Jennifer Higdon, one of the top living composers of our time, has let me interview her for The Glass. Someone pinch me.
Anyway, Jennifer Higdon, born in Brooklyn, NY and eventually settling in TN, had her beginnings in high school band. A self-taught student of the flute, she had further study and experience at Bowling Green State University, where she met and worked with conductor Robert Spano for the first time, and then The Curtis Institute of Music in Philly, and it was here that she studied with composer David Loeb and earned her Artist’s Diploma. She came back to Curtis a while later to teach 20th-Century Music History and Theory (She even had a particular student in this course that we’ll discuss later).
A winner of many awards (Including The Pulitzer Prize for the Violin Concerto, and a 2010 Grammy for the Percussion Concerto), Higdon has since become one of the most favored American contemporary composers among orchestras both in the US and abroad.
CM: Okay, so, you taught yourself the flute, which, by itself is an incredible achievement, then your flute teacher Judy Bentley wants you to write an original piece for the flute. How did this impact your artistic abilities, and then how did things progress from there?
JH: I think having a chance to actually organize sound onto the page completely opened my musical world. Once I had written that first piece and heard it played, I became entranced with the idea of doing it more and more. I also must have had an innate interest in it, because I recently found some sketches that I had made (very primitive) when I was in high school, attempting to write music. But I have to admit, everything in my musical world changed profoundly with the first composition. It has been a steady road since them, filled with lots of dips, backslides, forward jumps and hefty climbs….actually about 30 years worth! But worth every frustration and joy.
CM: Before you started, we’ve learned that you grew up with virtually no classical music around you, and later on when you learned the flute, it led to composition. Was the sound of classical music something you needed to acquire a taste for around this time, or was that more or less simultaneous with where you were headed?
JH: I don’t know that I needed to acquire much taste in it…since it hadn’t been part of my world, I found it kind of interesting to listen to when I first encountered it. I probably have had to develop a taste for older classical (the Romantic and Classical periods). I really had my first experiences through 20th century music, which I loved. So some of the music felt natural, and some of it, I still really have to try to sit through calmly (meaning it’s more of an effort). But the developing interest in it was quite simultaneous (I’m still learning the standard rep).
Higdon: running the edgE (Mary Matthews, Melissa Werthheimer, flutes; Justin Bird, piano; Peabody Conservatory, MD 2010)
CM: After an extensive array of solo and chamber pieces were created by you, then came the orchestral music, and among these pieces is the astonishing “blue cathedral”, written as a tribute to your brother Andrew Blue Higdon. This must have been the greatest way of showing everyone how you felt about him, and this piece is definitely evident of that. Can you talk about him, the work’s narration of him and your thoughts about its reception when it premiered and its continued performance today?
JH: I was happy to be able to write a piece that serves as a tribute. I’m very glad that the piece worked (the night before the first reading of the work, I was thinking that it didn’t work at all). Andrew was always a generous, kind individual who loved being the Bohemian artist. My Dad gave him the middle name of “Blue” so that if he ever decided to become an artist, he could go by that name. He had a very natural gift for creating wonderful visual arts, even as a young child. And he loved music, usually rock & blues. Most of ‘blue cathedral’ is me trying to come to grips with his passing, and the idea of whether life would (for me) be about living or about death. I kind of wrestled with that throughout the writing of the work, and by the time I reached the end of the work, I had decided that Andrew would want me to focus on living.
I have to say that it’s profoundly moving how many people are affected by the piece. Even when program notes haven’t been published about the work, it seems to make a real impression. And I couldn’t be more pleased by the number of orchestras that have done the piece…something like 300 or so. I frequently meet musicians who come up to me and tell me they’ve played the work and that they enjoyed it. What a great thing for a composer.
Higdon: blue cathedral (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Spano, conductor)
CM: So along comes an ex-student of yours named Hilary Hahn, and she commissioned you to write a violin concerto. She was your student at Curtis when you taught 20-century music history and theory. The dynamic of the movements (Especially when I hear the way the pensive 2nd movement sets up the forceful finale) really does seem to lend itself to the possibility that it could be the story of her journey in that course because she reportedly was not yet a fan of contemporary music when she started it. Can you talk about how that course relates at all to the narrative of the concerto?
JH: I loved teaching that 20th Century class. We covered something like 40 composers during the year, and it ran the historical gamut of Debussy forward to music written yesterday. I covered commissioning and the history of each piece in terms of the commissioners, which seemed to be a revelation for many of the students. We also spent a lot of time talking about the development of the musical language and most importantly, their responsibility to be a part of their own time through performing and commissioning. I think that class may have been the first where Hilary heard so much music…active listening in class and debating were key to the design of it. And I think it was probably one of her earliest experiences composing and performing her own works (a requirement in the class). The whole idea was to open new vistas in their minds and expand the way they define and think about music. She’s a great sign that it worked. And boy, am I glad! Talk about reaping the benefits of what you’ve sowed.
The narrative of the concerto is primarily an exploration of Hilary’s performing gifts and talents.
CM: The concerto was, for me, the most anticipated new work I’ve ever wanted to hear largely because of Hilary, but it was great to hear (EDITOR’S NOTE: At least partially, I was late; LONG story) during one of its premieres in 2009 a whole year before the CD was released (And I was very pleased to hear it start to finish when I got the recording). Did you ever anticipate during any of that time that it could be the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize?
JH: I never imagined that the Pulitzer Prize would be connected. I have a feeling if you asked other Pulitzer winners, they’d say the same thing. It’s pretty surreal.
Higdon: Violin Concerto (III: Fly Forward: Hilary Hahn, violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko, conductor)
CM: It’s evident that when you compose pieces for players you are familiarized with their previous work. For Hilary, it was her Schoenberg, but when you had written “On a Wire” for eighth blackbird (Which I just heard, and love), how much of their stuff had you heard when you wrote it for them? The piece, by the way, sounds very much like a concerto for chamber ensemble and orchestra.
JH: I always make it my job to really know the performers for whom I’m writing. With 8th Blackbird, I was probably more familiar than with any other artists. “On A Wire” was the 3rd work I had written for them (“Zaka” and “Zango Bandango” were the other 2). We had been friends since 1999, and I had heard them perform about 4 dozen different works. I had also hung out with them enough at festivals and concerts to get to know their personalities. So for me, the real challenge was to get orchestras to go along with the types of things I wanted to do in the piece (like prepared piano and piano bowing…a real first in the orchestral experience). I also knew we wouldn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, and so to get the colors and techniques in the orchestra to blend with the soloists’ very unusual techniques, was a real balancing act. Add to that, the serious job of mapping out the choreography of who would play what pitches, move their bowing lines at particular times, pick up guitar picks and mallets, play inside the piano, and then play their own respective instruments…well, it was a lot of extra work, but so worth it. The audience is always stunned by this piece…it’s amazing to watch. And you’re right, it is a concerto for chamber ensemble and orchestra.
Higdon: On a Wire (rehearsal excerpt; eighth blackbird and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor; Aug, 2010)
CM: Would you say that concertos have become your specialty as a composer? There’s the “Violin Concerto”, a second Violin Concerto with chorus titled “The Singing Rooms” for Jennifer Koh, “Concerto for Orchestra”, “Concerto 4-3”, the “Percussion Concerto” that just won a Grammy, and you even have a “Piano Concerto” that we’re still waiting for.
JH: It does seem like it has become a specialty, now that you mention it. I also have an Oboe Concerto and Soprano Sax Concerto. Oddly enough, it just happens that there seemed to be a lot of performers asking for concertos. They were all pretty tricky to write, as balancing a soloist with orchestra is challenging. And for “Concerto 4-3”, combining bluegrass and straight classical was hard. But I’ve been pretty pleased with how they turned out. The Piano Concerto had a gap of 4 years between the writing and the premiere, so I had to go back and learn that piece when it came to the premiere (it seemed like another composer had written it). Yuja Wang did an amazing job premiering it….and we’re working on getting that recorded now. These things sometimes take a seriously long time. I’m definitely more comfortable now with the art form than I was when I started, but maybe that’s because of all of the practice.
Higdon: Percussion Concerto (Lisa Pegher, drums and percussion; Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra; Kirk Gustufson, director, Jan 2010)
CM: Just out of curiosity, do you write pieces simultaneously?
JH: I’ve tried this, but find it difficult to pull off. My pieces change language and intensity and design quite a bit, so it’s hard for me to keep them separated, so I only do one at a time. That allows me to live in the world of that piece and really work it over in my head.
CM: Have you ever thought about composing operas?
JH: Yes! August 10th will reveal just that, a new opera project. I always try to challenge myself, and this is definitely going to be a major learning experience.
CM: I also wanted to know if I could ask you about the piece that Hilary wants you to write for her upcoming ’27 pieces’ project (If it’s completed and has a title and everything)
JH: My contribution to this project is a piece called “Echo Dash”. I believe I heard that it’s supposed to be premiered October 23rd in Chicago. But I’m not sure that’s even accurate. I am looking forward to hearing all of the works involved in this project. Hilary has really taken to heart the idea of an artist’s responsibility to be a part of the creation of new works. I always tell folks, you won’t be remembered in history for your performance of Beethoven, but you can make history by commissioning and performing new works. That’s the most profound way to make a mark!
EDITOR’S NOTE: A special nugget I found:Higdon: Trumpet Songs (Stanford Thompson, trumpet; Elana Jiveava, piano; 2009)