Harbison's 80th birthday Celebration

2018-19 Collage Fellow Ben Park sits down with composer John Harbison to talk about his 80th birthday celebration, as well as his pieces on the upcoming Collage concert on November 25th

Historians love to categorize events by decade, and musicians—like many other people—enjoy celebrating nice round-numbered birthdays.  Is there a particular decade of your compositional career (or musical career in general) that stands out in your mind?

I have recently reunited with my pieces from the late 1970s; they are better, more serious, and more fun than I had previously thought of them. 

You have two works on this program, one from 1970 and one from 2009.  What is like to have two pieces spanning almost four decades on the same concert?

My closest tie to Die Kürze is the presence of Hölderlin, who returns in my work in Diotima (1976) and IF (2017).  The two pieces on the program together serve as a reminder of how far we have to travel, and how much we gain by giving up some things. 

Many people come back to works of art they have viewed previously after several years and find new meaning and perspective – how do you find yourself listening to your earlier works differently today than when you first wrote them?

I start to enjoy hearing my early pieces very much, in fact, from Five Songs of Experience  (1971) and forward, which is actually not very early – I was 33, and it took quite a while to get sorted out. The stylistic imperatives were much more commanding back then.

Teaching music and coaching musicians have been important parts of your career.  How have these passions affected your composing?

They help nourish the outer ear, which we always need to counter the hours of burrowing into our burrows.

You’ve written prolifically for several different genres; how (if at all) do you alter your compositional approach when working on chamber music?

I always try to imagine the physical space and the people who might be conducting, singing or playing.

The performance of a work that is named for a poem that begins “Why are you so short?” seems like an appropriate moment to ask about form.  At what point in your process do you think about the larger (or not so large) structure of a piece, or does it vary depending on the original inspiration for the composition?

Though I think the balance of content to duration is the most significant force when we react to a piece, I seldom have a pre-conceived idea about  how long a work will be or should be. 

The last movement of Die Kürze is a setting of Hölderlin’s poem of the same title – how was writing this wordless setting different compositionally then setting text more explicitly?  To what extent was this movement informed or influenced by the vocal character of the instrumental solos that conclude the previous movement?

Back in this time [when I was composing Die Kürze] I often tried shaping phrases to unsung words—it is basic to a very early chamber piece of mine, Confinement (1965)—mainly because thinking through words has always helped me with fluency.

What are some of the aspects of Louise Glück’s poetry that inspired you to use it in The Seven Ages?

I knew many of her poems for a long time before I used her poem “Relic” in my Fifth Symphony (2007), and I knew from that experience that I was going to need her poems in my music for a long time.  I have tended to stay long with certain poetry: Bishop, Fried, Milosz, WC Williams, Montale, Bly (as translator).  I find the “partnership” strengthens or sometimes becomes in an illuminating way more difficult.

You’ve written that you began work on this piece during a busy summer schedule after a “blank” period and that you felt like you were having an “urgent conversation with the poet.” How did composing this song cycle help you to revive your productivity?

I have always found non-composing stretches very difficult and was not really surprised to find out that Louise Glück had a similar experience.  I felt is was good for me to find a way to deal with the surprising directness of certain moments in her poems.  The poems I chose in Seven Ages were the ones I wanted to live with, knowing that it would be very challenging to find the musical through-line, especially in the title poem.  ‘Setting’ always seemed to me an insufficient word, so un-interventionist, so mild, since what we do [as composers ‘setting texts’] is make something so independent, something loving but un-respectful of the text. 

What are you looking forward to in the next ten years?  What piece from your eighties—planned or hypothetical—would you most like to hear as part of your 90th birthday celebration?

I am interested to collect the thirty or so four-voice madrigals—perhaps they are motets—I made for the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble of standard American songs.