p>HARMAN: Yes. I wanted to suggest programmatic elements of the source material (from Bern-stein's West Side Story), but in a non-contextual way --not trying to build a line or a bridge between these different impressions, but taking elements which are popular, romantic, even schmaltzy, and treating them in a very abstract way.
STEENHUISEN: You mentioned that AMERIKA was built on music from West Side Story. Most of your pieces are based on material appropriated from other sources. Is there a sub-text to your choice of materials?
HARMAN: Surprisingly perhaps, sentiment or nostalgia, more often than not. For example, my work Midnight with the Stars and You is based on a popular 30s song used at the end of the film The Shining -- a favourite film of mine since I was a child (laughter all around) .so for me, there was a humorous and perhaps slightly grotesque element to taking this material and treating it abstractly... . I like irony. When AMERIKA was commissioned by New Music Concerts, it was originally to be on a concert called "All Canadian, Eh", so I decided to look for material that was decidedly non-Canadian. I had previously been thinking about using West Side Story as the basis for a piece anyway.
There was a technical impetus too. Bernstein's melodies transpose in ways that give them a free atonal structure, which with a few more simple steps could be quite easily serialized. I found it interesting to maintain some of the gestures and feelings of the original music after restructuring the pitch material.
STEENHUISEN: Why don't you begin with material you compose yourself?
HARMAN: I don't trust myself. When I look at material I've written myself, I feel that what I am looking at is not music. Perhaps because it is too transparent, too naked. Some-body else's music, perhaps simply has an aura of mystery that makes me feel more comfortable starting out with their material.
STEENHUISEN: So you're working this way to distance yourself?
HARMAN: Partly, but that isn't sufficiently explanatory. There are techniques and procedures I like to use to manipulate musical material. I find that when I cross-reference these with basic material from another source, the results vary wildly, depending on the nature of that other music. This often leads me toward musical sensibilities I might otherwise not have consciously been able to reach, or might even consciously have avoided. This is a way of reaching music I cannot hear, cannot yet understand, or cannot yet recognize as a viable representation of my creative self.
A useful analogy is the cut-up writing approach of William S. Burroughs. By cutting up newspapers, shuffling the snippets, and pasting them together, Burroughs thought (somewhat supernaturally) that this was a way of predicting future events. More practically, he also felt it was a way of discovering things he did not know, or things he did not know that he knew.
STEENHUISEN: Treating material coldly and objectively to ultimately achieve an emotional result?
HARMAN: Yes, as a way I begin to generate material. However, by no means does this imply that I keep everything that is generated. There is still a part of the process where I consciously and emotionally make choices about what to keep and how to order it.
STEENHUISEN: Are "conscious" and "emotional" equal partners in your compositional process?
HARMAN: These days, no. I think the emotional choices are becoming fewer.
HARMAN: For reasons I can't presently explain. ... I think that my music is going to change dramatically in the near future.
STEENHUISEN: Do you have a sense of how?
HARMAN: I feel that the work I have done with fragment structures has still not gone as far as I would have liked. At this point I feel I have not been capable of working spontaneously with this kind of structure to obtain the most interesting results. One possible answer to the question may lie not with a purely linear juxtaposition of ideas or fragments but perhaps with a combination of linearity and superpositions.
STEENHUISEN: Can you describe the sound of your music?
The moment you asked, a visual image came to mind, that of a page from my piece AMERIKA, which looks like the frames on a page of a comic book.
STEENHUISEN: But what does that page sound like?
HARMAN: Like a stain, an imprint of itself.
STEENHUISEN:You once told me that from time to time you consider composing (for lack of a better word) more avant-garde music. To me, this implied that you're conscious of particular boundaries and limitations you have in your work, and perceive yourself in a certain way, aesthetically.
HARMAN: This issue of boundary and freedom is something I struggle with, and it is a difficult balance for me to find. It is important for me to have a way of conceiving or approaching music, whether it be my own or somebody else's.
I don't mean having to have explicit
labels for the music, it may simply be grasping for characteristics I can
understand in a certain way. For me, writing music and listening
to music is 95% of the time an intensely analytical process.