Anything Can Happen: Jennifer Higdon on Contemporary Music

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Jennifer Higdon is one of the most often-performed composers in the current world of American music. Her orchestral work Blue Cathedral has been performed by more American orchestras than just about any other work by a living American composer. Her music appeals to both general audiences who are hungry for music of our time as well as to musicians whose primary focus is the world of new concert music.

Jennifer’s music is colorful, exciting, dramatic, and soulful. Audiences find it music uplifting and riveting. Musicians love to play Jennifer’s music because it offers them the opportunity to both connect directly with audiences as well as show their stuff. Like many composers and other musicians, I am hard-pressed to define the term ‘American music.’ And yet it seems obvious that her music is as American as American music gets.

Jennifer started her musical life as a flutist and has developed close relationships with musicians such as conductors Robert Spano (Atlanta Symphony) and Marin Alsop (Baltimore Symphony) and new music bands such as eighth blackbird. A 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, Jennifer is in constant demand by individual musicians and organizations to compose new commissioned works; her work schedule reads like that of at least three or four full-time composers put together!

Jennifer Higdon’s first opera Cold Mountain was produced initially by the Santa Fe Opera and was performed to sold out audiences there as well as later on by Opera Philadelphia. Cold Mountain is now available on CD, as are many other of her works. More information at www.jenniferhigdon.com.

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The Rumpus: I’d like to start with a rather broad question and move into detail from there: Do you think there has ever been such a thing as common practice in music and if so, is there one today in the world of new concert music?

Jennifer Higdon: This is a good question. I think that in this time period there isn’t a common practice. We’re living in a time when pretty much anything can happen in the music world. There are a lot of musical languages in which people work. When I think of common practice I think back to the time I was studying the flute, where I learned that in the Baroque period many things were not notated, since they were understood—that was because of common practice. But I’m not sure they thought of it as common practice at that time; maybe that’s something that comes only when we look retrospectively at a time period in music history. As a consequence, I think of the idea of ‘common practice’ at any time as something that can only be seen by looking backwards. Maybe around the turn of the 20th century there might have been some kind of common practice but now it looks to me like the boundaries have come down. But it’s always a guessing game, isn’t it?

Rumpus: When I put out a call for scores for a music festival I’m running, I get hundreds of pieces of music sent to me, and actually I’m struck by how similar so many of them seem to be. I’m not saying that’s either good or bad, but it makes me wonder if at some point in the future, this will be looked at as a common practice period. But I asked you this question because the next question is this: Do you think of your music as being part of a larger stream and if so, how would you describe your place in that stream? And if a writer or filmmaker goes to a concert in which your music is being played, do you think he or she would be able to connect your music to work by your contemporaries? I know this is a big question.

Higdon: It is! When anyone is creating anything, it has no choice but to be in that stream. The art I create and the art my colleagues create is part of it. But the question is: how long will it last in the stream? I think of it really as an enormous river, with its shores very distant from each other, and only time will tell what’s going to last in the end. It seems to me that all music of our time is connected, but I never think about where I am in the river or how I would be placed by others inside of it. I don’t know if this is self-protection or if I’m just too busy to stop to ponder it. I’ve also judged a lot of composition competitions and you’re right: it’s amazing how many of the pieces submitted are a lot alike. There are a lot of clichés. In fact, if you take any group of scores, it’s likely that fifty to sixty percent are going to be so much alike that it’s difficult to tell any difference among them. But I sometimes wonder if that has more to do with the quality of the art that’s being made. There are always those composers who are going to move toward whatever is currently in fashion. And then there are others who will deliberately attempt to go in another direction. And sometimes, there are composers who will see themselves as being outside the stream and not even try to present their music to the general public.

Rumpus: Speaking of the stream, I remember being in the room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York where there are paintings by both Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. It was fascinating because I found myself able to understand the work of both much more than I would have otherwise because of this opportunity to see them in relation to each other.

Higdon: That’s a great point. It brings me back to your question about how I see my music in light of that of my contemporaries. My pieces usually are programmed on concerts in which the other works are standard repertoire. My music always sounds very different when it’s on a concert of all contemporary music. It always seems to stick out at an odd angle. This also makes me think of a question I sometimes debate with my friends: does the music of a composer directly reflect that composer’s personality? This is a difficult one, but I think it usually does. Maria Schneider was just here at Curtis, talking about her big band music as well as her classical writing, and we were discussing the question of what makes an artist stand out in a group. Is it just a question of craft and quality, or something else? It’s a big question.

Rumpus: I’m interested in your point of how context affects the way your music sounds. Give us an example of a piece that demonstrates this.

Higdon: I think blue cathedral is a good example. It has been programmed on so many concerts alongside standard repertoire and I really don’t think it fits as well on a concert of contemporary music. It does get played sometimes at festivals of contemporary orchestra music but it doesn’t seem like it’s from that world.

Rumpus: And here’s the next question: Sometimes when I’m at a concert where my music is played and I’m with friends who are writers or painters or people in the other arts, I’ll ask them afterwards what they thought about my piece and often the reply is something like, ‘Well, I liked it (or I didn’t like it) but I don’t really know whether my reaction is valid because I’m not educated in your specialized world.’ If you were the composer in that situation, what would you say?

Higdon: I’ve had the same experience many times and my response is always the same: ‘You don’t need any specialized education and you don’t need to know anything about the world in which I work. I think my music should be able to speak to you even if you’ve never been to a concert of classical music before.’ Your question is a good one because when we even use the term ‘specialized world,’ we already have a problem! We’re making art; they are making art… these worlds are not far apart from each other. Still, I realize that our art goes out into the world in a very restricted manner. For instance, pieces of art that hang on a wall can be seen in museums or can be used in a variety of commercial ways. That art is everywhere, so the message is that it’s a part of everyday life. The same thing is true for literature (although not so much for poetry) and for video and film. By contrast, the world of contemporary classical music seems like a very specialized world. It is our whole world, but for most other people it is not a part of everyday life. Still, I always tell people that my music should speak to them… and that they shouldn’t feel obligated to say why or how. All reactions are valid; the important thing is to have the experience.

Rumpus: Great. Would you say that your music is about anything (either other music or something other than music), or is it only about itself, or does it depend on the piece?

Higdon: It depends completely on the piece. I have some pieces that have a story line, and others that are literally about the people for whom I wrote the music. My concertos are about the solo instruments featured in those pieces as well as the people who play those solo parts. I wrote a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn and it was very different from the one I wrote for Jennifer Koh. The two pieces are completely different because the musicians approach classical music differently from each other. In both cases, their personalities were embedded in the works I wrote specifically for them.

Rumpus: Here’s a link to the third and last movement of the concerto for Hilary Hahn; this is really exciting stuff:

Higdon: The rest of the concerto can also be found on YouTube.

Rumpus: What’s a good example of a piece with a story?

Higdon: Once again, blue cathedral comes to mind. That piece has a visual element, which is really described by the music. Also, there’s a piece called Zaka, which I wrote for the new music ensemble, eighth blackbird.

Higdon: And then there’s On a Wire, which I also wrote for eighth blackbird; this is a concerto for the group with orchestra.

Rumpus: Here’s a link to a rehearsal of part of that piece from the Cabrillo Festival:

Rumpus: As a creative artist active in both commercial and academic circles, what are some differences between these environments, and how do you think your music is heard differently in one as compared to the other?

Higdon: This is a very good question. I know that my music is heard a lot in commercial circles. In academia, I think my music is taken in differently but I’m not sure why that is. Some kind of sixth sense tells me that people in that world are thinking differently about it. I don’t know if it has to do with the structure of my music, which is probably more apparent to those in the academic world than it is in the commercial world, where people tend not to think of that aspect of music so much. They just listen for pure enjoyment.

Rumpus: This question is a variation on the one we were discussing earlier, when you said that your music is mostly played in commercial, not academic concert halls. And by the way, I want to clarify that I’m using the term ‘commercial’ here simply to signify the practice of charging admission to concerts as opposed to the practice in universities and conservatories, where most of the time concerts are free of charge.

Higdon: And I was thinking the same thing, specifically in reference to orchestra concerts.

Rumpus: Could it be that in the academic world people listening to your music are likely to compare it to the work of composers who live mostly or entirely in the academic world, whereas in the orchestral world the majority of listeners don’t really know about those other composers and therefore they are not making such a comparison?

Higdon: That’s true. I hadn’t thought of it that way but I think you’re right: most of the listeners in the orchestral setting are listening to my music in the context of Brahms, Stravinsky, Haydn, and other music they already know.

Rumpus: For someone who doesn’t know your music at all, please recommend a good place to start, and maybe follow that up with a few more.

Higdon: Here again, I think blue cathedral is a good place to start, if for no other reason than that this is the way through which orchestras often get to my other orchestral music. I often hear from listeners that it’s the first contemporary piece they’ve heard, which disturbs me because things really shouldn’t be that way but at the same time pleases me because something is opening up for them through me. I think of blue cathedral as a kind of doorway. In fact, we’re at the point that some orchestras are even repeating the piece. For example, the Philadelphia Orchestra has already used it on three or four occasions!

Rumpus: That’s very impressive. Since we keep coming back to blue cathedral, I’m wondering why you think it has been such a popular piece?

Higdon: It’s a good question and sadly, I’m probably not the best person to answer it. I don’t think it’s possible to predict what will work and what will not work in terms of a piece connecting with an audience. And I feel too close to this music to have any kind of sense of what it’s like for an orchestral player who comes to learn the work, or for an audience member who sits in a theater listening to it. Those folks would be better qualified to answer the question of “what makes this piece work”.

I can tell you that it’s a very personal piece, although it was commissioned for a public celebration (the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute). I felt like I was pouring my heart and soul into the piece because it was written at a time in which I was grieving the loss of a younger brother. Perhaps the intensity of those feelings can be felt through the music. But then, that’s what I like about music… certain aspects of it are magical and unexplainable. It can exist, it can move some of the people who take it in, and it can leave an impression.

Rumpus: How about another piece?

Higdon: My Percussion Concerto is also a good place to start because percussion is everywhere, in pop, jazz and rock music and almost everywhere else.

Rumpus: Here’s a link to the percussion cadenza played by the great Colin Currie:

and here’s a recording of the whole concerto:

Higdon: And I already mentioned Zaka. A friend of mine recently presented it to a group of sixth graders. The kids were having a hard time responding to standard classical repertoire, but when they heard Zaka there were all kinds of responses. The kids were incredibly verbal and connected the music to visual images and other things. I’ve had this experience before, so it makes me think that Zaka might be another good way into my music. Another reason this piece gets a lot of response is because of the way musicians play it with such conviction, going back to the original group for whom the piece was written – eighth blackbird. Those musicians are truly great, and it’s happened with other groups since then as well. Performing a piece with real conviction really makes a difference. Also, the piece has a kind of rock and roll edge.

Rumpus: What does the title mean?

Higdon: It’s a completely made-up word! I was driving at one point and trying to think of a title for my next piece. Zaka just popped into my head and I wondered if the word actually meant anything; when it became clear that it didn’t, I thought it would be interesting to build a piece completely around a made-up word. Since then, I’ve had fun watching people trying to figure out the meaning of Zaka. I guess I was being a little mischievous!

Rumpus: How does harmony figure into your music?

Higdon: I think first about counterpoint, line, color and rhythm. Harmony is never in the forefront. That’s probably because I come from the world of a single-line instrument, the flute. I think about lines and colors first. I’m constantly asking myself ‘has this material been here long enough?’ ‘Do I need to move on to something else?’ ‘What can I do to make this part more interesting?’ I’m constantly in the middle of an inner dialog about these things.

Rumpus: Who are some composers currently working whose music you follow?

Higdon: This is a difficult question, because I listen to anything and everything I can get my hands on. Actually I tend to follow groups, such as eighth blackbird. But if anyone mentions the name of a composer to me, I check it out. If there’s a new opera being premiered somewhere, I will go and see it. If I can’t get to a performance of a new flute concerto, I’ll get the recording. For instance, I know Aaron Kernis had a premiere of a new flute concerto recently with the Detroit Symphony, so I subscribed to their online service. I really do try to follow as much as I can. Every week I’m ordering recordings, and listening to literally everyone. Some of this can depend on what I’m working on at the moment. Right now I’m writing a tuba concerto, so I’m listening to all the tuba music I can find, whether it’s tuba alone, tuba and piano, tuba and orchestra or tuba and wind ensemble. So it’s both things: I listen according to what I’m working on at the time and I’m also checking out the latest music from Missy Mazzoli or Nico Muhly or John Adams or Andrew Norman.

Rumpus: Who are some people in the other arts you’re following?

Higdon: The answer to this is very similar. Unfortunately I don’t get to follow too much in the theater unless I get to New York. But when I’m traveling I always make time to go into galleries and museums. For instance, last week I was in Chicago for a meeting with the Chicago Symphony so I made sure there was time to go to the Art Institute and see the special exhibition, which happened to be a retrospective of twenty-five years of drawing acquisitions. I’m taking a drawing class right now at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I grew up in a family of visual artists so I’m very much in that world, too. If I had to name one person, it would be Jamie Wyeth, the son of Andrew Wyeth. I find his work fascinating. It’s the same with writers. If someone tells me a book is good, I’ll pick it up and read it. Same with film, especially what I can find at the independent film houses here in Philadelphia. I try and see a film at least once a week. I’m completely fascinated with film. So I really go after whatever I can find!

Rumpus: So I think the title of this interview really should be ‘Jennifer the omnivore’…

Higdon: I think that’s exactly right.

Rumpus: Thanks; it’s been great talking with you.

Higdon: Great to talk with you, too.

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Author photograph © J. Henry Fair.


Joel Hoffman has been a resident artist at the MacDowell Colony as well as at other artist colonies, including Yaddo, the Aaron Copland House, the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France and the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. For thirty-six years he was a Professor of Composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is currently a guest professor at the China Conservatory in Beijing, China. He has also served as Composer-in-Residence with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic in Washington D.C. and has received awards from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts and ASCAP, among others. More from this author →