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Jennifer Higdon and "Dreaming Up Musical Worlds"

Jennifer Higdon standing at the rail of a balcony at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center
Andrew Bogard
Jennifer Hidden/Lawdon Press
Jennifer Higdon at Kimmel Center

She’s one of the most prominent composers of our time, having won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto, as well as three Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition (in 2010, 2018, and 2020). But Jennifer Higdon came to classical music later than most composers.

Although she was exposed to art and taken to exhibitions by her father Charles Higdon, an artist, she wasn’t exposed to much classical music as she was growing up. At Bowling Green State University, she took her first steps into composition, supported by conductor Robert Spano, laying the groundwork for a dazzling track record and biography.

In a recent e-mail interview, Dr. Higdon told me that she’s a big fan of America’s National Parks. “I grew up near the Smoky Mountains, and I used to hike a lot and once hiked across the Grand Canyon (26 miles). I love to travel and explore other countries, and I love going to movies (I see a lot of movies). For composing, I prefer to just be in my studio at home; I’ve had residencies at artist colonies, but nothing beats the comfort and familiarity of the place where I spend every day, dreaming up musical worlds.”

Laura Carlo: It’s hard to believe that in 2022 we are still shaking our heads at how few women are recognized in the field of classical music. Over the course of your career, what have been the changes you’ve seen, for better or worse, for women in classical?

Jennifer Higdon: I have just started to see more women’s music getting scheduled, but it does seem like it has just (within the past year) occurred to orchestras that they’ve been choosing their repertoire from a tiny pool of the same gentlemen. They’ve long argued that they are relevant to their communities, but the music hasn’t truly reflected the community, and I think it’s becoming obvious that our art needs to give voice to everyone in some way (and that it’s possible to do so without sacrificing quality). I’m thankful that the days where people would say to me, “I can’t believe a woman wrote that!” have passed. I haven’t had that comment in quite a few years.

LC: Did you have any women mentors, or at least women whose careers you admired, as you began your career? What about now?

JH: I always looked to my predecessors, like Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, and Ellen Zwilich; whenever I had a question about anything, I would turn to them. As to now, that is a good question. I find that I’m being asked for advice on a daily basis, so I hope I’m being a good mentor.

LC: What is your composing process? People imagine you just wake up each day and just say “Time to compose something new!”

JH: I do compose pretty much every day (always starting first thing in the morning). But I’m always working on a particular project: one commission at a time, where I’ve been given specific details, such as duration, instrumentation, and the actual performers. My brain is constantly thinking about the current piece and its challenges, as well as the ever-changing shape and direction of the music. By showing up every day to write, inspiration often comes around and visits me.

So, my days are spent sitting at a computer entering music into a notation program, noodling around on the piano for musical ideas, looking at scores for the genre in which I am writing (to learn more), and staring out the window daydreaming about sound possibilities. And then a part of the day is devoted to the administrative side of being an artist in today’s world … lots of paperwork!

LC: And is composing something organically a different approach or feel than if you’ve been commissioned to write something? Or is the process the same for you?

JH: It is organic and is always about the commission that I’m working on, because I find my inspiration comes from the performers themselves. Nothing is more inspiring than being able to create for musicians who are striving for excellence. I’m very fortunate in that I have enough commission offers that I can pick and choose the projects that I think I can do a good job on. The pieces that scare me and challenge me to grow are usually the ones I pick to write. But how lucky am I to have so many people asking? It’s quite a wonderful situation.

LC: What’s the hardest part of the business for you? Is it on the creative side? Or more on the “business of the business” side – like getting your works out there, known and requested by orchestras or chamber groups, or individual musicians?

JH: The creative side is such a Zen-like experience for me that I find it to be a balm to my soul, even when it’s difficult (which it frequently is). The business side is way more taxing, but I’m lucky in that I have so many performances that I don’t worry about getting my music out there. My challenge is more like making sure I get scores out on time to performers, and managing the interviews and the performers’ questions. With more than 200 performances a year, it’s a constant balancing act to make sure I have enough time to write and travel to concerts, while accommodating requests.

LC: Now that we’ve had a peek as to what goes into your creative process, what do you strive for in your finished piece?

JH: My top priority in composing is the performer and the audience. I think the music should be moving and memorable. The audience shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to understand it, and even if it’s your very first classical concert, the music should still speak to you. That’s my number one priority. Quality does not have to be sacrificed to communicate, and art has to constantly renew in order to survive. This is my firm belief, and I work constantly to make sure situations are always improving. We all benefit.

LC: Do you have a piece you’ve written that is especially important or meaningful to you? For example, I read up on blue cathedral because it’s one of my favorites, and I learned about your motivation for and connection to it after your brother’s cancer death. Perhaps it’s that one, or perhaps another piece or pieces?

JH: I think if I had to pick one piece, it would be blue cathedral, but truthfully, the entire body of work now feels to me like it’s a reflection of my life experience and all the different stages of my life; selecting one work is just impossible. So, I tend to think of the collection of works (which is more than 170 at this point) as my true voice and my true representation.

LC: Here’s David MacKenzie conducting the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra in blue cathedral:

LC: Can you tell us what projects you’re working on now?

JH: I just finished an orchestral arrangement of a new suite based on my opera, Cold Mountain. There are 36 orchestras involved in that project, so there will be some serious printing and shipping of music involved in that one. And I’m currently working on a piece for the President’s Own United States Marine Band (which is one of the best bands in the world).

In addition, I’m racing through a large number of world premieres this year (many were delayed because of Covid and they’ve just been rescheduled) —10 in the remainder of 2022. I also have a few incredible recording projects going on. We’re in the middle of final edits and getting together program notes for the packaging (including a wonderful recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra).

LC: If you were handed a magic wand, what would you like to see happen in music today, especially for women?

JH: More commissions, more women’s works getting programmed, recorded, and broadcast. Heck, half the world’s population are women. They should have an equal voice in our daily lives. Pop music is much better at this balancing act, so classical just needs to catch up.

LC: And as a follow-up, for this Women’s History Month, any words of advice for women thinking of a composing career? Maybe something you wish someone had told you as you started your composing journey?

JH: My advice is to keep at it, and don’t let anyone tell you that you “can’t” do something. People will say it to you, but just ignore it and plow on ahead. Because YOU CAN! Persistence is everything. If something isn’t working, change the situation, but never say, “I can’t.”

CODA: Here’s Jennifer Higdon’s 2020 Grammy Award-winning piece, Concerto for Harp and Orchestra,written in 2018 and dedicated to another accomplished woman, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who plays it here:

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.