John Harbison is an immensely important contemporary American composer. His symphonies, operas and large choral works have been performed all over the world and include commissions from The Metropolitan Opera and Yo-Yo Ma. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1987, and in 1989 he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” His work often draws from both the classical cannon and the jazz cannon and is frequently discussed in terms of its distinctive, exhilarating experimentalism. In addition to melding musical genres, Harbison is also known for his collaboration with many well-known literary texts and contemporary authors. He has composed music set to the words of Alice Munro, Louise Glück, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, William Carlos Williams, W.B. Yeats, William Shakespeare and Ranier Maria Rilke, among many others. In spring of last year, Harbison visited Vanderbilt University as Composer-in-Residence and to see the performance of his piece, Three City Blocks, which was being performed by the Vanderbilt Wind Symphony. Before the performance, Harbison and I met to discuss the ways in which literature inspires his music and some contemporary fiction authors, such as Laura van den Berg and Lydia Davis, with whom he is enthralled.


Interviewer: Do you ever read a piece of literature and immediately know that it’s something that you want to collaborate with? How do you come to texts that you’re moved enough by to decide you really want sit in them and stick with them for the very significant amount of time it takes to make a composition?

John Harbison: It’s usually not so immediate. To compose with a text I immerse myself in it over a long period of time. And then I tend to stay with writers quite a while and do more than one project with the same author. It takes a while for me to become haunted enough by the words to feel like I am ready to try and figure out how they should sound. I’ve recently surprised myself by wanting to compose to Elizabeth Bishop, whose poetry I didn’t get for a long time, but then a poet friend of mine, Michael Fried, whose work I have also composed to, sent me one of Bishop’s poems and I thought, yes, this is it. Most recently I’ve composed to several poems by Lorine Niedecker. She is a very well-known poet in England, but not much in the States. I will probably try composing to her work again. Maybe I didn’t get it right the first time, or maybe I just feel like I want to make sure that I’ve explored it enough in terms of what my music is getting at. Every time I deal with a different poet I have to come up with totally new resources.

Once you have selected a text, how do you hone in on the portion of the text that you want to excerpt? Do you ever rearrange the language to suit the composition’s needs?

When I’m working with a text I assume one of two attitudes. One attitude is to change absolutely nothing about the language. I’ll feel a great obligation to the poet and I won’t change a thing. I had this attitude with Orpheus & Eurydice even though the texts I used for that symphony were extremely large. I somehow felt that I was compelled not to do anything but set it just as it was. There was a very tough stretch at the end of the piece, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the composition, I think, but where I thought, if I were sensible editor I wouldn’t have set this part to music. But I did it anyway. And I’m glad I stuck with it. I’m glad I did it in that case. The other attitude to have when adapting a text is make a totally new text based on fragments from the original text to suit the composition. This was the case with the Emerson piece and Words from Paterson. With Words from Paterson I made a kind of suite where I took rather large segments of the text and integrated them throughout the composition. I felt that I was making a compression of a much larger kind of literary canvas. When I set language to music, I am no longer an admirer of that language—I’m an opportunist. When I compose music for a poem I select the poem because without the poem the piece could not be composed.

Do authors ever object to having their work put to music?

Different authors have very different attitudes. I recently had an interesting experience with Alice Munro. I wanted to set four passages from her book View from Castle Rock. There are short summaries in each chapter of that book that I really admired. Initially I thought I would use those passages exactly as she wrote them, but then, when I started composing, I felt I needed to shape them. When I told her agent I wanted to re-shape the text there was a rather dramatic moment. The agent was not pleased and told me I absolutely could not intervene in the texts, that absolutely nothing could be changed. So I took a bold step and decided to contact Munro directly, send her my adaptation and see what she thought of it. Soon thereafter I got a phone call from her saying that she had listened to the piece and that my changes were perfectly acceptable. I feel very fortunate that Alice Munro was receptive to my adaptation. Every once in a while you find you’re closer to the authors than you expect. The authors who are most receptive to adaptation understand that I am making a new piece of art and that it’s not going to be necessarily a pleasing experience for them to listen to this new artwork. My work is going to be so different from theirs, first and foremost because it is a totally different medium. My work is simply a single, in-depth reading of that author. Louise Glück, for instance, can’t stand to hear anybody read her poems. So I’ve been amazed that she is ok with hearing them as music. I think it is so different she gives up. Robert Bly, on the other hand, takes an attitude when he gives me permissions that I quite understand, but it’s the other end of the pole, which is that he says, Please use it, but I don’t ever want to hear it. And then there are poets like Eugenio Montale who take the position that lyric poetry is complete as it is and should never be set to music. I think the most receptive author accepts the idea that I am doing something that will destroy their original idea, but that there will hopefully be something very solid and very stimulating on the other side of that destruction.

What is the last piece of literature that you read that truly moved you?

Laura van den Berg’s short stories are gorgeous. The title story of her second collection, “Isle of Youth,” is like a thunderbolt. I would love to make an opera of it, but then I couldn’t make anything as good as the way she actually spaces it out. There are a lot of great surprises in that story that I wouldn’t know how to do in a musical situation. I also recently read Heft by Liz Moore and really loved it. It’s very serious and very beautiful. It’s a feat of imagination. It’s brilliant—I could not put it down. And, well, I am friends with Louise Glück, but I could find music for any poem she writes. In terms of sensibility, she is an artist that I am completely connected to.

Can you recommend any other composers who often collaborate with modern, living authors’ language?

One of my former students, Kate Soper, made a couple of terrific pieces out of several Lydia Davis stories. They’re duos—one is with Soper, the vocalist, and a flute player, and the other is with Soper and a violinist. They’re very confrontational, sassy pieces. Lydia Davis’s language is perfect for composition because you can follow what it’s about and it’s very rhythmic. This piece, Wet Ink: Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say, is musical acrobatics. I have watched the performance three or four times, and every time I see it it gets better.