jennifer higdon Q&A

I first met Jennifer when I was going to graduate school in Philadelphia in 1991. I was looking (with little success) for some freelance gigs when a composer friend (the composer/conductor Troy Peters) said that the Penn Orchestra was looking for ringers to fill out their viola section. I took the gig and showed up for the rehearsal to find a genial, very smart, and friendly female conductor leading the rehearsal. It was Jennifer. We got along great and when I found out she was a composer, I did what all violists do upon meeting a composer: they ask “have you written anything for the viola?” She did – a beautifully written Viola Sonata (1990) which had been composed only a year before for her Curtis Institute of Music classmate Michael Strauss (now principal violist of the Indianapolis Symphony). She very graciously gave me copies of the parts and the piece remains in my repertoire to this day.  These days Jennifer Higdon is one of the most highly-sought after composers of her generation, and has had pieces commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, eighth blackbird, Hilary Hahn, Yuja Wang, the Atlanta Symphony, and the San Francisco Opera, among others.

Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble will be presenting their season finale concert, entitled An Evening With Jennifer Higdon, on Friday, May 15, 2009 at 7:30 p.m. at The Old Church in downtown Portland.  Tickets are $30 and are available here.

CN – You’re in the fortunate position of having quite a few major commissions on your plate right now. How does the commissioning process factor in the way a piece comes into being? Also, how does the personality of the ensemble or individual play a part in how you start conceiving a piece?

JH – The commission process really affects the pieces I write.  I am always told two things:  duration and instrumentation.  I always know who will be playing the piece, and so I try to get to know the performers.  If it’s a soloist, I talk to them about what they would like in their piece, and what other kinds of repertoire they select for themselves to play (this tells me a lot about the amount of lyricism versus drama that they like).  So I like to think that I find a way to have the piece respond to the player and the player respond to the piece.  A good example:  in the past year, I wrote a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn and the violin concerto for Jennifer Koh.  Both are very different; Jenny Koh’s features a choir, because she was an English major at Oberlin for her undergrad, and she had an emphasis on poetry…so I created a concerto that uses a full choir and full orchestra, that runs through 6 poems for its dramatic form.   For Hilary, the piece emphasizes three things (each in a separate movement)…incredible reach with wide int ervals, gorgeous tone in her lyricism, and then finally high speeds that are incredible and dazzling.

Much is made of the composer’s “voice”. It seems to me, in my experience with your music, that you’ve pretty constantly evolved your sound world and vocabulary. I look back at the pretty early Viola Sonata, and if I compare it with String Poetic, your piece for violin and piano, there’s quite a difference in sensibility, if I may. Can you address how consciously this has happened, or if you’re just as full of wonderment about it as the rest of us might be?

I must admit to being surprised at some of my music and how it’s developed.  At the same time, I also realize that I change the language according to the group or soloist for whom I am writing.  “Zaka”, which is on these programs, was written for 8th Blackbird, which is a dynamic new music ensemble.  They achieve incredible sounds from extended techniques on their instruments, so I emphasized that in the writing.  “String Poetic” (written for Jenny Koh) is very different, because Jenny is very different.  When I hear many of my works, I’m always wondering how I wrote the music…it seems a bit magical to me.

The upcoming Portland program is divided basically in half – three pieces of yours, then three pieces by three up-and-coming young composers of the next generation. What drew you to these composers (both those you teach and those who you do not), and what made you pick these particular works of theirs?

All 3 other works are from students of mine (some from quite some time ago).  I sent several suggestions to Third Angle and let them look at durations and instrumentations, so that we would have a balanced program that would be interesting to listen to.  I was familiar with the composers’ works, so that made the job a lot easier for me.

Ok. Philosphical question: What purpose does a composer serve? Does one need a purpose? Discuss…

Oh my…this is a big question!  Where would we be without composers?  What would movies look like without a sound track?  Would video games be as exciting without the music?  Can you imagine a bride walking down the aisle without music?  How funny would a graduation be if everyone paraded in in silence?  An orchestra would look pretty funny sitting on stage with nothing to do, don’t you think?  Good question!

Finally, even though I have a million other questions I could ask, here’s my last question: Where do you see “classical” music going here in the first decade of the 21st Century? Undoubtedly there is so much vitality and excitement in certain areas, while others remain moribund and reluctant to make bold changes, this is true, but how might your and succeeding generations of composers direct the flow, so to speak?

I think the only way to get new people into the concert hall is to do more new music.  We live in a world where everything new is coveted and anticipated: newest sneaker, ipod, cell phone, television, computer, clothes, restaurants, cars…you name it.  We now have a generation that wants an “event” and the cutting edge experience.  I think we need more of this type of music and new music is the closest reflection of our everyday lives.  The thing I love about Classical music is that it always feels to me like it reflects not only the aspects of our lives (Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven certainly did that for their lifetimes), but also of our emotional states.  Music written now reflects now, which is what young people are into.  And people are into variety…even in their concert experiences.  I call it the iPod Shuffle phenomena (I’ve seen that term before elsewhere)….many folks want a mix of musics.  And many young composers are picking up on this…they are writing music that could easily cross over into Indy bands, and they’re playing in alternative venues (like bars), and trying new modes of communication (Hilary Hahn has her own YouTube channel).  I think you can bring young people to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but the path to achieving it is through new music.

3 Replies to “jennifer higdon Q&A”

  1. i always pause (paws?) when i see a cat in a composer’s picture. it makes me think that the composer might be padding along a tad too cautiously. hopefully, J.H. will break this unfortunate association/stereotype for me.

    after all, cats aren’t really geared towards being overly too “audeince friendly . . . “

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