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Harris talks Polish musicians and 'metal Weebles'

Fred Harris dons his conducting hat during an MIT Wind Ensemble rehearsal.
Fred Harris dons his conducting hat during an MIT Wind Ensemble rehearsal.

Minutes before "The Joy of Wearing Hats," the first MIT Arts Colloquium of the spring semester, featured speaker Fred Harris looked into a bag containing a baseball cap and other miscellaneous headgear and unexpectedly decided against wearing his props.

The colloquium title and the discarded props refer to the multiple areas of music in which Harris, a lecturer in music, works--as a composer, conductor, scholar and percussionist. But he was right. Props turned out to be unnecessary in an evening filled with live performance, discussion of conductor and composer Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (the subject of a biography Harris is working on) and insight into the world of musical analysis.

Harris, who came to MIT in 1999, is director of the MIT Wind Ensemble and MIT's Festival Jazz Ensemble, both of which will perform this month. On Friday, March 5 at 8 p.m., the Wind Ensemble will present "A Symphony for Winds" in Kresge Auditorium, featuring Perischetti's "Symphony No. 6," Bach's "Art of Fugue," "Contrapunctus 3 and 6," and "Prelude in E flat" by Shostakovich. On Saturday, March 13 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium, the Festival Jazz Ensemble will present "Transformations," featuring the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and Oliver Nelson.

While known at MIT primarily as a conductor, Harris admitted he's been a "closet composer" since his teens. The first part of his Feb. 18 colloquium featured a solo flute performance of a piece he composed called "Three Moods for Solo Flute," written for his wife Becky in 1996 while the couple was courting.

Freshman Laura Burton, who plans to major in physics, performed the work, which consists of three sections characterized by different moods--first introspective, then romantic and finally rapid, sweeping melodies, or an "extroverted dance," as Harris described it.

Harris devoted much of his discussion to the highly acclaimed but little-known composer and conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (born 1923 in Poland), one of the few conductors who has also succeeded as a composer. Harris became intrigued by Skrowaczewski after his former professor, Gunther Schuller, analyzed the composer's recordings in 1997 and deemed him brilliant--a rare compliment by Schuller.

Still, Harris said he remained unfamiliar with the conductor until he went to a Skrowaczewski concert in Minneapolis while studying for his doctorate. He was captivated and moved by the sense of improvisation in the performance.

Several years and 80 interviews later, Harris is now immersed in writing the biography of a man who he feels has not received proper homage--perhaps, he says, because the world of conducting does not often offer open arms to new music.

"I'm trying to do what I can to make his music heard," he said.

Harris concluded by offering a first-hand look at how, as a conductor, he creates a descriptive analysis of a musical score. He handed out his breakdown of the "The Congress of the Insomniacs" by Assistant Professor Brian Robison for the MIT Wind Ensemble. The document included references to "groove machines," "bluesy, wild MIT animals," drawings of the Three Stooges, and Harris'depiction of "metal Weebles falling down a fire escape." He then played the piece as the audience followed along with the diagram.

The next arts colloquium, open to arts faculty and staff, will be a talk by Associate Professor Junot Diaz of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies on Wednesday, March 17. For more information on the series, contact Michele Hinkle (253-9821 or

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 3, 2004.

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