Interviewing Jennifer Higdon Print E-mail
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Written by Lynn René Bayley   
Monday, 19 August 2013

Interviewing Jennifer Higdon

Composer Jennifer Higdon, born in December 1962, started late in classical music. She taught herself to play the flute at age 15, only starting formal music lessons three years later, and not dipping her toe into composition until age 21. Though born in Brooklyn, she spent her first 10 years in Atlanta before moving to Tennessee, where she studied at Bowling Green State University, majoring in flute performance. Later she earned an artist’s diploma from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where she studied with David Loeb and taught violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn. An intriguing recent commission has come from the Santa Fe and Philadelphia opera companies, for which she is writing an opera based on Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain.

One of her more amazing accomplishments is Higdon’s ability to impress judges in major foundations and fellowships. She has received awards from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two), the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. Among her college residences has been a one-year stint during the 2010-11 season as an eminent artist-in-residence at the University of Wyoming and her current position, holding the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

My exposure to Higdon’s music has come from two CDs issued just a month apart, a collection of chamber music for string quartet and soloists on Bridge and another (review following this interview) of chamber music for various instruments on the Albany label. I was fortunate to catch up with Higdon via e-mail and send her what I hoped were interesting and challenging questions about her work and aesthetic.

Q: If I may, I’d like to start off by going back in time. I know that you didn’t begin an interest in classical music until age 15, when you taught yourself to play the flute, but no one comes out of a musical vacuum. What was the kind of music that interested you most as a child, and growing up, until you reached age 15?

A: I wasn’t actually an avid music listener. I heard the music that was played at home… my father was a commercial visual artist who worked from home, and he would listen as he worked. I didn’t have a particular passion about music, and what I did hear was pretty much ’60s folk and rock music. A lot of Beatles, early reggae, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and groups like the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Q: I learned through your bio that you studied at Bowling Green State University, but I couldn’t find any information on your composition teachers. Whom did you study composition with?

A: Well, I was actually a flute performance major at BG, studying with Judith Bentley. She’s an extraordinary teacher, and I think much of the way I think about music originates from my flute lessons with her. While I was an undergrad, I did take some lessons from Marilyn Shrude and Wallace DePue, but my focus was truly as a performer.

Q: I know from my interviews with other composers that it’s always extremely difficult to “break in,” to get your early works performed, let alone published. Thus I was curious, did you have any “angels” in your corner who stumped for you in the beginning, who paved the way for you at all?

A: Most of my career has been a slow and steady climb. Although for most people, they thought I suddenly burst onto the scene, but it just wasn’t the case. I literally spent years writing chamber music (tons of it) and performing on flute, and doing whatever I had to to get by (teaching, conducting, copying music). If I had to pick one person who gave me a boost, it would be Fran Richard from ASCAP. Right after I finished grad school, she gave me a commission for a short orchestral work, which the Oregon Symphony premiered. That commission led to the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioning my Concerto for Orchestra [2002], and that piece changed my life…that was the moment my career really took off (and I think that is probably the moment I showed up on people’s radar).

Q: In the two-plus CDs’ worth of your music I’ve heard, what has impressed me the most is the rhythmic energy of your work. Even in slow movements, the rhythmic pulse is almost always one of the most striking features of your music. Are you someone who, like Beethoven, starts with a rhythmic pulse and builds a melodic line on top of that, or does the rhythm follow a melodic inspiration?

A: The answer to this is BOTH. I don’t think composers build anything one element at a time. We build by using all of the elements simultaneously (rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre). Rhythm is important to me, and its prominence probably derives from the fact that I grew up hearing primarily rock and roll. But I never isolate it as a separate element when composing.

Q: In looking over your list of works—primarily your chamber works, but also some of your orchestral works—I’ve noticed a fairly large number of pieces written for saxophones, mostly soprano and alto saxes. This brings up, in my mind, a twofold question: (1) what particularly inspires you to write so much for saxes, and (2) do you write so much for saxes because there isn’t a lot of classical music for them, or because you think in terms of saxophone timbres when composing?

A: Actually, the thing I probably have written the most for is strings: everything from small chamber (violin and piano), to a piano trio and string quartets (5), to string concertos (3). I have written for saxophone, but not to the exclusion of other instruments. All of my pieces have come about because of commissions, so there’s no denying the saxophonists’ enthusiasm for new works. It’s kind of like my flute pieces and percussion works…there are lots of enthusiastic performers out there.

Q: I can’t let the saxophone issue go until I ask one more question. One of your chamber works for a saxophone quartet is entitled Bop. I would assume that this music was at least partially inspired by bebop jazz, thus I am wondering if you took that inspiration from someone like Charlie Parker, or from later bop saxists like Lee Konitz or Richie Cole, or perhaps from an avant-garde jazz group like the World Saxophone Quartet?

A: No relation to jazz in any way. I’m not knowledgeable enough about the genre to be influenced by bebop.

Q: Another thing that struck me was the proliferation of works you’ve written, and in the ones I’ve heard there always seems to be a fairly high and consistent level of inspiration. If you don’t mind, I’d like to get “into the kitchen” or workshop with you. Let’s say you’ve been commissioned to write a sonata, or a string quartet, or even a symphony or concerto. Where do you start when formulating your ideas for a piece?

A: I always begin with the performer: their personality, what they like to play when they’re selecting repertoire for themselves, the nature of the instrument, and the combination of the instruments that will accompany or be in dialogue. I find the people involved in making music very inspiring. An example: When I wrote my Percussion Concerto, I met with the soloist (for whom it was written), Colin Currie. As all percussionists do, he plays hundreds of instruments. But I learned that he loves the marimba, and so I tended to emphasize that instrument in the concerto (and it starts with that sound). I ask performers a lot of questions and I listen to them playing other pieces. So the compositions, while they’re about instruments, are also really about the performers. A lot of daydreaming happens (what sound would I like to make with this instrument?) and then there are the considerations of what that instrument can do—what are the limits and can I push the limits? As a composer, you want to write works that are engaging, and the best way to do that is to tailor it to the performers.

Q: In putting together your Albany CD of chamber works, I’m curious as to exactly how the recordings came about. Many such CDs that I review seem to be compiled of pieces recorded over a period of months or even a few years that the composer or record company had in their files, which were then put together to make up a CD. Is that pretty much how this disc came about, or was there a specific program planned in advance that was then fulfilled by sequential recording sessions?

A: The CD was planned in general at the start of my residency at the University of Wyoming. I think the faculty members there looked at my list of works, and chose which pieces appealed to them. They learned them, we rehearsed while I was out there, and then an engineer was engaged and the works were recorded (this all unfolded within a year). Then it was just a matter of editing and assembling program notes. It was pretty straightforward.

Q: I’m also curious about some of the titles of your chamber works. Of course, a title like Dash is self-explanatory once one hears the music—it dashes around in a couple of directions at once—but some of the others I found to be either a bit comical or at least strange. My favorite title (though I haven’t heard the music yet) was Zango Bandango. How did you dream up that title? I was also curious about running the edgE with its lower case spelling except for the final E, and wissahickon poeTrees with its odd spelling. Exactly how did titles like these come about?

A: Titles often come to me in the process of composing. For Zango Bandango , I did something unusual: I came up with the title first, with the idea to make up a phrase, something with no definition, but with an implied character (this title sounds fun and fast to me). Sometimes I’m implying something about the character of the music; running the edgE has two flutes in a spooky and edgy race against each other. I realized that the capitalization of the title, in a very backward manner, would make the person reading the title feel edgy, which is exactly what I wanted. wissahickon poeTrees was commissioned to commemorate the Wissahickon area of Fairmount Park. It just happened to have a Tree growing in the middle of it.

Q: One piece that, just from its title and instrumentation, looked fascinating to me was Like Clockwork for 12 percussionists. I can imagine that a piece like that might have actually been fun to write, because both the title and the instrumentation would trigger ideas in your mind. Can you give us some background and analysis of that piece?

A: Like Clockwork was commissioned in honor of Percussion Professor Dean Witten for three decades of teaching at Rowan University in New Jersey. I was asked to write for a large group of percussionists, and I thought it a marvelous thing to think about the passing of time, and all of these young musicians who had been trained by Professor Witten. So the piece is like a giant clock, with all of the percussionists moving around to various keyboard percussion (at one point, everyone is on marimba; at another, they’re all on metal keyboards). It’s like a giant machine, tick-tocking along, chiming all the way. I thought the idea of a commission was an inspiring way to commemorate an anniversary of someone who has influenced so many people.

Q: Returning to your Albany CD, I was wondering if the performers chosen for the recording were those you’ve worked with previously and who knew your style, or if they were young performers who expressed an eagerness in playing your music? I ask that because you’ve said before that working with young musicians is inspiring for you.

A: The performers are actually the wonderful faculty members of the University of Wyoming department of music. I got to know them as I progressed through my yearlong residency. And they selected the music, which is wonderful, because it means those pieces resonated with them.

Q: If I may, I’d like to ask at least one question regarding a piece I heard that was not on the Albany CD, your string quartet An Exaltation of Larks. There was just something about that piece that really grabbed me. It sounded almost as if it were a continuous bit of inspiration, or at least one continuous musical thought, developed from start to finish. Was this a relatively easy piece for you to write, or was it one that required more work?

A: I must confess no piece is ever easy to write. I labor over each work a tremendous amount. I try to write almost everyday, and there are many days where I am writing all day long (on average, I probably compose 4-8 hours a day). With this one, it was pretty much like the other works that I’ve written, really worked on to a great extent, measure by measure. As a composer, you hope it sounds inspired, so I’m glad to hear you were struck by the piece. It’s quite an image: A large group (called an exaltation) of larks, which is where the title came from.

Q: I wrote in my reviews of your music that your style could be characterized as “American hip,” meaning music that sounds young and fresh and has a certain vitality, with more modern harmonies. It’s the kind of music I associate with such composers, approximately your age (perhaps a little older), like Libby Larsen, Paul Schoenfield, and Joel Hoffman, among others. I also read, in some of the reviews on your website, that several critics refer to your works as audience friendly, a term which can be a two-edged sword. Thus I’d like to ask what may be a touchy question, but I hope not: When you write music, are you specifically aiming to please a general audience—in other words, writing music that is easy to assimilate because that may gain it additional performances—or is this just your natural style? I ask this for two reasons: I know how hard it is for composers to get their work heard, and I also know how the pop market has (so to speak) “slowed down” the ears of modern listeners, so music that might be more complex or challenging wouldn’t gain much traction.

A: I think all composers, no matter the genre, write the music they feel they must write. I’ve never met any composer who was writing in anything other than their own respective style (it’s not something that an artist can fake). All composers write what they truly feel must be written. And I have no problem with the question of being audience friendly. For me it comes down to one thing: Does the music communicate? Is it interesting? So that means that I am being as natural to my own “style” as I can be. There are people who know me by my more dissonant style (running the edgE) and those who know me for my more consonant style (blue cathedral). These coexist in the same world, even though they are quite different. I love that ability to have the variety; I would be bored if I wrote in only one style.

Q: I was wondering what it was like being an “Eminent Artist-in-Residence” at the University of Wyoming. What exactly were your duties there, what did your work entail?

A: It was wonderful. I had four week-long visits there, spread over the academic year. I rehearsed and had performances with different groups (a chamber week, orchestral week, band week, and choral week). I spoke about different aspects of the music profession, did flute and composition master classes, and talked to the students about everything from applying to graduate school, to putting together a résumé and getting a job. I also made a trip to a national choral festival with the school’s choir. The whole experience was inspiring because I really got to know the faculty and the students. It made for a deeper relationship.

Q: As a big opera fan, I have to ask you about your upcoming opera, Cold Mountain. How far along are you with it, and what kind of piece will it be? What I mean is, is it a chamber opera utilizing a smallish orchestra in order to bring out the vocal line and the drama more concisely, or is it a relatively large-scaled work?

A: I am a little over halfway done, and should be finished by March of 2014. This is a full-scale grand opera, for Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia. It will premiere in August of 2015 in Santa Fe and then move to Philadelphia in February of 2016. We have a first-rate cast: Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Kate Lindsey, Jay Hunter Morris, Kevin Burdette, and Paul Groves. It has been a blast writing it—very intense, and quite different than composing purely instrumental music. I feel like I’m carrying a lot of characters with me at all times, and it’s difficult when someone has to die (after all, it is opera). But the depth of psychological and emotional exploration has been stunning to experience. And I find the architecture of such a large work a unique challenge.

Q: One final question: Other than your opera, are there any other upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

A: I am writing a Viola Concerto for Roberto Diaz and chamber orchestra, which is being commissioned by the Library of Congress. And there are talks under way for a work for the Yale Glee Club, the National Cathedral, and a work for Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg and her group, New Century Chamber Orchestra.

HIGDON Dash. 1,2,4 Sonata for Alto Sax and Piano. 3,4 Trumpet Songs. 5,6 Song. 1 Legacy. 6,7 Piano Trio 6,7,8 1 Nicole Riner (fl); Scott Turpen ( 2 s-sax, 3 a-sax); 4 Theresa Bogard (pn); 5 Scott Meredith (tpt); 6 Rúbia Santos (pn); 7 John Fadial (vn); 8 Beth Vanderborgh (vc) ALBANY 1395 (57:12)

As I mentioned in my earlier review of Higdon’s music ( An Exaltation of Larks on Bridge 9379, which appeared in Fanfare 36:6), much of it falls into that general category I define as contemporary American “hip,” which is to say, it is primarily tonal or modal, employs fast-moving passages in a recognizable melodic pattern despite the variegated harmonies, and is underscored by vigorous, driving rhythms that are more classical than jazz but have an element of syncopation to them. Thus a work such as Dash, which leads off this CD, is a perfect indication as to the style of music Higdon employs. It is vigorous, exciting, and revolves around repeated notes embellished by modal-tonal harmonics and a driving counterpoint. The Alto Saxophone Sonata, on the other hand, begins quite lyrically, though it, too, moves fairly early into harmonic changes predicated by modulation into neighboring notes. The piano part in the first movement begins lyrically, but then changes in scope to become more percussive and driving in places. The mood and tempo shifts continue throughout; towards the end, the alto sax plays slow, ruminative arpeggios while the piano plays sparse lines slightly reminiscent of Copland. Generally speaking, I found the second movement to be more of an outgrowth and expansion of the first; beginning in a medium relaxed tempo but quickly shifting gears to a quick but not frantic pace. The rather lyrical quality of this piece is explained by the fact that Higdon originally wrote it for viola, only adapting it for saxophone at the request of “several” players of that instrument. Eventually, the second movement “calms down” to a beautifully lyrical melody before suddenly increasing tempo once again for an exciting finish.

Likewise, the Trumpet Songs were first composed as short art songs for voice and piano, only arranged for trumpet at a later date. Without my knowing the original songs, and merely judging this as trumpet and piano music, these pieces sound the most like Copland: open, airy, lyrical and pleasant without challenging the listener very much. On the other hand, Song for solo flute is a real virtuoso showpiece. Musically, it seemed to me related to the viola/saxophone sonata, although it is shorter and, as I say, more virtuosic, particularly in the opening section.

One of the striking things about Legacy for violin and piano is that the opening phrases are set fairly low in the violin’s range, so that it sounds more like a viola. Only later on does the instrument arch upward, and then only gradually. In some ways, I found this to be the most emotionally compelling piece on the CD. Despite its relative brevity (6: 10), it takes the listener on a real emotional journey, from reflection to longing and thence to strong emotions, perhaps representing a sense of loss. Violinist Fadial gives an equally expressive, almost heart-wrenching performance.

The disc concludes with Higdon’s Piano Trio, which she says came about as she was picturing “colors as if I were spreading them on a canvas.” Here pianist Santos and violinist Fadial are joined by cellist Vanderborgh, whose light but expressive playing weaves through the tapestry of the music with exceptional alacrity and a sense of “floating” on the music. The two movements of this piece are titled “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red,” and they do indeed seem to evoke those colors. The latter piece, in particular, is a tour de force for the cellist, whose driving pizzicato is called upon to complement the equally driving rhythms of the pianist.

Overall, then, this is an interesting and arresting disc, and a good introduction to Higdon’s sound world. Lynn René Bayley

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )
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