John Harbison: “I’m trying to defeat the idea of style”

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 14thcentury 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.

NewMusicBox Interview with John Harbison, December 1, 2011

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Composing music bears some likeness to archeology

For me, composing music bears some likeness to archeology. It requires patient digging, searching for the treasure; the ability to distinguish between a treasure and the rock next to it and recognizing when you’re digging in the wrong place. The archeologist takes a soft brush and brushes away a half-teaspoon at a time. Musically, that would be a few notes, or a chord. Sometimes the brushing reveals an especially lovely thing, buried there for so long.

Lee Hoiby, composer. Died March 28, 2011