Composer Jennifer Higdon: Enjoying an Explosive Year ... and Career

Marianne Lipanovich on July 25, 2010
Jennifer Higdon

Composer Jennifer Higdon may have come late to the world of classical music (she famously didn’t start playing a musical instrument until she was in her teens), but she has certainly made up for any lost time. She holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she’s in demand as a composer for symphonies and festivals, and her most famous work, blue cathedral, has become an often-performed staple of modern classical music. She returns to the Bay Area in August for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, where two of her pieces will be featured. She’s always a welcome addition to the festival, and this year her star will be shining even brighter: She’ll be coming as the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto.


Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer.

I’m still having trouble imagining it.

I understand you didn’t find out right away.

I came to the information late. I’m still adjusting to the idea. Every time I hear the word, I still jump.

I think things look so big when you’re a student. Now it’s like, “Whoa, the air is thin up here.”

You started your career in music “late,” as well, taking up playing the flute at age 15. What made you decide to learn to play, and why the flute?

Some of the Curtis folks wonder, “How did she start so late?” We had a flute in the house and I taught myself. You’d think there would be some impetus, but nothing specific. There was a lot of creativity in the house when I was growing up, but it was art, 8-mm films, words, and poetry.

When I went off to school as a music major, I really didn’t know classical music. But it didn’t occur to me that that was unusual, and no one ever said that I couldn’t do it.

It’s nice to be young; you don’t see the possible obstacles. How did you get started composing?

I was a performance major and my flute teacher in my master class said she didn’t want me to play something already written but to compose something for myself. I asked, “How do you do that?” She showed me a tone row — not even 12 notes, only six — and said “come up with sounds.” I thought it was addictive. Arranging sounds was fascinating.

It’s not an everyday profession, is it?

It’s hard. It’s a bizarre profession. There’s always the anxiety of starting.

And it’s not like you can get out of school and get an entry-level job in the field.

No, there are no entry-level jobs. You have to do a lot of schooling. Often, when people don’t know what they want to do with music, they turn to composing. But so few can make it; they turn to teaching or freelance work, or something else. I’ve met so many people who tell me they’ve trained as composers.

I had only one commission the first year out of grad school, and I pieced things together by playing and teaching. But once I wrote the first piece, it was like I was bitten by a bug.

It’s been a slow, steady climb. I had two or three commissions the next year, and it grew by word of mouth. The first pieces mostly related to the flute. I played well enough to play professionally, and I’d give classes and play compositions I’d done for the flute. Then people would start asking me about other pieces for their instruments. I now write about 10 to 12 pieces a year.

I had a breakout year from 2000 to 2002, and I thought things would slow, but they haven’t. And 2010 has been a total explosion. It’s been an amazing run.

What can you say about the Cabrillo Festival?

I’m looking forward to being back there. This is my fourth trip. The community is so nice, and Marin [Alsop, music director and conductor] is amazing. I think it’s the best festival. It’s such a good time and such a world of exploration.

Two of your pieces will be performed there. Will you be giving the introductions?

Yes, I’ll introduce them. On a Wire will be performed by the ensemble eighth blackbird. It has an extended technical section in the piano. It’s a bowed piano, and the members of the sextet will be playing inside the piano with guitar picks and mallets, in addition to playing their own instruments and doubling on other instruments. It’s a really colorful piece. It was interesting to write for six soloists and an orchestra.

The other is a percussion piece, [called] Percussion Concerto, performed by Colin Currie. It has a real rock-and-roll element. He’s wonderful. I have him running around from side to side. He worked out regularly for this.

So you have a new career as combination composer and fitness trainer?

Yes, play this piece and lose two pounds.

How would you describe your compositions?

I’ve been told I have an American sound, but I’m not sure what that means. There is a lot of pulse and rhythm in my music. I grew up around pop music. There’s lots of color in my music.

I just heard an interview with another composer who was asked if he ever had a signature bit that shows up in all his pieces. He didn’t think so, but it’s an interesting thought. Do you have such a thing?

I don’t plant anything intentional, but I may be too close to the music to see it. People say they recognize my voice. I don’t want to say there’s nothing; some musicologist might tell me that I do. They always find things in my music that I don’t hear. They ask if it’s intentional, and I always have to say no.

That’s an interesting idea, planting something in every piece. It might be fun to do that intentionally during a single year.

What other career did you imagine you might be doing before you started with music?

I thought I’d be a creative person — art or photography or film — or maybe a writer. My parents and all their friends, our entire community, was involved in the arts, so I was sure I’d be doing something like that. And that may be why they didn’t try to discourage me from studying music, though they did think it was odd that it was classical music.

Anything else you might want to be doing if you weren’t a composer?

I need to be doing something creative. I’m not good or fun to be around when I’m not creating. I’m much calmer when I’m creating. I spend four to six hours a day composing. I don’t take it for granted.

Any hobbies? These days, I’m pretty much busy with music. Movies are probably my biggest diversion. I also love reading, though I don’t have enough time for it. I think there should be a law that we have to have two hours a day for reading.

Any other instruments you would like to play?

I’d like to be able to play the piano well. I also like bluegrass fiddling; I grew up around it and it’s amazing. I wrote a bluegrass-classical music hybrid concerto a few years ago.

What are you listening to these days?

It’s a huge combination. The Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, the Beatles, concert band music. My younger brother was visiting and we listened to Eminem’s latest album. All living artists. I listen to a lot of different stuff. I don’t often listen to standard classical music.