantatas in a very strong way.  Because you knew, for instance, in a Bach cantata that most of the time, out of these very dire straits, some sort of hopeful elevation would occur.  That seems to me the essence of ritual.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve remained so interested in these pieces, and I’ve had the real privilege of performing certain cantatas many, many times.  It’s a repertoire that very few people get a chance to do even once or twice, and at Emmanuel, certain pieces are kind of repertoire pieces.  We do them a lot.

AG: Would you say that your interest in the cantatas affects your choice of text for other works?

JH: Yeah.  Sometimes I’ve explicitly looked for Bach cantata texts.  There’s a piece of mine called Simple Daylight which is for soprano and piano. My idea was that I would shape a bunch of poems by a poet I know—one esteemed very highly, Michael Fried—into a sequence which would be very like a Bach cantata sequence. Actually I did the same thing again, also with his texts and Martin Luther’s, in a piece called Chorale Cantata where again, I had this idea that I could have things that stood for the kind of chorus collective statement.  Then there could be the individual uncertainty and self-questioning and so forth.  Then there could be a kind of light that breaks through and then some kind of enlightenment.  That pattern certainly interested me on various occasions.  And I got interested very recently in how much quality difference there is in the Bach cantatas in terms of the way that the librettists manage those structures.  The very good texts are very helpful to Bach in terms of what he’s trying to do.  This guy’s a week-to-week composer—if he has to, he can do a menu from a restaurant.  But it makes a huge difference to him if the texts are really good.  And when he gets a really good one, something really happens.  Which is why I’ve always been advising students I’m teaching that the texts that they take, they need to get haunted by them.  Looking for them is not as good as noticing what’s sort of sticking to you.

AG: That’s good advice for how to choose a text.

JH: Yeah, I think it really is important to let it grab you.  More and more, I’ve become interested in a certain moment in Bach’s life in Weimar where there happened to be a guy who wrote very well—better than anybody he ever had again.  The character of those pieces is just different.  There’s something about what Bach discovers in the sound of the pieces, and in the uniqueness of the inspiration, that is entirely I think about responding to the poems.  So we composers, we need that kind of help.  We definitely should be always alert for it. I’ve found that lately, in working with the Bach cantatas, that I’m more respectful for where the words are coming from.

AG: All of your works are so very different from each other, and there’s a quote from an interview with you from years ago in which you said that your main interest was to make each work different from the others—to reinvent traditions and to create fresh new designs.  Do you approach each new piece in a completely different manner?

JH: I’m trying to.  And I’m trying to defeat the idea of style. I think the composers that I’m interested in also were more interested in finding the character of the piece, or the peculiar circumstances of the piece, and defeating the idea of the style.  Bach does it in a peculiar manner really because he’s someone who developed so many resources for how he could write that in his case, it’s really just a lavish kind of equipment.  If you track him from one week to the next, right in those two years when he’s writing a piece a week, the astonishing thing is that he’s not working off the previous week at all.  You walk away completely thrown by how unreliant he is on where he’s just been, which is staggering to me, particularly because the timeframe is so small.  If you were to say, well, Wagner writes Tristan and then he writes Meistersinger, and his vocabulary is so wildly different. I mean, it’s incredible self-discipline that he makes the sound of those pieces so different, but you’re also talking about six year gulfs there.  For Bach, it’s like six days.  So I think that trying to re-attack is really important.  I try to set up situations where I kind of have to do that.  Like when I wrote this piece for the Vatican, and they looked over a bunch of my motets in this little committee, and they sent me a commentary sheet.  The pieces where I use triads are all identified as something they like.  That’s the way they were in the 14th century too, so I thought the premise for the piece then ought to be that there’s nothing in the piece but triads.  That became a really interesting premise because if you then try to write seemingly linear textures, actually they’re up and down.  They’re constantly registering triads. It becomes an interesting set of problems, to not make the listener or even the analyst aware of this, but if you are crazy enough to actually look at it moment to moment, you notice that’s what happening.  That seemed like a great opportunity to clear the air, and to be doing something completely unlike whatever I’ve been doing.  So I look for chances like that.  I did a piece years ago called The Most Often Used Chords, and a couple of my friends in California said, “That didn’t sound like anything you would write.”  I said, “Well, I’m really happy to hear that because given the a priori sort of games that I laid out, movement to movement, there wasn’t much of any way for it to sound like things I’d written before.”  There are a number of peculiar things that go on in that piece, based on not exactly musical principles, like almost statistical; say certain chords will be around a certain percentage of the time.  To me it was what music would be like if a bunch of really goofy theorists thought you should do things according to the way you could actually describe them. I think it’s fun to find places where you have to do it in a way that you don’t really know how to do it.

AG: It’s wonderful that you are able to do that, given that you tend to write one enormous, progressive piece after another—a huge orchestra piece, and then an opera—very large forms. You’re not really a soprano and piano kind of guy.

JH: No, I tend to write a lot of big pieces.  The key thing for those big pieces is to space them out and get enough time in between. Having had this amazing experience in Boston with the orchestra playing all of my symphonies—I heard three of them last year, in a really short time—I was thinking I was very fortunate that there were a lot of years between each one, because I had pretty much shaken loose most of what I’d been hanging around with.  By the time I started the second, the first was not available, and the third didn’t seem to be hanging much in the second.  The hardest was the fourth because the fourth came after two very large pieces, and they were big efforts, and they kind of wanted to cling a certain amount.  I had difficulty with that feeling, as if I couldn’t shake off as much as I wished I could.

AG: You obviously find great joy in the nuts and bolts details of the compositional process, in addition to being absorbed in very universal, archetypal thematic material.

JH: It’s funny, one reason I don’t conduct my pieces when they’re new anymore is that the nuts and bolts things are too interesting at that point. Later on, you know, I was able to do much better because I didn’t care about that stuff anymore.  Your engagement with elements of the piece changes so much.  It’s a very strange evolution, but I have to watch out for that. I watch out for it by not conducting stuff when it’s new, because I know that I’ll be off on a bender somewhere.

AG: You said a long time ago—and it’s a very interesting statement—that you have to be careful that your music doesn’t look easier than it is.

JH: Yeah.

AG: Do you still think that?

JH: Yeah, I worry about that.

AG: How so?

JH: It’s a strategic issue, but you know, if a player looks at a piece right away, and graphically they take an impression that they can absorb it immediately, that’s not good for you.  Right?  And I’ve discovered it’s not good for a quartet to look at one of my pieces and say, “There’s gonna be no problem.”

AG: How do you overcome that?

JH: Well, normally I’m unsuccessful in overcoming that. I at least try to make sure that the things that I know are hard about the piece are pointed out in some way—either something in the way that the piece is described verbally, or something to just say really you may have to work on this piece. I’ve had a few unpleasant surprises where groups have showed up, and they’ve said, “Oh my God, we didn’t realize this piece was so hard.  So sorry for what you’re about to hear.” I’d love to know how to guard against that, but  I’ve really never discovered the absolute way to do it.  I know some people say you just write something that looks impenetrable, but I think our job as composers is in a way the reverse: to do something that’s quite unusual but doesn’t look crazy at all, but then when they play it, they realize they’re doing something much more involved than they thought.  But one has to be a little wary of performers who go too much on their ocular overview and are not seeing anything too scary.

In the chamber music world—where rehearsal is really possible, in principle—it is important to send the message that the visual picture may not be the whole story. I now sometimes just say that.  The orchestral world is different, because it is so bounded by strictures of time that there’s not going to be much stretch anyway.  The orchestra is just going to do the best it can with a very finite chunk of time.  So in a sense almost anything that you present to an orchestra, given the number of minutes they have, is going be some sort of challenge. I think with chamber music, what I’ve tried to do is just say—particularly if I know the players—don’t think it’s quite as transparent as it looks, because I do love the idea of delivering something that is not too gnarled in appearance. Sometimes that means work you do by yourself to present something that might be fairly unusual, in which you’ve reduced the complexities visually or found ways to render a rhythm that is not the most clotted thing that you could put down.  I’ve been very struck listening to the late music of Milton Babbitt and looking at his scores, since I knew his music when he was in his middle years.  It sounds on the surface very much like it always did, but it looks on the page about 75 percent easier. I think one of the things he must have decided is, “I can get these rhythmic effects without having to send everybody down to their calculators and, you know, spending hours counting with themselves.” I think there are ways to suggest all kinds of density that don’t have to put the performer back to school.  As a coach at Tanglewood, I’ve sometimes felt a little upset about the hours of preparation I’ve put in on some scores, trying to make sure that when the players get there that I can do these rhythms.  And the composer then comes in and wants something much more extemporaneous and casual in sound than what the picture suggests.

That’s a really interesting question; we ask as composers for a lot of solitary long-distance runner time from players.  And I think one of the things we always have to calculate is when they come out at the other end, are they going to feel after those many hours where they played the same line of music 400 times, that the reward is there for having gotten it.  It’s just a very delicate balance. Some of us who also perform, we stay close to the world of those problems.  Because as a performer, I still get some scores, and I sit there for hours and hours and hours thinking, “I’ve got to figure this out!”

AG: Well, I think that also a lot of the challenge with music that may appear simple at first glance comes when it’s time for the ensemble to put it all together.  The individual parts may be completely manageable in and of themselves, but the work places virtuosic demands on the ensemble as a whole.

JH: I think it’s good that we need to still be writing music that requires the performer to understand it and live with it, and that is done differently when people know how it goes.  All of us are expecting, for instance, that our college students—the advanced ones—can play the notes of a Haydn quartet.  But it takes them a long time to play the music of the Haydn quartet, and to play the stresses and everything in the right natural place. The hierarchy of events, the pacing, all those things are very difficult.  And that’s probably what I would wish that we would be able to assert about the music that we’re writing now, too.  That eventually it needs the comprehensive issues solved just the way difficult classical music needs it.  I think we ought to all go to hear the All-State or the high school orchestra reading the Brahms Third.  To hear that their balances are not too good and a lot of the notes are hard, and some of the places are rather lumpy and not particularly soft, to get a better sense of what we’re hearing when we’re hearing a new orchestra piece.  Because we’re hearing something rather similar to that, in that we’re hearing something at a very early stage of its eventual evolution.

AG: Exactly. I wanted to ask about your perspective on this, given that you do write so many large works that can be difficult to program. Many of your compositions have been recorded, which is another way for large works to have long lives, and preparing a new work for recording is certainly a good way to learn a piece in a very deep way.

JH: Yeah, in this area, I’d have to say I’ve been incredibly lucky because a couple of conductors have conducted a lot of my pieces and have come back to them—particularly James Levine, but also David Zinman and David Miller. And they’re played better for no particular reason other than it is another group, and it can be another venue, and it can be another time.  The very fact that they’ve been around longer is somehow very helpful. Of course, if the same orchestra plays something twice in two years, the way they do big standard pieces, the effect is so different it’s startling.  That happened to me a long time ago in San Francisco, where Mr. Blomstedt brought a piece back the next year.  I looked at the program, and I thought this is too difficult, they’ll never be able to play it; they’ve got such hard music.  But they played the piece the way they play pieces that they have met, and the upgrade was far more exaggeratedly good than I could have thought.  I’d always guessed it would make a big difference, but this kind of difference was just—you couldn’t predict it.  It made me wonder about the whole world of orchestral performance. That is, we lavish a lot of care on these pieces, and it really does take a lot to understand whether they deserve it or not, because we don’t hear them go out of the sketch level for a while.  It’s not the fault of the conductor, or the orchestra, if it’s still in the sketch level.  It’s only that the amount of time to absorb it is so small. What Beethoven’s Eroica has now—it’s not that it’s easy to play.  It’s really hard, but it’s that it’s been around a long enough time, and has been absorbed in a number of places and most specifically by good orchestras on enough occasions, that it starts well up the track. We’re not starting right at the first square at all with that piece.

But the audience doesn’t have much stake in Beethoven’s Eroica.  I’m always trying to convince audiences that the interest of a new orchestra piece is that their ears matter there.  If they’re there for the 9,000th performance of the Eroica, it doesn’t matter what they think.  Like it, not like it, it’s completely immaterial.  But it’s very material what they think, what they react to or how they react, with a new piece. For some listeners when you really secure that message, it makes it exciting to be at a concert.  Part of the kick of going up to Albany, where the audience hears a much higher diet of new music than from just about any orchestra in the country, is that the audience is there to hear the new piece.  They’re there to meet composers, and they’re there because they’re ground floor people.  They love the idea that their attendance is making a difference. And you get such a feeling of exhilaration being in that audience because all of those people who are there are invested.  They feel like, “We’re the people who decide whether this stuff will ever go anywhere.” They’re as important to that event as anybody on stage, and that is probably almost like a re-creation of a time when pieces that are now standard were new.  People showed up to hear Beethoven Three, thinking, “What’s he got for us this time?”  And that’s the Albany feeling.  It comes about by years of persistence—of saying the real central purpose of this orchestra is that we play new things.  That’s why any time I get a call to come up to Albany, I’m there like a shot because it’s just the experience of being there.  It’s like an audience that is alive to the weight of their own presence.  They have to be there; it doesn’t matter without them.  That’s pretty exciting, and hats off to the series of managements up there and conductors who have kept a long tradition going.  It’s David, but it’s people before him, and hopefully people after him.

AG: Are there particular things you feel that younger composers should be thinking about and/or working on?

JH: I had this idea, which really came from an account of Luigi Dallapiccola teaching, and it has resulted in my instituting at Tanglewood every summer what I call the “Luigi Dallapiccola Reading Project.”  It has to do with how musicians are educated.  Dallapiccola, when he was presented with some work at a lesson, if he liked what was there, he would go out on the veranda with the student and smoke.  This was the ‘60s or the ‘70s in Italy…you can imagine. If he wasn’t too happy with it, he would go to his edition of the Divine Comedy, which is all in separate cantos, and he would pull out a canto, give it to the composer and say, “I want you to read this for next week, and we’ll talk about it.”  Now, what was he driving at?  Well, my sense of it is that he was feeling behind the music some lack of a life, or let’s just say, a wider support fabric that went beyond music, which of course was very important to him and very important to his own work.  I’ve sometimes had this feeling too, that maybe composers need to think a lot about what goes into their music besides what they know about music. I’ve started giving them round robin reading, that they just pass to each other every week.  This year we learned and recited Italian poems. The whole idea of it is just to say that it’s about everything that you do; it’s about your taking in what’s out there in the world.  It’s about getting out and walking in the woods.  It’s a highly intricate ensemble of things that go into what you want to do as a composer.  And sometimes, during the incubation of graduate schools particularly, it’s possible to lose sight of that because it becomes all about what your teachers think about what you’re doing, and what sort of musical environment you are creating for yourself.  So thanks to Luigi’s example—though we don’t do the smoking on the balcony because nobody smokes—we are doing the reading, and we’re doing it independent of looking at any music because we think he was right, that this is probably a very important ingredient.

3 thoughts on “John Harbison: Redefining Traditions

  1. Peter Homans

    This interview yielded many good insights, but I wish Harbison had talked a little about his experience with opera performance, particularly his opera The Great Gatsby, which is a work that should not be forgotten.

    Reply

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