A big part of classical music has to do with one's connection to history, by way of one's teachers. I value this immensely, even as a lot of my work involves pushing back against traditional aspects of our field. I was reminded yesterday, while playing a small role in a premiere by my teacher John Harbison, just how fortunate I've been to have principal mentors (the other was Nicholas Maw) who have been deeply tied to tradition, but who have also been thoughtful, humane individuals, engaged with the world beyond music.

John so elegantly bridges the gap between "classical music" and "everything else." I’ve always appreciated the ethical, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions of John's music, and the sense that he is wrestling with extramusical questions in his work. While the intersections between those values and the notes on the page may at times be abstract, it has always meant something to me to know that the person behind the music participated in Freedom Summer, registering Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.

I have fond memories of my monthly plane-bus-subway pilgrimages to Boston for lessons with John between 2002-04. I wasn’t particularly happy with the music I was writing at the time, but I still sensed that being around John and his work would be an experience that I would always carry with me. I remember John’s Pulitzer Prize occupying a very unassuming spot above his desk at home. “Unassuming” describes many things about John: the way he carries himself, the way he wears his intense erudition and musicality.

John can be so understated, so restrained, that he sometimes comes across as opaque. But I think this is in keeping with something he said in our pre-premiere interview last night: he wants his music to be mysterious, but not mystifying. (An echo of Claude Debussy’s motto: “never vague, always ambiguous.”) Accordingly, John taught me some of the most critical things I’ve learned, and have tried to pass on, about directness and clarity in music.

Another thing John taught me was that composition isn’t a cumulative process. I once brought an older piece of his to a lesson, in the hopes of writing something similar in approach. He told me that he didn’t know how he had written the piece, and that he couldn’t write something like it again if he tried. My own music has become something different from the music I loved and aspired to write as a student. Our work evolves, and that sometimes yields a sense of nostalgia, even a feeling of loss, for the music we can no longer make.

As my music has changed -- not only my musical language, but why, and for whom, I write music in the first place -- I have increasingly felt like an outsider, in classical music and in academia. I’ve wondered what my "establishment" teachers would make of it all. My uneasiness faded somewhat after talking to John at length for the first time in over a decade. I will always see him as an elder statesman in a grand tradition, but he is also a fellow artist, following his convictions, and trying to make sense of the world through music.

Perhaps my favorite moment yesterday, after last night’s premiere, was seeing one of my composition students -- John’s grand-student -- eagerly telling him what he had deciphered about John's new work, things that I couldn’t even begin to hear. It was another link in a chain, another step in a shared journey, one that I couldn't have foreseen during my own uncertain, post-graduate lessons with John. It’s fitting that John has long called to mind for me a line by a poet we both admire, Czeslaw Milosz: “I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, / as are all men and women living at the same time, / whether they are aware of it or not.”