AJ Harbison is a well-rounded, ambitious composer of both pop and concert music. A music composition student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Harbison composes his music on either piano or guitar, depending on the kind of music he is working on. This multifaceted approach to his craft is rooted in the deep study of musical composition theory and form as well as the art of the performance. You can check out his album Songs From My Shelf from the Johnson County Library catalog. Read on for an interview with AJ and to listen to some of his music.
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I am a composer and singer/songwriter living in Kansas City with my lovely wife and baby daughter. We moved here in the summer of 2013 for me to pursue a graduate degree in music composition at UMKC, and it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the city, particularly its great love and support for the arts. I have one foot in the "concert music" world and one foot in the "pop music" world, and this has always informed the way that I write in both genres. My concert music incorporates a lot of harmonies and rhythms idiomatic to pop music, and in turn my pop music draws on my concert music education in considerations of theory and form. I've composed in concert music genres from solo instrumental pieces to large choral and chamber ensembles, and will be completing my first orchestral piece in 2015. On the pop music side, I've performed in coffee houses, living rooms and on larger stages, and in 2010 I released a CD of original music that I wrote, recorded and produced myself. The visual arts have always held a fascination for me as well, and I have ideas for several future projects dealing with the interaction between visual art and music.
How long have you been composing music?
When I was eight years old, I began taking piano lessons, and the final exercise in my first theory workbook was to compose a short piano piece called "Pharaoh Built A Pyramid." I eagerly took on the challenge and have never looked back. I picked up the guitar as a teenager, and wrote my first pop song as a final project for a German class in college. Since then I've usually focused more on one or the other at various times, but I love them both and plan to continue writing in both styles throughout my career.
Describe your songwriting/composition process.
When composing a piece of concert music, I usually start with a single idea—a character or an image or a feeling I want to convey. I've tried various methods of mapping out a piece from the beginning, and some are more helpful than others, but often I find in the writing that the music takes over and leads me where it needs to go. In songwriting, I always begin with the lyrics, and usually finish writing them before I pick up the guitar or go to the piano to work out the music; but by the time I'm done with the lyrics, I normally have a pretty good idea in my head of how the music will sound.
What or who inspires you?
My Christian faith has always been a strong source of inspiration for me, with the richness of its imagery and symbolism and the depth of its tradition. In 2013 I wrote a concert piece for chamber orchestra and drum set based on Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, and themes of faith permeate my pop music as well. In the concert music world, I'm inspired by composers like John Adams, Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, who are exploding popular misconceptions of what "modern music" sounds like and are writing music that people who have no formal music education or experience with classical music can love. One of my composition professors at UMKC, Chen Yi, is also inspiring in the way that she takes traditional Chinese folk music materials and combines them with a mastery of Western compositional technique, which is another form of what I'm trying to do in blending concert and pop music. In terms of pop music, I'm inspired by bands like U2 and Coldplay who can skillfully marry profound words with infectious music, and songwriters like the Indigo Girls and Derek Webb who elevate the craft of lyric-writing to its highest form. Visual art, literature and dance are also great places for me to find musical inspiration, as are the beautiful trees, parks and architecture of Kansas City!