John Harbison on Staying Productive
(and mostly positive) during the pandemic


In their own words: How artists are staying productive (and mostly positive) during the pandemic


The composer

John Harbison, 81, has created three operas, six symphonies, a ballet, and numerous chamber works and songs. His cantata “The Flight Into Egypt” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He spoke by phone from his home in Cambridge earlier this month.


John Harbison

I think every day we’re trying to figure out what the opportunities are. I’ve decided to keep going with whatever I was doing, as much as possible. Every year for the last 10 years, I’ve learned and performed one of the fugues in Bach’s “Art of Fugue” and I’m now up to No. 10. Every piece is a new challenge because I’m not really a pianist. But for me it’s been a very worthwhile commitment. It’s a kind of last-thoughts phase of Bach’s music.

I also feel since there are extra hours I should try a few new things compositionally. I have a new project for children’s choir and piano, I put together a series of solo violin pieces, and I’m trying to write a Sonata for Composer-Pianist, for Jim Primosch. I always like to have more than one thing going because if I can’t do one at a given moment, then I can probably do another.

It is reassuring to see how much activity keeps going on online. We need music. I think the hardest thing I’ve discovered talking to students and other musicians is practicing without the goal being really finite. It’s the hardest thing to motivate if you’re not absolutely walking into a hall and making music. And for the composers, we have to be very patient. We’ve all lost premieres of pieces we’re curious to hear. You were pretty clear on what you heard when you wrote it, but it always turns out some things are different [in performance]. Now, you’re postponing those direct encounters with your own music, and yet you depend on them for clarifying where you’re trying to go next. I guess we should all look back to Berlioz and “The Trojans,” that giant piece of amazing quality that he essentially never heard.

We composers also need the contact of other musicians, eventually, otherwise we become far too isolated in the world of our heads. Teaching composition for a long time, I’ve learned that my job is to try to balance the inner thinking of the composer with the outer experience of the music. Younger composers come with a lot of attention to their inner ear, but they need their outer ear to work with more vigor. It’s the opportunity to put the two together that we don’t get when we’re isolated. You see the premiere date passing, and you think, well… we’ll all be there some day.