A Visit With Renowned Composer John Harbison

Apr 4, 2014

In 2004, Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Harbison released “Songs America Loves To Sing – Old and New Music for Winds, Strings and Piano,” a compilation of recognizable choral preludes with a twist putting the spotlight on the true meanings of the work. It includes hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and classics such as “Anniversary Song” — which we know as “Happy Birthday.”

This weekend the acclaimed composer will join Philadelphia’s Network For New Music for workshops and several concerts, including a performance of songs from “Songs America Loves to Sing.”

Here & Now’s Robin Young sits in on a rehearsal and speaks with musicians from Network For New Music as they try tackling Harbison’s interpretations of American popular songs. She then visits Harbison at his home in Cambridge, Mass., to find out what inspired the variations of the music.


  • John Harbison, Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer and pianist.
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This past weekend, six members of Philadelphia's Network for New Music ensemble warmed up in a rehearsal hall at Temple University to tackle a piece they'll play this weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. All right. So here we are. One, two. Wait. Wait a second. One, two. All right? And one...


YOUNG: And from the very first notes of John Harbison's work, they know they've met a challenge.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I just think when he puts accents, then he wants something.

YOUNG: Could I just ask, are you just trying to figure out what John Harbison meant?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, right now we're just trying to follow his instructions, get all of that right first.

YOUNG: Is this as hard as it seems? You have - you all play difficult music. But is this more difficult?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was difficult from the standard arrangement (unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So right now we're still lining it all up. But I think once it gets in our heads then it'll be...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're familiar tunes also. Familiar tunes you have in your head, and they're just all messed around.

Come back next rehearsal, we'll show you how easy we've made it.



YOUNG: These are very familiar songs, but with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison's incredibly complicated takes. Written in 2004 - there are 10 in all, from "Happy Birthday" to "We Shall Overcome" - the entire piece is called "Songs Americans Love To Sing." This is "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in a recording by the Atlanta Chamber Players.


YOUNG: This weekend, Harbison will join the Network for New Music musicians in Philadelphia for several concerts and workshops. We wondered: How does one of America's greatest living composers want his music to be interpreted? And why did he write this piece? We visited this week at his home here in Cambridge, Massachusetts to find out.

JOHN HARBISON: This piece is based on the old albums, family albums, which no longer really exist, of supposedly well-known songs that we know. And it's hard to say that there's any sort of long-lasting repertoire of that sort anymore. Things have a shorter shelf life. But my hope with those songs was finding a few that people would remember, and that they would be able to track those songs as I set them in various kinds of different kinds of musical surroundings.

YOUNG: I'll say - we'll talk about that in a second, but you say the albums don't exist. And I've read you say that maybe the memories don't even exist. But we have one. We have this collective memory that we all gathered around and sang these.

HARBISON: Yes. We think we did that. I can attest that we did that. Maybe not as much as I ever think we did, but...

YOUNG: In your family.

HARBISON: Yeah. But I do know that it isn't the same kind of generational bonding around, first of all, because recorded music wasn't as dominant in our lives. So you had to make your own sound. And I've discovered that the songs I included in this collection, some of them were as well-remembered as I thought, and others, sort of, maybe they had peaked. "We Shall Overcome," which in the '60s was known very broadly, I discovered with a certain part of any audience, doesn't make a ripple.

YOUNG: Isn't that something?

HARBISON: Yeah. Well, things move very fast in our culture.


YOUNG: What did you want to say about that song in the way that you newly set it?

HARBISON: I wanted to say that the issues, the sort of social issues there are timeless, are kind of our chaos. That's why I put it into a kind of medieval context in order to really bring out my feeling about it, which is that we will always need protest songs.


YOUNG: Composer John Harbison's version of "We Shall Overcome" from his piece "Songs America Loves To Sing." This is recording by the Atlanta Chamber Players. We've also been hearing Philadelphia's Network for New Music, rehearsing the piece for John Harbison weekend that starts tonight. More at Meanwhile, what did he do with "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" after a break. HERE AND NOW.



And we've been visiting with composer John Harbison at his home in Massachusetts to talk about his piece "Songs America Loves To Sing," 10 songs, from "Amazing Grace" to "We Shall Overcome," put through his unique musical prism. We also attended a rehearsal of Philadelphia's Network for New Music ensemble. They're going to perform this piece this weekend. If you've just joined us, John was saying he hopes people will remember the old songs. Let's pick up when we asked him if they'll even recognize them.

And then there are songs that you've chosen that maybe known to people but not the way you've set them.


HARBISON: That's true. And I set "Aura Lee," which is a beautiful sort of New Year's song, but I was thinking of Elvis Presley's version, "Love Me Tender."


HARBISON: Of course, there's many more people now who remember Elvis singing "Love Me" tender than sang "Aura Lee" on their New Year's celebrations in their sort of Irish-American families. Elvis didn't change the tune. He basically just changed the context.

YOUNG: But you changed both. It's threatening. It's dangerous.

HARBISON: Well, that's - yeah, because it's being superimposed on itself at various times at just various speeds.

YOUNG: And again the New Music Network musicians were wrestling with it the first time they'd ever seen it. Let's listen for a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Who has the tune - who had the (unintelligible) who - with whom I'm in canon at around 13?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're with me.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh. I'm in canon with you?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I just think when he puts accents, then he wants something.

HARBISON: Yeah, because they have to play something that is notated rather oddly in order for them to be able to play it in these different speeds. They'd get used to that after a while.


YOUNG: It was also fun to see them approach your "Amazing Grace" because it goes against everything you think of when you think of that song. And, in fact, here's the clarinet player. He was trying to adjust to your written directions on the score.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This one says notes are to be distorted. Yeah.



YOUNG: (Unintelligible) What does it say in the composer's directions?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For the clarinet, just the...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. No, I just want to put the queue in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: These particular shape notes are to sound distorted.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I do have a good job.

YOUNG: It's not what you think of when you think of "Amazing Grace."

HARBISON: No. We'll he's just impersonating a foghorn.

YOUNG: A foghorn.


HARBISON: I was going with the history of "Amazing Grace," which came over on slave ships, written by the slave ship owners who were very traditional (unintelligible) Christians. But its association now has flipped over to it being kind of a memorial piece. But I want it to just evoke something about crossing the Atlantic.


YOUNG: When you send this music out, why not, say, distort it because actually you're a foghorn and this is actually a slave ship coming across? Or do you want them to have some guesswork?

HARBISON: I want the guesswork. I think that the more that they have to travel down your own path to what the piece is about the better. All of these tunes were associations that I had probably acquired a long time about them. For instance, the "Happy Birthday" is very mournful, because the image I had for that was my sister's fifth birthday party where every - all of her friends were happy and she was crying.


YOUNG: You retained that.

HARBISON: Yeah. I thought that ought to be at least part of the "Happy Birthday." It gets - it gathers a bit more affirmative quality as it goes along.

YOUNG: Let's listen to a recorded version of the "Happy Birthday."


YOUNG: Some of it is just beautifully straight ahead, "What A Friend We Have in Jesus."


HARBISON: "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" is just an attempt to evoke a very, very central kind of gospel. That's probably the movement that is the most sincerely meant, though it's the hardest one to convey the style for me. It's the one where as a coach I'm most necessary. It's not ironic at all. I went to a summer camp where we sang those kind of revival hymns, and there was something about the fervor with which those pieces were always delivered, which was different from the hymn singing that I knew in my own church at home. And I developed a lot of admiration for it.


YOUNG: You know, it's funny, John Harbison. Here we are in your Cambridge home. You know, I see you puttering around here while musicians probably all over the world are trying to figure out what did he mean by this.

HARBISON: Right. But, you know, we were doing that with all the music that we do. We're trying to figure out what the composer meant, and then we put down a lot. But we try to not put down so much that people will feel tied in knots. And we expect things to come out differently, at least I think those of us who stay (unintelligible) because that's what happens. And to me, the most useful part - year after year, the most useful part is if I give an idea of the speed.

That is what a lot of composers, since the invention of the metronome, have found perhaps the most basic thing about their performance. Certain ones like Verdi were very worried that so quickly his original ideas got changed, because the pulse is probably the one thing that gives you the most indication what the piece is going to sound like.


HARBISON: And I really loved the idea of thinking about what songs we all know. And one of my sort of unofficial polls that I keep running every time this piece is done is what do they recognize? Do they recognize the tunes in the garb that I set them out there? And do they even know the tunes in the first place. And that's been a constant and interesting surprise.


YOUNG: Again, composer and MIT professor, John Harbison. So, Jeremy Hobson, can you guess this one?


It sounds so familiar, but I cannot think of the...

YOUNG: (Singing) Down by the riverside. Down by the riverside.

HOBSON: Ah, there we go. There we go. You gave it away.

YOUNG: He's going to be in Philadelphia this weekend for a series of free concerts and workshops with the Network for New Music. We'll have more at And a note to members of the terrific ensemble who graciously allowed me into their first rehearsal - that's brave - that - on that blues piece, his formal Italian directions are not a joke. He means that seriously. So just want to convey that.

HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.