John H. Harbison, the noted composer who is Class of 1949 Professor in the Music and Theater Arts Section of the Department of Humanities, has been selected by his MIT faculty colleagues to be the 1994-95 recipient of the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, the faculty's highest accolade to one of its own colleagues.
".John Harbison has.become a national figure, now recognized as one of the two or three most important composers in America today," the selection committee said in a citation read at last week's faculty meeting by the committee chairman, Dr. Stephen Benton, head of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and Allen Professor of Media Arts and Sciences.
The selection designated Professor Harbison for the honor more than a month ago, but in keeping with tradition, made the announcement at the April meeting of the faculty. Other members of the selection committee were Professors George W. Clark of Physics, Andrew W. Lo of the Sloan School, Pauline R. Maier of History and Alan V. Oppenheim of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
The award, established in 1971 as a tribute to the late Dr. Killian, MIT's 10th president and former chairman of the Corporation, carries an $8,000 honorarium. The recipient usually delivers a lecture in the spring term of the award year. Professor Harbison will announce his plans later.
Professor Harbison's new cello concerto, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, received its world premier April 7 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim. Reviewer Richard Dyer, writing in the Boston Globe, said: "The new concerto is a marvelous work in the literal sense of the world-it is full of marvels, of unexpected yet inevitable things. Harbison, at one time the most articulate spokesperson for his own music, claims he no longer knows what to say about it. He doesn't have to say anything; the music makes its own statements, which are as clear, accessible, obvious and elusive as the other events of our daily experience, our `real lives.'"
Professor Benton, before reading the formal citation on behalf of the selection committee, took note of the recent headlines about Professor Harbison's new concerto.
"Since we began working on this citation, John has been the subject of a small media blitz of his own. At the time of the committee's first meeting, there were members who had never heard of him or his work. I doubt that this is possible today."
The citation, in part, read:
"The quality of the nominations to the selection committee is always stunningly high, but this year a single name rose to the top as especially appropriate. Our committee is pleased to announce that the 1994-95 Killian Award Lecturer will be John H. Harbison.
"Many of us have been oblivious to the developments in the arts programs at MIT, and especially to the strength of our Music Section. But even 24 years ago, it was able to attract the talents of a then-promising young composer.
"John Harbison was born in Orange, NJ, into a musically inclined family. He was improvising on the piano by five years of age, and started a jazz band when he was 12. John did his undergraduate work at Harvard, earned his MFA at Princeton, and had recently finished as a Junior Fellow, again at Harvard, when he came down the river to MIT's faculty in 1969. He has been here ever since, becoming a full professor in 1979 and the Class of 1949 Professor five years later.
"Over that time, John Harbison has slowly become a national figure, now recognized as one of the two or three most important composers in America today. His music is distinguished by its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, from the grandest to the most intimate, pieces that embrace jazz along with the pre-classical forms of Schutz and Bach, the graceful tonality of Prokoviev along with the rigorous atonal methods of late Stravinsky. The unique, personal idiom that John has developed from these origins is one of the leading compositional voices of our time.
"Some of the outward signs of this accomplishment are the many fellowships, grants, commissions and honors he has received, including the Kennedy Center-Friedheim Award in 1980, the Pulitzer Prize for his composition, The Flight Into Egypt, in 1987, and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989.
"We should also applaud our own institutional flexibility in being able to provide a matrix within which a talent such as John's could flourish, a base of teaching and scholarship from which he has also been able to pursue his writing, in a beloved converted farm shed in Token Creek, WI, and at his composing residencies around the country-this while remaining at the intellectual and teaching core of the Music Section at MIT through this long period of its development. He has become widely known as a brilliant teacher in the classroom and as one who drags his students along with him to rehearsals and neighborhood schools.
"Finally, I would like to reprise a theme from the man we honor with this Award, Dr. Killian. He seemed somewhat surprised that one of his most quoted and long-lived remarks has been his description of MIT as a `university polarized around science, engineering and the arts.' He later wrote that `in a very deep sense they (science and the arts) are interdependent, and they spring from the same act of imagination.' The meaning of `the arts' at MIT has much transformed from when William Barton Rogers invoked them in MIT's charter, and even within Dr. Killian's lifetime, to what they are today, an important part of the experience of almost every undergraduate at MIT. Music was a founding component of the School of Humanities and Social Studies, which Dr. Killian established in 1950. In the 90s over half of our undergraduates enroll in one or another music offering, some of them in Professor Harbison's courses. We look forward to enjoying our own education at the hands of next year's Killian Award Lecturer, John Harbison."
The announcement of Professor Harbison as the Killian Lecturer was greeted with sustained applause from the faculty. In responding to the announcement after the citation was read, Professor Harbison said the honor has special meaning to him because it comes "from a group of people who are mostly in fields other than the arts."
He said that "MIT is a wonderful place for an artist to flourish, to do what they do, and also to connect to some of the most extraordinary students that one can conceive of. It also is a place that I think is in a real golden age artistically.
"If you just look at the next two days (April 21 and 22) they are typical days in the arts for MIT, but not typical for most places. We have our gamelan (a Southeast Asian flute, string and percussion orchestra) playing at the Student Center in concert with a group from San Francisco, and on the following night we have the first-ever collaboration between the MIT Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Society in the Verdi Requiem. And this kind of thing goes on in an environment extremely friendly and conducive to this wonderful flourishing that we are experiencing here in the arts at MIT. I take this wonderful honor to be an acknowledgment of this happy flowering time in the arts."
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 30).