Feature Article

Interview:  The Award-Winning Jennifer Higdon

June, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus


Photo by Candace DiCarlo

Thanks to the championship of Telarc Records, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Jennifer Higdon's beautiful, frequently stunning music is finally receiving its due.

First came Spano's Rainbow Body, a demonstration-quality hybrid SACD that included Higdon's ethereal “Blue Cathedral.” Winner of the Classical Internet Award from www.ClassicsToday.com, the disc also received a Grammy nomination for “Best Engineered Album, Classical.”

Last year brought an entire Higdon Disc, CityScape/Concerto for Orchestra. This time, it and Telarc's Jack Renner won the Grammy for “Best Engineered Album, Classical.” In addition, Higdon's disc received an OutMusic Award for Outstanding New Instrumental Recording, the first time that awards honoring excellence in LGBT recording, songwriting, and cultural activism have recognized a classical composer.

Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra also received a Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Contemporary Composition,” while conductor and orchestra received another Grammy nomination for “Best Orchestral Performance.” If in both cases John Adams' 9/11 tribute On the Transmigration of Souls won pride of place, that is not to diminish Higdon's achievement.

It is time to introduce Jennifer Higdon to the Secrets readership. Below is an edited transcript of my extended conversation with Higdon, conducted in March 2005.


Jason Victor Serinus: You are 41 now?

Jennifer Higdon: Right. No, 42. I have so many problems with my age. Because I was born on New Year's Eve, it makes it hard to calculate.

JVS: Silvestre Revueltas was also born on New Year's Eve. One of his last pieces was a homage to poet Garcia Lorca. I recently reviewed that SACD for Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity.

When did you start composing?

JH: At 21, which is a really late start. I was an undergraduate flute major at Bowling Green University in Ohio. I had a really good flute teacher that got me started on composing.

JVS: I recall a piece of yours I liked a lot on a disc by flautist Jeffrey Khaner.

JH: I think that's "Autumn Reflections".

JVS: When did you compose it?

JH: I can't tell you off the top of my head. I write so much music that I can't remember the dates of them. That was somewhere back in the early ‘90s. By that time I had already been to the next school, the Curtis Institute of Music, and changed over to composition. It was a big step. I had already decided to major in composition. I had to decide before I could get a scholarship to Curtis. It's probably one of the hardest schools in the country to get into.

JVS: Did you abandon flute?

JH: No. But composition is a very contagious thing. All the people I know who do it professionally can't live without it. You do it because you have to do it. It feeds my soul. That's basically it in a nutshell: it feeds my soul.

JVS: Are there parts of you that you express through composition that you don't express in other areas of your life?

JH: I have no idea. Probably someone on the outside would have a better chance answering that. I don't know.

People say my music's pretty open. But it's me. It doesn't feel like there's anything that's hidden there. Music that speaks to people tends to be very genuine. I think that audiences know the difference when someone's pulling something on them. I don't think there are any emotions that I address in my music that aren't obvious if you talk to me.

JVS: You've done a lot of work with Robert Spano.

JH: Do you know that I actually met him in Bowling Green? I was in my last year of my Bachelor of Music degree, and he was hired to conduct the orchestra. He had a graduate conducting seminar. I went in on the first day of classes and asked him if he would allow an undergraduate in the class and he said yes. So I got to know him early on and watch him work.

He's a fantastic teacher, a fantastic teacher. We're always excited about some music thing, and that's all we jabber on about.

JVS: When did your compositions start getting performed?

JH: They were always getting performed. Even when I was in Curtis. It's kinda funny. Most people ask when I burst on the scene. I didn't burst on the scene. I've been working all along. It's just a question of when the press started taking note. It's not a matter of suddenly I appeared. I've always had performances. There's never been a time when I haven't. It's kind of a good problem to have.

JVS: It's wonderful. How do you make your living?

JH: From writing music. I've been making my living from it since I left graduate school in 1994.

JVS: Fabulous. So you were 31 when you left graduate school.

JH: I did an MA and Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania after getting my Artist's Diploma from Curtis. I used Curtis as a chance to switch over from flute. I had to build up enough of a portfolio to enter graduate school. I think I entered Penn in fall of '89. (I took a year off between schools because I was feeling burned out).

JVS: How many years in Curtis?

JH: Two.

JVS: Is that what people usually do?

JH: No. It's the entire range, everything from one year to 12. It's a Conservatory, and set up very different than a University. It's where Leonard Bernstein, Barber, and Menotti went. It's got a hefty contribution in the composition world, and a lot of gay composers now that I think about it.

JVS: How much of your work has been recorded?

JH: Oh lordy. I think there's something like 25 discs out there with all different things. I couldn't tell you out of the top of my head. I'm not even sure I could tell you from looking at a list how many of my works were recorded. Quite a few of them.

JVS: If I wanted to an introduction to your work, what would you recommend?

JH: The two Telarc recordings, the Concerto for Orchestra and CityScape on the CityScape disc, and Blue Cathedral on the Rainbow Body disc with Copland, Barber, and Theofanidis.

JVS: I think “Rainbow Body” is just gorgeous. I've listened to it many, many times. What did your brother die of?

JH: He had skin cancer from being in the sun too much. It was metastatic melanoma. He was 33. It's young.

JVS: Tell us about the premiere in Brooklyn. Why did you choose Whitman?

JH: I didn't choose Whitman. I think it was commissioned through Robert Spano because of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass. Whitman lived in Brooklyn and I think even reviewed the Brooklyn Phil at some point.

They asked me if I would do a Whitman text. They didn't specify what. So I read all his stuff and decided to set what's probably the most set text by Whitman, Dooryard Blooms. It's for baritone and orchestra. It's a pretty lyrical, somber work, about 25-minutes long, Nmon Ford is the baritone. I think it's a stage name. Neither Spano nor I has worked with him before. The Brooklyn Philharmonic picked him; I think he's sung with them before. I just spoke with him the other day for the first time. I've heard recordings of his singing, and Robert tells me he's fantastic.

JVS: You write a work. But how it's conducted, played, and interpreted by a singer has a lot to do with how it goes over. Do you get nervous when this kind of thing happens?

JH: It's not just vocal music; this is how it all works. Yes, you're nervous every single time before a premiere. The piece can be annihilated as far as history is concerned by a bad performance, because people don't realize that it's the performance, not the piece that's the problem.

History is listed with people who had bad performances. Even Beethoven had terrible horror stories of things going horrifically wrong. I'm fortunate, because I probably get more good performances than most composers I know. I'm extremely lucky in that regard.

JVS: Do you just ascribe it to luck?

JH: Yep, I do. At first it was just luck. Then what happened was, after a while, good ensembles approached me. For a long time it was a matter of trying to get good performances. When you're a student, good performances can lead to good recordings which can lead to other things. But it's tricky. Part of it is completely random luck.

It's kind of strange, so much so that it's a little disheartening. But I try to make sure that if I'm writing music, it's something that's going to be playable for the group. I'm really, really careful about that because I've been on the other side of the fence. I know what it's like to sit there and try to interpret a new work of music. It's not an easy thing to do. So I do everything I can when I'm writing to make sure it works.

I asked Nmon yesterday if it suited his voice, if there was anything I needed to change. You try to do everything you can to insure you're going to get a good performance, but there's no way to guarantee.

He was actually comfortable with the writing. I was very relieved, because I don't write for voice very often. I'm in an area where I have less familiarity. But he liked it, and said it fits his voice very well.

JVS: How big is the range?

JH: I think it sits in the normal baritone range. The range is not huge. I try to be careful about that, because every singer's voice is a little different. But in every piece I write, I always extend to the complete range. I always get to the bottom notes, and I always get to the top notes. It's part of my composition style.

Every composer is a little different in the way their writing fits human voices and how they set words. I guess it's just the style of the particular composer. I don't know many vocal works, because I didn't grow up around classical music. I'm still learning a lot of the works that a lot of other composers know about automatically.

JVS: I interviewed Lou Harrison a few years before his death. He won the Rome Prize for a piece from his 12-tone opera Rapunzel. The singer was Leontyne Price . . .

JH: Oh wow . . .

JVS: . . . whom he picked at the suggestion of Samuel Barber. And I'm sure she helped him win.

JH: The level of performer, soloist and orchestra makes a huge difference. I've sat on a lot of panels, and I can tell you that if a bad recording comes in, it's really hard to say it's a superb work when you're comparing it to several hundred other recordings.

JVS: Your Whitman comes within a month or two of Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass performance in Zankel. Tell us more about the music.

JH: I don't know how I would describe it. The poem moves back and forth from thinking death is a bad thing to thinking death is a good thing. So I made the music sound like that. It goes back and forth between darkness and lightness. I was thinking of all the different stages of grief.

The thing is, because I haven't heard it yet, only in my head, I have no idea whether I hit the mark or not. And I probably won't know for a year. It takes me a year after a premiere to figure out if a piece has worked or not.

It's tonal, it has a lot of melody, and it has a lot of darkness in it. My pieces always have a lot of color, and it has a lot of slow music. It probably has the most slow music I've ever written in one piece.

My music in general is not slow. It's almost never slow in fact. So it was a bit of a stretch for me.

I didn't do the entire text. There were too many extraneous things that would detract from the music. But the vast majority of the poem is still there, I'd say three quarters of it.

So that's pretty much all there is to it [laughing]. Not a lot. It's a pretty straightforward setting. There's a lot of melody involved.

JVS: What in Whitman spoke to you?

JH: That poem above all of his spoke to me. I think it may have been the death thing, trying to deal with that. I'm sure it had something to do in my subconscious with the death of brother. But I read a lot of Whitman's poems, and a lot of them didn't strike me. They didn't leave any kind of impression.

Also, a lot of them would not fit for the voice. The consonances of the words would not set well. But When Lilacs has such vivid imagery that it speaks very well. Transferring it to a singing voice rather than a spoken voice sometimes changes the feel for it. But that poem is so strong that I don't think that the music will change it.

JVS: I was reading the program notes for Mahler 7 last night. Mahler would go to rehearsals and rewrite immediately.

JH: Yeah. We can't do that now. Union rules. We can't have that liberty anymore. The amount of time is so limited that there's not enough time to change anything. A composer has to make a guess.

JVS: Are there any more performances of the work planned?

JH: I think Spano is thinking of doing it in Atlanta. Normally we try to get through the premiere and think about that afterwards. I don't have any works that have only been played once. So I don't really think about it. Someone will schedule it.

JVS: My dear, you have a charmed life.

JH: I know. It truly is. You're absolutely right. It's very unusual. Boy, I do feel fortunate.

JVS: You've been nominated for an OutMusic Award. How long have you been out?

JH: I've always been out. I've been with the same partner for 25 years. We met in high school. I've never not been out. We were in Maribel, TN, very rural, in the Eastern part of Tennessee just outside the Smokey Mountains.

JVS: Did you know you were a lesbian before that?

JH: No. It was kinda funny. I was playing flute in marching band. There was a whole bunch of us who hung out together. None of us dated, because being in a competition marching band meant every weekend we were out on the road.

I met my partner in marching band. I was just starting music and discovering it, so I didn't really think much about being gay. My parents said they thought I might be gay, but neither my brother nor I did. My brother also hung out in that same group of 8, 9 or 10 of us, and no one was dating. That was the really weird thing.

I probably became aware during my senior year. Cheryl and I had had a friendship for two years while we were in band together. Then we both just fell in love at the tail end of my senior year. Cheryl was two years behind me. She was much more aware; I was too occupied with music, practicing a lot, to think much about it. My brain was in music.

JVS: What made your parents sense you might be a lesbian, and how did they react?

JH: I don't know what made them sense it, and they didn't have any kind of reaction. They were okay with it one way or another. It wasn't an issue.

JVS: What did they do for a living?

JH: My dad was an artist, my mother a homemaker at that time. They'd both been hippies. Before Tennessee we lived in Atlanta.

They were pretty cool about it. I don't think anything about it seemed weird or radical or anything.

JVS: You were included in the historic CRI anthology of Lesbian Composers. Was there any flack about that?

JH: It's not a big deal in the classical music world. History is littered with composers who were gay. It's such a non-issue.

It was kinda surprising when Jody issued the CRI disc, because I don't think that being a gay or lesbian composer was that huge a deal. In classical music, nobody even talks about it. I'm not sure it's an issue.

I think it's because we have people like Tchaikovsky who was gay. My guess is that music is probably the most obviously gay of all the art forms. Tchaikovsky was really famous for having psychological problems and trying to overcome his gayness.

JVS: This is really refreshing to hear. How did Jody even know about your sexual identity?

JH: I have no idea. Anytime I've spoken to the press and someone asks me, I tell them. Everyone knows I've been with the same person since high school because I do so many interviews.

The CRI disc of Gay Composers came first. Many of those people I know, because the composition world is just not that big. The music world is so tiny that everybody knows everybody. So it's possible Jody might have asked Robert Maggio or Ned Rorem. Ned Rorem was one of my former teachers.

As for controversy – the picture of me, Cheryl, and the cat in the Philadelphia Enquirer. The cat caused a big controversy apparently.

JVS: Why?

JH: [Laughing] I don't know. The cat just happened in there and posed while they were shooting us. Everyone was wondering how we got the cat to pose so nicely. The cat looked like it was running the show, let's put it that way.

You know, for me the issue doesn't usually lie with being a gay composer. It lies with me being a woman. I run into it some, not as much as my predecessors. I have had male composers say that the reason I have success is that I'm a woman. It's like reverse discrimination. I always just laugh. “Okay, you go ahead and believe that. Anything that makes you comfortable, that's fine.” [laughing].

If that's what they need, that's okay.

JVS: Has your style of composing changed over the years?

JH: My style changes from piece to piece depending on the commissioner. For instance, last year I wrote something for a junior high band. That's real different than what I might write for a professional symphony orchestra. And occasionally I'll change the language of a piece to reflect what kind of piece it is.

JVS: But you've never gone through a twelve-tone phase…

JH: I thought it was totally uninteresting. I have written 12-tone works, but I thought that whole phrase was uninteresting.

JVS: Lou Harrison abandoned it, but not before writing his gorgeous opera Rapunzel.

JH: Right. I had to write it in graduate school, but I pretty much steered clear of it early on.

JVS: What more would you like to say about your work?

JH: My music is known for being audience-friendly. You don't have to know anything about classical music to enjoy it. You don't need to have any kind of basic knowledge. It seems to appeal to a wide variety of individuals, even the older crowd, which is sometimes a tricky crowd to please. Most of my pieces get put on concerts with standard repertoire, which is also unusual. Normally modern composers have pieces on concerts where there's a lot of new music, but my pieces are played on concerts where there's standard repertoire. I think on the Brooklyn Concert my piece is paired with Beethoven.

JVS: A lot of critics disparaged John Corigliano's opera The Ghosts of Versailles, saying the language wasn't original, it was too enjoyable and too much fun. Do you get that kind of critical reaction?

JH: Nope. I think things have changed a bit. I think John's one of the people who's actually changed it.

I thought I would have gotten lambasted for my language, but I haven't gotten any bad reviews for it. It's pretty miraculous.

JVS: Could I step into your ruby red slippers for a few minutes?

JH: I know [laughing]. It's very unreal.

JVS: What does your partner Cheryl Lawson do for a living?

JH: She now works for me in my publishing. She used to be a meeting planner for a doctor's association. My life got so out of control, and I had so much publishing stuff and so many requests for things, that she decided to help me out, thank goodness, so that I'd have more time to write. I had more commissions than I could really handle while doing all the publishing stuff. We now work together basically as a team. We also travel a lot together, whenever we can.

JVS: Even as it gets harder to buy classical music in stores and hear it on the radio, you succeed in writing accessible music that people enjoy.

JH: It's kind of a miraculous thing, Jason [laughing].

JVS: Are you frustrated that the world in some ways seems to be closing in on this field?

JH: You know, I feel frustrated because I feel there's not anything I can do about it. The only thing I can do is proselytize in my own way by writing the music.

Part of me understands why classical music is struggling, perhaps because I didn't grow up around it. But there are certain things in life you just can't control. The best thing you can do to make classical music a relevant part of life is write the very best music I can and to try make sure that music communicates in a quality fashion, not a pandering fashion.

One of the things I learned when my brother died is that there are certain things you just can't control, and it's not worth getting an ulcer over it. My energy is better spent on writing the next piece.

Yes, things are changing. Radios are changing over to all-news format. I'm in downtown Denver. There's a huge CD store down the street, but the classical section has almost nothing in it. It's the same everywhere. I go in to take a look when I travel.

Frankly, I think people look for music to reflect their own lives. They need music from their own time to do that. When there's a lot of music from other times getting programmed, it presents certain problems.

I talk to young people about this all the time. They say, “Why would I want to go to a classical concert?” I tell them it's fantastic, but they view it very differently. They've got a lot of different things competing for their time.

JVS: And they multi-task. 26% of high school kids are doing two media things at once.

JH: Right. Which means that the music they want to consume needs to have more going on in it than the older music does.

JVS: How in the world can you listen to a Mahler symphony and play a video game?

JH: The answer is they don't listen to Mahler; they listen to Green Bay, that latest rock band that I first learned about at the Grammys, and play video games.

JVS: What was it like for you being at the Grammys as a classical composer?

JH: It was kinda strange. Classical was a teeny part of that ceremony. It used to be a lot more important. I think it was the first year that they didn't have a classical performance on the telecast. But I'm soused to classical music being marginalized that I don't think that much about it.

I don't listen to classical music that much either. I often listen to other stuff as well. When I talk to other contemporary classical composers, they say the same thing. If we're not listening, it makes sense that the people without a background in classical aren't listening either.

JVS: “Blue Cathedral” was a very spiritual piece. Do you have a spiritual practice of your own?

JH: No one in the family went to a church regularly, but we had all sorts of spiritual books around the household, everything from Buddhism to the Bible. I am a really spiritual person, but I don't follow any particular doctrine. The meditation and candles are in my music. It's a similar sort of thing. Writing music feels a little bit like prayer.

JVS: Thank you. Are there pieces you've written that actually bespeak prayer?

JH: “Blue Cathedral” may be the most like that. I have a couple of sacred choral works – there's an “O magnum mysterium” that's not yet recorded – but “Blue Cathedral” is the most prominent example.

It's hard for living composers to get things recorded. The amazing thing about Telarc is that they were willing to record these orchestra pieces, which is something that doesn't often get done.

JVS: What older recordings of yours would you recommend for a Jennifer Higdon discography?

JH: The Albany disc titled Dream Journal that includes my piece Wissahickon Poetries, a piece commissioned in honor of Wissahickon Park in Philadelphia. It's a gorgeous area that is very big with deer running throughout it. It reminds me of the Smokey Mountains.

One of my friends who likes to hike there commissioned the piece. It has four movements for the four seasons: a spring movement, a summer movement, autumn and winter.

It's a chamber work for six players: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. It's about 20 minutes long, with these one-minute clock movements between the major movements. They sound like time going by.

JVS: Where does your inspiration come from? Do you hear music?

JH: It's all in the world around me but it's also in my head. It's everywhere. I've had those moments when I've heard a sound and immediately known it was the sound I needed.

I think a composer writes everything they hear in their world. Everything they started hearing when they were young, everything of the language they speak – American music sounds so different than French music and German music. I think the sound world in our heads arises from everything we experience and hear in our lives.

JVS: Do you tend to hear music in your head?

JH: No, I don't. But I'm famous in Philadelphia for walking out into intersections because I'm thinking of something. When I'm walking, I often think about music. Maybe that's why I have so many pieces in walking tempo.

I listen to music other than classical to turn off my head. I'll play Alison Krause bluegrass, the Dixie Chicks, Eminem, the Beatles, contemporary classical such as Aaron Copland, a lot of rock, country, bluegrass and some rap. I like to check out some of the rhythms that the rappers are doing.

JVS: Besides Copland . . .

JH: Barber, John Adams, Debussy, Chris Rouse, Schwanter, Theofanidis . . . I listen to new discs as they come out. I think I own almost all of CRI's discs because I'm always trying to find out what people are doing. I'm getting ready to start a percussion concerto, so I've been going through a lot of percussion concertos. Before that, I wrote an oboe piece and listened to a lot of oboe concertos. When it's classical listening, it's often related to what I'm preparing to do.

JVS: I just interviewed Ethel.

JH: Oh, they great. I love their stuff. I was so impressed by them when they played in Philly.

If people are not sure about my music, the Telarc discs would let them know about the sound world I write in.

I had a pretty small sound system at home. When I see a score, I hear all the parts in my head. It completely tortures me and drives me crazy, so I have to listen to the popular stuff to substitute something else.

JVS: Any upcoming performances in the Bay Area?

JH: “Blue Cathedral” was played by three different orchestras there last year. The Cypress String Quartet has also been playing one of my string quartets. I have tons of performances there. I even did a residency in the Bay Area two years ago. There was something there earlier this year with Composers Inc.

I average 100 performances a year. I have trouble keeping track of them. In order to keep my head from being so filled with information, Cheryl handles transferring the information to my webmaster. She also handles orchestral rentals and the people who buy music. So I often don't know what's going on intentionally so my head can keep clear and I can write music.

- Jason Victor Serinus -


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