The persistence of memory

Composer John Harbison explores our collective recollections

The very first music John Harbison remembers hearing was his father at the piano playing Busoni's transcriptions of J.S. Bach's "Schubler Chorales." But the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer also has strong, early childhood memories of family gathered around the piano, singing what then would have been described as "familiar songs everyone knows."

Today, the idea may seem a quaint, idyllic and elusive notion, especially to younger generations whose early encounters with music are more likely to have been via CD or MTV. Some of us, though, do recall such things as elementary school classes where well-worn songbooks provided obligatory forays into a kind of Americana we were all expected to know, appreciate and love as our common culture.

Such early musical encounters are the launching pad for Harbison's newest composition for the Atlanta Chamber Players, Songs America Loves to Sing, scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Of writing it, Harbison says, "It was partly some thinking about some of my first experiences singing, in the family or a school situation, tunes which have become [a part] of everyone's experience. The songs, most of them, are well known. That is, I hope enough listeners would [be] able to follow them in a different environment than they might have met them before." He points to the cantatas of Bach, which he has frequently conducted, as an inspirational parallel of compositional principle. Bach founded his cantatas upon simple chorale tunes that were very familiar to the average person in his day, but presented those tunes through the lens of quite different, more elaborate musical settings.

"Amazing Grace," "Careless Love," "Aura Lee," "St. Louis Blues," "Poor Butterfly," and "We Shall Overcome" are among the 10 songs Harbison has chosen to incorporate in this personal snapshot of a shared American musical experience. But he admits, "Trying to define what a shared aural memory is, is not a simple question. In deciding what things were eligible for this kind of experiment, I had to make an educated guess as to what might persist [in shared cultural memory]. You simply can't make any clear assumptions that something is or isn't retained ... . It's very much like the whole business of what is shared experience, and what goes from generation to generation. That is what I want to learn about through this piece."

This type of musical inquiry makes Harbison stand out among his peers. "[He] really does write from the heart, and he's so original," says Paula Peace, director and pianist of the Atlanta Chamber Players, which commissioned Songs America Loves to Sing and will premiere it this Sunday in the Schwartz Center's Emerson Concert Hall. The ACP commission and scheduled premiere is only the beginning of a full week of appearances in Atlanta for Harbison. That includes a Harbison Festival concert downtown at the Rialto Center on Tuesday, where listeners can experience an entire program of his music.

Michael Palmer, who will conduct music from Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby as part of Tuesday's concert, says that Harbison's unique perspective is key to the composer's appeal: "[Harbison] has a very original language without being affected in any way, without being gimmicky. His music has a very distinct, individual sound and atmosphere to it."