Jennifer Higdon Exclusive Interview: April 24, 2012
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Rel. 11 Jan 2010
On Wednesday, April 21, 2012, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with the celebrated and impressively successful American composer Jennifer Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music for her Violin Concerto, among numerous other prominent accolades. In this valuable and entertaining interview, Ms. Higdon discusses several dimensions of her dazzling calendar of events – including dozens of repeat performances of such Higdon “hits” as blue cathedral and her Percussion Concerto, as well as current and future works – notably her forthcoming opera Cold Mountain, slated for 2015. The two also discuss Ms. Higdon’s fascinating and unusual musical background – first entering the field at age 15; her advanced musical studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (where she now teaches composition) and the University of Pennsylvania (where she studied with George Crumb); her long-standing collaboration with conductor Robert Spano; her distinct and passionate compositional aesthetic, and much more. Our feature also includes a 1-click Jennifer Higdon concert (full streams for subscribers only). Don’t miss this fascinating interview with a leading musical voice of our time!
“My approach to composing fully depends on the musicians I’m writing for; I don’t really think about being academic or fitting what someone else thinks I need to do. Instead, I think about the performers who are going to bring the piece to life – that’s the whole kit-and-caboodle right there.”
– Jennifer Higdon
Nolan Gasser: Jennifer Higdon, welcome to Classical Archives. If anyone wants to gauge the current status of your composition career, they need only glance at the calendar on your website – over 40 performances of your works between March and the end of the year, so far anyway. So, to get started, let’s talk a bit about a few of these calendar items. Among the most intriguing elements I saw was the 6-part tour that just concluded, of your Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto (2005) with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony, with Colin Currie as soloist. Can you tell us how this tour came about, and if you attended some of these concerts?
Jennifer Higdon: The tour came about because Marin [Alsop] had worked with Colin [Currie] quite a lot; she has also conducted my Concerto, including on the recording we did with the London Philharmonic. I don't know how orchestras decide what works they're going to take on tour; it must depend on a lot of different factors. In fact, I didn't know anything about the tour until it had already been programmed.
NG: What a nice surprise that must have been!
JH: It was, but I think that's pretty much what happens for composers: we don't really have any say over such things, and I often don't find out until very close to the performance. Although in this case, they did give me a head's up – about a year in advance. I actually did attend some of the rehearsals and the performances – those in Baltimore, and also out on the West Coast; I was there for some other things, and managed to get my schedule to cross with the orchestra when they were in Berkeley – it was a lot of fun.
NG: Right, I saw that concert advertised – I’m here in the Bay Area – but unfortunately had a conflict; though I did read some great reviews.
JH: It was nice – and the weather was great too!
NG: Yes, we're pretty spoiled out here.
Now, it should be stated that this same period – from March to the end of the year – includes six other performances of this same Concerto, with four different orchestras and soloists, including the great Evelyn Glennie with the Cincinnati Symphony this November; so this work is clearly a big hit – through it actually takes second place to your perennial favorite, blue cathedral (2000), which clocks in at 16 performances in these same months! This work is in fact a bit of a phenomenon of contemporary classical music: over 400 performances to date, probably getting close to 500 by now; it's the most performed contemporary piece today. I'm assuming that you still pinch yourself by this fact, but I'm wondering – how have you come to explain, at least to yourself, why this piece has become such a huge success?
JH: You know, I actually don't try to explain it to myself because I don't know what the answer is [laughs]! If we could explain these things, we'd be able to bottle them and sell them for everyone; yes, I do pinch myself though, and that's no joke. I'm constantly blown away by the response to the piece and how much it gets programmed. One thing that helps is that it's not extraordinarily difficult to put together: it's not a huge orchestra; when orchestras do programming, the first thing they look at is what concertos they're performing, who the soloist is, and what general instrumentation is being called for; and then they program everything else around that. Fortunately, blue cathedral fits the instrumentation of a lot of pieces. But, I have to admit that the popularity of the piece is stunning, even now – good question!
NG: It certainly is, and “stunning” is a good word. I see an upcoming performance of the piece in Phoenix [April 19-21, 2012] with Alasdair Neale [conductor / music director of both the Marin Symphony and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony], who is a friend of mine; I recently saw him and told him about our upcoming interview; he responded, “Oh, I love Jennifer, and I love this piece!” Have you worked with him before?
JH: He’s conducted my music a few times, and I believe our paths have crossed a bit, but I don’t really know him. I know that he has done blue cathedral quite a few times, with a few different orchestras.
NG: That’s certainly part of the magic of your success – that you've had so many conductors who have championed your work, and we'll come back to that topic in a bit. But I concur what you say about the success of blue cathedral: you can't really explain it; as with pop music, if we could figure out a formula for creating a “hit”, we’d be rich!
JH: That's so true! I wish I could explain it [laughs].
NG: Speaking of pop music, it’s so often the case that when an artist gets a hit, there’s a lot of pressure put on them – by their manager, their record company, etc. – to try to replicate it in some way, to repeat the success. I assume not, but have you ever found yourself thinking, as you start a new piece, “Boy, it’d be nice to have another success like blue cathedral; let’s see if I can tap into some of that same spirit?
JH: You’re right – I never think about that; in fact, I’ve thought that this would be a pretty dangerous place to go. When I won the Pulitzer [in 2010, for her Violin Concerto (2009)], this was a big topic with reporters: “What are you going to do now? How are you going top the Violin Concerto?” Of course, the Violin Concerto is quite different from blue cathedral. In fact, I don’t think you can “top” anything, and I’m not sure you can replicate either; elements change so much from piece to piece – depending on who’s doing the commissioning, and who the piece is being written for. When I start a new piece, I try to focus on that work only, to make it work for itself – that’s the only thing I can control; I never worry about replicating something. I may never have another piece as popular as blue cathedral; but I’m just grateful that I have that in the first place.
NG: Well, I'm not surprised at all by that thinking, and it comes out in your music as well; it's really one of the great things about working in classical music, there’s such a huge palate of possibilities, so why would one want to do the same thing twice?
JH: Exactly right!
NG: We could continue to talk about other items on your near-term calendar – including an exciting performance of your Concerto 4-3 for Bluegrass Trio and Orchestra at Carnegie Hall next May; but let’s instead move to another calendar-related topic – namely, new and upcoming works: I see from your website that you’ve just completed a new work entitled Road Stories, for wind ensemble, commissioned by no less than 33 wind ensembles! I must say that you are deftly talented at getting multi-partner commissions. Can you talk about this piece and how it came to be – that is, how you managed to align 33 wind ensembles to commission something from you?
JH: I wish I could take credit for doing that, but I have to admit that it was actually a preexisting consortium – and they just approached me via a single phone call; they had already commissioned two other composers, Chen Yi and Susan Botti. The consortium is run by [conductor] Glen Adsit at the Hartt School [a music and dance conservatory at the University of Hartford]; it was already in existence when I signed on several years ago. Glen and I first spoke about four years ago about my doing the piece, and it's a pretty amazing set up they have – the different ensembles signed on quickly; they’re very interested in doing new works, and so for me it was very easy.
NG: And what can you tell us about this new piece in terms of your approach to it – and the type of musical language you’ve employed?
JH: It has 3 movements, and each one is rather distinct: the first is fairly fast moving; the second is slow and lyrical; and the last movement flies like a bat out of hell [laughs]! Basically, it’s just a straightforward band piece, but it's fairly difficult. I’ve already heard quite a few groups do it, and they sound great – it sounds pretty amazing, actually. I was at the University of North Texas last December, working with that wind ensemble with [conductor] Jerry Junkin; it's just a phenomenal group! I've been lucky to have attended quite a few performances of it so far, and have made a lot of adjustments – because even though I myself started out playing [flute] in band and wind ensemble, I am more familiar with the orchestral world. As such, I haven’t always made the right adjustments in terms getting the balances or the textures clear – because winds and brass are very different from strings. But it's a fun piece, and is also designed so that any of the movements can be performed as a stand-alone piece.
NG: Do each of the 33 ensembles of the consortium have plans to perform the work?
JH: I guess they do, though most of them don't tell me what's going on – so I actually don't know the answer to that [laughs]. I think there was just a performance that took place in either Iowa or Idaho – I can't remember where – about three or four weeks ago. I found out accidentally, from a Google alert I received.
NG: Well, this is definitely a problem that is rather unique to you – having so many performances that you find out after the fact haphazardly.
Moving now to future works – also part of this calendar; there’s the piece that we spoke about prior to our interview: it's a big one, your first opera, entitled Cold Mountain, based on the novel of the same name [by Charles Frazier, in 1997; a film adaptation, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, was made in 2003]. The opera, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, was commissioned both the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Santa Fe Opera for 2015. But this commission comes on the heels of what appears to have been a somewhat challenging experience with San Francisco Opera. As I noted, by virtue of my own work with this company [Gasser’s opera for SF Opera, The Secret Garden, premieres in 2013], I can recall David Gockley [the General Manager of SF Opera] mentioning your planned opera for the company. So, can you tell us what exactly happened with San Francisco?
JH: Yes – basically, I pulled it from San Francisco.
JH: Yes, I know, it's very surreal to hear that, but I just pulled it. We were having so many problems working together, and it got to the point where I realized that the way they did things wasn't optimal for the way I work. In fact, I realized that it would be a problem for the way I compose – so I decided it wasn't worth it, and I pulled it.
NG: That’s sounds so spicy; I don't want to put you on the spot, but can you go into any more detail?
JH: Well, the way David Gockley works is very different from the way I work. We tried working together for probably four years – four years just to get an opera off the ground! It just became evident at some point that it wasn't going to work. What happened was that I was having so many offers for other things, and I realized that asking these other commissioners to wait until I could get a commitment from San Francisco – and get the ball rolling – just wasn't professional for me or them. I thus decided that I wasn't going to write an opera.
Basically, I called San Francisco and said I was going to move on – I've got other projects to do. They tried to get it to work for a couple of weeks, but it again became obvious that it just wasn't going anywhere. And so again I said that this wasn’t going to happen. In my head, I had already moved on to other projects – in fact, I think in the first day I took three other commissions; but within a week, several other opera companies called, and I began to think, “Oh, I guess that means I will be writing an opera!”
NG: Yes, it must have caught a lot of opera companies' eyes that you were now free to take on their commissions.
JH: I was actually surprised that they knew, because I hadn't told anyone about it. I'm not sure exactly how word got out, and so I was really surprised when the phone started ringing. It was either Santa Fe Opera or Opera Company of Philadelphia that was the first to call – I can’t remember. It was an interesting experience, but I feel like I'm in the right place, because it's really moving along now.
NG: Did you actually get to the point of starting to write music with San Francisco, or did you pull out before really anything had been started?
JH: Yes, I pulled out before I had even started writing. I had been waiting for them to give me an answer on whether pulling out was going to be okay. I waited for seven months or so; I had to go ahead and start the process of hiring a lawyer to get the rights for Cold Mountain because it takes a long time. But I couldn't get clearance from them for that, so I just incurred the cost.
NG: Yes, I can see that there was a level of frustration for you…
JH: There were a lot of levels of frustration – that was just one of them [laughs]! But it’s better for everybody that we’re not trying to work in a situation that’s not good.
NG: Well, I appreciate you sharing a little bit of that with us. So, you obviously were able to get the rights for the novel, and you were contacted both by Philadelphia and Santa Fe, who have co-commissioned it. Have you now begun writing the opera itself?
JH: Oh yes, I'm working on it every day!
NG: Yes, I know what that feels like [laughs]! Why did you choose that story?
JH: The story really resonated with me. I had actually been searching for a story for years – literally years; at one point we had another story, but after working on it for six months or so, David Gockley pulled it. I told him that I was going to search for a few more months, and that’d I’d move on if I didn’t find anything. I had seen the movie version of Cold Mountain, but when I read the book, it just felt right – like a good pair of shoes. I grew up not far from Cold Mountain [in Haywood County, North Carolina] – just about 40 miles, as the crow flies. So the people, the rhythm of the speech, the way they behave, it was all so familiar. I thought that for a first opera, this is probably a good way to go.
NG: You gave an interview back in 2005, where you made an off-handed comment that at that point you didn't write too often for voice, and that you weren't terribly familiar with it as an instrument to compose for. I'm assuming that this has changed, and that you do feel ready now to write for the voice. So, what are some of the most important things that you've done, and some of the important lessons that you've learned, to prepare you to write this opera?
JH: I'm now actually in the fifth year of this process, and during this time I’ve been able to write a lot more vocal music; for example, I wrote a piece for baritone and orchestra [Dooryard Bloom, a setting of poetry by Walt Whitman] for the Brooklyn Philharmonic – that the Atlanta Symphony recorded [with conductor Robert Spano]. I've also written a couple of pieces for choir and orchestra, including a piece [On the Death of the Righteous, on a text by John Donne] that's just come out on a disc called Metamorphosis, recorded by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. I also wrote a huge violin concerto called the Singing Rooms, for violin, orchestra, and full chorus – which is a really unusual combination. And then I’ve been writing a whole bunch of choral works, as well as songs and works for vocal ensembles with piano, and so forth. So, I’d say that in the past five years, I probably have filled a lot of that gap of knowledge. Plus, I’ve been studying like crazy; I study opera every day!
NG: I can imagine. And if you could align yourself with any single opera composer, from either a dramatic or musical standpoint, which one would you turn to as your primary teacher?
JH: Benjamin Britten – which I suspect makes everyone say, “Oh my God!”
NG: Well, certainly when you're writing in the English language, it makes great sense.
JH: Yes, exactly. Britten would be at the top of my list – absolutely at the top. But every day I learn something; every time there's a new opera that comes out I try to get to the premiere or to a rehearsal – it's a constant learning experience. Even having written as many orchestral works as I have, I still don't feel like I know as much as I need to know about composing and orchestrating – and that’s the purely orchestral work, of which I’ve written a lot! Otherwise, I think it's a matter of studying, and also talking to singers and “workshopping” the thing; plus checking with various conductors to make sure that everything is in the right place for the voice, and so forth. My goal is to learn as much as I can, and to remain as open as I can, so that people can let me know if I'm going off track or doing something that's not going to work – where I might need to make some kind of adjustment. I am in fact the kind of composer who makes adjustments – I believe wholeheartedly in that!
NG: Yes, and having the opportunity to work with singers during the process – and to workshop and get feedback in order to make adjustments – is vital to writing an opera. I can say now from experience that it is such a lengthy process to write an opera – far more than one imagines when one gets started…
JH: You’re absolutely right, Nolan. And it’s funny, now that you mention that: in a normal year I may write between half a dozen and a dozen pieces; but I’ve had to set aside three years just for this opera.
NG: So, you’ve actually made a decision not to work on any other works during this period?
JH: No, I haven’t take anything else. I've got a bunch of people who’ve said they were willing to wait until the opera is done to start a commission; but I'm not taking anything else on right now – not anything at all!
NG: Well, it sounds like you will be ready in time for your deadline; and we're certainly very much looking forward to hearing the opera. It's hard to imagine three years from now, but it'll be here before we know it.
There are so many other questions that we could touch upon as to your current and future activities –include things like being the Creative Director of the Cincinnati Symphony's “Boundless” series or your upcoming composer-in-residency for the Arkansas Symphony [both in the 2012-13 season]; this is the hazard of trying to interview Jennifer Higdon, there are so many things to cover…
JH: Yes, when I hear it, it does sound like too much – I hope it's not overwhelming [laughs].
NG: It’s part of the challenge, for sure, but also part of the joy – so, no worries!
Let’s move into some other directions, and start with your musical background and early years. I’ve read many times that you were a bit of a late-bloomer, first teaching yourself flute at the age of 15, and how prior to this you had very little exposure to classical music. So, can you tell us how exactly – and why – you picked up the flute; and also what role did music play prior to this age, and what kinds were you most interested in?
JH: This is going to sound corny, but the flute was simply in the house. My mom had gotten it from a pawnshop, and she also got a beginning band method book. I don't know to this day what tempted me to pick that thing up and teach myself to play, and to teach myself to read music; there must have been something going on within me. I joined the band in our high school, because we didn't have an orchestra or anything like that; we also didn't have music theory classes. I played percussion the first year in marching band, but then switched to flute halfway through my sophomore year. I was always into creative stuff as a child – I was always writing stories, and I made 8mm films, and that sort of thing. But whatever possessed me to pick up that flute, to this day I can't figure it out – I really can't.
NG: Very interesting; obviously it was calling you – that’s the power of music.
JH: Yes, I think there's something to that, in fact.
NG: You are clearly such a musical creature, to a very high degree; you must have had a passion for music prior to picking up the flute, right?
JH: Yes, I did. One of the things I do remember is thinking that music was powerful; I do remember thinking – when I was actually pretty young – that music was an amazing way to express emotion; we didn’t listen to classical music around our household, but I still knew this. But when I think back on it now, it’s like, Holy cow! The things I didn’t know that I didn’t know…
NG: Well, you certainly made up for lost time; and a few years later, at the age of 21, you were at Bowling Green University [in Ohio], studying flute with Judith Bentley. I’ve read that she was the first one to suggest that you compose something – I’m assuming it was for the flute; but is there a particular reason why she thought you were ready to write something?
JH: Yes, you’re right, it was a work for flute and piano. You know, I don't think I ever asked her what prompted her to have me do that – because the fact of the matter was she didn’t ask this of any of her other students. So, I don’t know why; maybe I wasn’t a very good flute player [laughs]….
NG: I'm sure that you were at least decent! Were you a big improviser?
JH: No, I wasn't an improviser at all; when I said I didn't know anything about music, I mean I didn't know anything. I had to start in very basic theory – like remedial theory. These were tiny-sized classes because everyone who came to college to major in music already had some clue about theory – but I didn't have any clue whatsoever. It’s kind of miraculous when I think back on it – because it's so illogical that she would have started me on composing, but there was something about that specific teacher. She was just amazing in her ability to pick up certain things about her students – she was a really exceptional teacher!
NG: Clearly. Do you keep in touch with her, so that she is aware of what happened from that first exercise?
JH: Oh yes, I definitely stay in touch with her. She’s been to quite a few of my premiers – including some of the big ones.
NG: What a great story. She obviously must have sensed something in you, and it would be interesting to ask her what she was thinking – and send me her answer.
At any rate, something must have been triggered in you from that first exercise – whereby you saw this as being a pretty good way to spend time. Another important thing that happened at Bowling Green University is that you took a conducting class with Robert Spano – who is perhaps highest on the list of those conductors who have championed your work; indeed, he’s played major part in your career – including inspiring you to study at the Curtis Institute. Can you talk about your early encounters with Robert, and the nature of the chemistry between the two of you that’s enabled such a close association?
JH: Your choice of words is rather interesting: chemistry; it actually wasn't obvious when I first met him. I remember that I sat in on his audition at the University when he was applying for a position as the orchestra conductor: on the last day of classes, they threw together an orchestra; I'd seen a lot of the other candidates, and when he got up on the podium, there was just no comparison between him and any of the other candidates –he was so far above everyone else.
When the next school year started, I was in a strange position with my classes – I switched between a quarter and a semester system, and had to fill up some classes in my final year. So, the first day of class I went to his office and said, “Mr. Spano, I know that I’m an undergrad, and that you’re teaching a graduate class in conducting; but can I sit in on the class?” He said, “Sure, no problem.” Robert loves seeing someone who wants to learn, and so he let me know sit in on the class – which was incredible; he is one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever encountered: he was very strict and really serious about music making, and he didn't have time for those grad students who didn't really want to practice. I can't even remember if I took the class for credit or not, but I did all the things that he had them do – and it was a fantastic year of learning, where for the first time I had a chance to get in front of the orchestra.
After I graduated, we didn't see each other again for about a dozen years. He came through Philadelphia to conduct – he was working with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the time – and I went to see him backstage, though I don’t think my orchestra pieces were ready at the time. But then, in 1999, Curtis commissioned blue cathedral; I asked the folks at Curtis when the concert was, and they said, “It will be in May of 2000, and we have Robert Spano conducting.” It was quite interesting: he had just gotten the job conducting the Atlanta Symphony – and unlike most orchestras in America, they have a steady recording contract. So, the first thing he said to me after the premiere was, “You know, I think I’d like to record this.” And that’s when we started working together. It was literally 15 years after I’d studied with him; prior to that he knew I was composing, but that I wasn’t quite ready to have works out there in the public.
NG: Robert must have sensed that you were someone to keep his eye on; and he's continued to be a big part of your career.
JH: Right. I have to tell you this hysterical story: when we were both at Bowling Green, he was really young – he had just come out of Curtis; he was only like 21. Neither one of us could get into Tanglewood; I remember us both applying, and neither one of us were accepted. It was then probably 17 years later, we were both there in our official capacity; we were standing back stage, and we both yelled out, “Wait, we got in! We got into Tanglewood!”
NG: Well, that's a nice full circle to have made, and it shows that in this profession, there is so much to learn – and for each of us involved to not give up, but rather to keep honing our craft to reach our goals.
We’ve touched on the importance of Curtis in your career – where you now teach (as the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies), and where you studied at Robert's suggestion; there you worked with Ned Rorem, among others. But then you got a Master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where you worked with George Crumb – among America’s most iconoclastic and experimental composers; was he the reason you chose U Penn, and what were some of the more valuable things you got from your studies with George Crumb?
JH: George was definitely an incentive to go to Penn; the other was my partner [Cheryl Lawson, who now oversees Ms. Higdon’s publishing company, Lawdon Press], who was already working here from Philly. She graduated from Kimball [College, in Tennessee], and we’d been together about 31 years – so we tried to figure out how we could get her career started, and I could continue my education; the most logical thing was for us stay in Philadelphia. In fact, it took me three attempts to get into Penn.
NG: Is that right?
JH: Yes [laughs]. I find it fun to say because it's kind of amusing; I often tell students, “I understand how frustrating it is when you don't get into something, but you just have to be very persistent.”
NG: Indeed, so much of what your talking about is testament to that philosphy.
In preparing for this interview, I heard for the first time a piece of yours, Scenes from the Poet’s Dream, a piano quintet recorded by the Lark Quartet; it was written in 1999 – the same year as blue cathedral; but those two pieces could not be more different.
JH: Yes, I had 9 pieces premiere that year – and they are all really different from each other.
NG: Well, that piano quintet does, in fact sound like something by a student of George Crumb: harmonically very adventurous, with unusual sonorities and instrument usage – quite different from blue cathedral. Aside from gaining an understanding and curiosity toward musical color and exploring the potential of instruments, what were the most valuable aspects of your studies with him?
JH: I think you just said it, actually: it is the sense of color and the possibilities of what you can do with an instrument; interestingly enough, blue cathedral does have some George Crumb in it – because it uses crystal glasses in it [the percussion instrument used famously in Crumb’s 1970 work for electric string quartet, Black Angels]
NG: Right – that’s true.
JH: But the biggest thing with George was just the possibility of color – to think beyond what you would normally think of, and to always question if there was a way to make this sound more interesting. Also, his sense of time is totally different from that of other people; in fact, working with him was the first time I realized that we all have a somewhat different sense of pacing and time – that is, how time moves in the universe is very different for each of us.
NG: Indeed, and I think that this entire period – from the 1950s to 1970s – was very much dedicated to experimentation on what is musical time, with composers like Stockhausen, Carter, Cage, and Boulez; and Crumb was right there… In truth, it’s a bit head scratching to think that you first picked up the flute at age 15, knowing nothing about classical music or music theory, and then were working on your doctorate with George Crumb not many years later.
JH: Yes, it is head scratching – my entire life feels head scratching; I totally understand [laughs]!
NG: Let’s turn a bit to the nuts and bolts of your compositional work, beginning with aspects of your compositional aesthetic. It’s been noted that your music is distinctly American in its sound and spirit – in its “immediacy, vitality, and sense of optimism”, as Marin Alsop has said; how important is it to you that your music be associated with an American identity, and how would articulate what gives your music this identity?
JH: I'm not very good at articulating it, to be quite honest. I think my music sounds “American” because I've heard so many other people make that comment. To me, it's just the music that I write, and I never think, “this should sound American,” or “this isn't sounding American”. I just don't think about it – ever. It’s hard enough writing music without having some sort of expectation like that, so I actually refrain from thinking such thoughts, and let other people make those judgments.
NG: I totally understand – we are Americans, our experience, our thought, and even our language is “American”. And it makes perfect sense that you wouldn’t think about it – to say, “Now I’m going to write something that’s less – or more – American than my last piece,” etc.
Another aesthetic label that’s been associated with you is the so-called “A” word – that is, accessibility…
JH: You mean communication, right? You know, I saw an interesting essay the other day on the New Music Box website by Franc Oteri – who wrote that the hardest in music is not to come up with something new, but rather to write music that communicates. To me, that should be the focus; I don’t think anyone should dictate to anyone else what his or her art should or should not be. But if my music is not communicating, I feel it’s not doing its job. It’s pretty hard to make sure that music is communicating – and holding people’s attention; and so that’s usually at the very forefront of my thinking.
NG: Yes, I agree that “communicative” is a much more tangible, and richer, word than “accessible” – which can have a bit of a negative connotation, at least in some circles.
JH: Yeah, I just ignore those circles – that’s their issue [laughs]!
NG: Communication is likewise a word that I use myself as a composer – the narrative line that takes the listener from point A to point B, keeping their interest, and taking them on that journey.
I like what you said in one interview – that you want to write music that not only average music lovers can appreciate, but also people who know nothing about classical music – including older audiences which, as you say, are often the toughest critics. You’ve also mentioned John Corigliano as among those you credit with making it okay for younger composers to think about being communicative.
JH: Yes, absolutely. I actually got in a lot of trouble at school – I have to admit –because I wanted to write what I wanted to write; and a lot of my teachers were not really happy with that. But I grew up around artists, and I knew that it was more important to be true to myself than anything – more than when a teacher might suggest that you should only write a certain way.
NG: And that is such an invaluable lesson for young composers especially – to follow your heart, and to do what speaks to you, and not what you think you're “supposed” to do.
We’ve talked about the importance of being communicative, and your career is a testament to great success in this regard – as seen in the popularity of works like blue cathedral and the Percussion Concerto. But, of course, you are not beyond writing music that is complex, experimental in sonority, and even challenging harmonically, texturally, and so forth – as heard in works such as your Violin Concerto, your Concerto for Orchestra (2001), and your recent “concerto grosso” On a Wire (2010). Can you talk about how you think about this balance between being communicative on the one hand and being sufficiently “contemporary” on the other?
JH: It generally depends on the soloist or group I’m writing for – since some pieces are in fact more “atonal” or “edgy” than others. For example, in On a Wire, written for the eighth blackbird ensemble, I wrote using more extended technique – since that’s what they do; for the Violin Concerto, written for Hilary Hahn – who typically plays traditional concerti – it seemed more fitting to follow a more traditional vein; when I wrote Concerto 4-3, for the bluegrass group Time for Three, it was more “bluegrassy.” My approach to composing fully depends on the musicians I’m writing for; I don’t really think about being academic or fitting what someone else thinks I need to do. Instead, I think about the performers who are going to bring the piece to life – that’s the whole kit-and-caboodle right there.
NG: All that is very clear, and makes imminent sense.
As it turns out, my previous interview was with another towering contemporary female composer, Sofia Gubaidulina. As you may know, she’s quite an intellect and her aesthetic stance is pretty hardcore when it comes to compositional praxis and planning – with a need to balance intuition with a rigorous intellectual plan. She actually has stated that she is bored by pieces that are entirely intuitive, and cites Bach as being the prime example of striking this balance. From your own writings, your approach is often free-formed, and I can often hear sonic references to composers like Hindemith, Bartók, or Copland alongside your own distinct style in a manner that appears more stream-of-consciousness. Is this accurate – that is, how pre-worked out are your compositions before you set a note to paper?
JH: Well, I have a rather different experience than she does: I get bored with the pieces that have too much intellect and analyzing systems. I mean really bored – absolutely bored out of my mind! And because of that, I don't like inflicting that on someone.
For me, the biggest thing is that the piece has to make sense. I've had so much training in schools, and I trust that training. I do a lot of sketching, and play as I go along – but I also don’t know exactly where I’m going. If I sketch it out and come up with a system, it’s actually easy to write; it’s actually much harder to do it the other way – since you can’t quite tell what you’re headed for.
But I know when it works when I’m composing that way; and pre-defining a system is just not engaging for me – nor do I find listening to that engaging, either. That’s what I love about contemporary music: there are so many options in terms of approach; there are things that will feed some people but won't feed others, it's like having different kinds of food. I relish all of it, and I get something at different times from different pieces – I may be in the mood for this style but not that; and I'm totally game for anybody to be able to write the way they want to.
NG: Indeed, it is amazing that two well-respected and oft-performed composers as you and Sofia Gubaidulina can have such different takes on a very important aspect of writing music.
JH: It is funny, and I actually find her music pretty amazing – but boy, I totally understand that it's important for a listener to find what works best for them. That's the most important thing.
NG: And for composers, it does come back to what we’ve said earlier about needing to write music that you love; to follow your heart.
JH: Exactly. I remember people in school who wrote what they thought they were supposed to write, and not what they wanted to write – and those people ended up dropping out of music because it felt like an insincere experience. To me, that is the saddest thing in the world.
George Crumb said something to me one day in a lesson: “The final test of a piece is how does it sound to your ear? Use your ear, that's the final test, it won't lead you wrong.” The minute he made that statement, it's like I had complete clarity. I thought, “If that's the case – if that's going to be a final test – why don't I start from that place?”
NG: One final question, in closing: you’ve shattered a lot of ceilings, and have built up an amazing career in a field with incredible challenges – with shrinking numbers even for the “old masters”. You’ve created your own vibrant publishing house and have more commissions than most living composers. What advice can you thus impart to other young – and not so young – composers to enjoy a bit of the Jennifer Higdon magic?
JH: I think it's just to write as much as you can, and to write from your heart – not what you think you should write, but what you feel you should write. That's a real key; it's not an easy thing to do, but I think you have to give yourself permission to do that. Also, try to get your pieces played – even if its' just by friends, or if you can play them yourself – I often played my own pieces in the early days. And finally, don't give up; that's one of the saddest things: people I knew and admired just gave up. But I hung in there because I loved it!
NG: Well, it certainly has paid off. Thanks you so much for your time, Jennifer, and congratulations on all your success.
JH: You're quite welcome, Nolan; I really enjoyed talking with you. Take care.