Harris, Harrassed, in the Hudson

After 36 years, I finally heard Roy Harris’s Third Symphony live last night, conducted by Leon Botstein at Bard’s Copland and His World festival. I had discovered the piece when I was 13, and it blew me away. The smooth sweep of the piece’s organic form is masterful (or maybe just lucky, because Harris had trouble ever achieving it again), and the middle, “Pastoral” section had a deep impact on me: time stops as the orchestra floats on a directionless sea of polytonal arpeggios. In some ways I’ve spent my life trying to duplicate the effect of that “Pastoral” section, especially the amazing effect of stopping time, in the middle of a piece that’s moving somewhere, to float for awhile. I think I’ve achieved something similar in the “Venus” section of my The Planets and my Unquiet Night for Disklavier, though that Harrisian texture also haunts the last movement of my Transcendental Sonnets, Time Does Not Exist (naturally), and other works. The piece is lodged deep in my psyche as an archetype. It was a kind of religious experience finally hearing it live, physically and in three dimensions, at last – I anticipated every timpani blow, every brass fanfare, as though I had written the piece myself but only held it in my imagination until now. (In fact, I note that Maestro Botstein played the original version of the piece, re-inserting about a dozen measures that Harris had excised after the premiere. I thought that was a permanent change, and am surprised you can get orchestral parts of the old version.)

Unfortunately, I live in the Hudson Valley, which, aside from Boston and Uptown Manhattam itself, is the world capital of Uptown musicians, who worship only music of a prestigious European pedigree, and consider woefully deficient any music that isn’t at every moment entertaining them by audibly heading toward some obvious goal. And so, predictably enough, though in my Harris-induced daze I failed to brace for it, a famous musician accosted me as I was leaving the hall, assuming because I am intelligent enough to be teaching college that my tastes must inevitably mirror his, and bellowed, “GAAAAAWWWD, what a BOOOORRRRING piece, he should have cut half of it, especially that TERRIBLE middle section!”

I have spent my life trying to convince people that there are many different ways to enjoy music, and that there is a tremendous wealth of new music to enjoy. And the response I characteristically get, especially from “educated” musicians – which suggests that education is a process of drastically curtailing one’s capacity for enjoyment – is, no, no, no, I’m wrong, great music is dead, music can only be listened to one way, there’s no great music anymore, and I should just give up. My refusal to acquiesce in this has given me a certain reputation for negativity.

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