Jennifer Higdon: Down to Earth

Jennifer Higdon: Down to Earth

If ever there was a spokesperson who could clearly describe what this field is to folks who are not a part of it and get them excited to learn more about it, it’s Jennifer Higdon.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

A conversation at her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
August 16, 2007—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow
Transcribed by S.C. Birmaher

Jennifer Higdon should be no stranger to readers of NewMusicBox and folks who follow the new music scene in the United States. Her orchestra composition blue cathedral is one of those rarest of species among contemporary works: a repertoire item. It’s now been programmed by over a hundred orchestras worldwide. In fact, Higdon is now among the top ten most widely performed orchestral composers in America. And while her music is a favorite of American rising star conductors Marin Alsop and Robert Spano, Jennifer has also written a ton of chamber music that’s championed by groups ranging from the Cypress and Ying quartets to eighth blackbird and the Verdehr Trio. One of the most fascinating aspects of her success is that she’s done it without the help of a major publisher, and to this day she remains self-published.

My earliest contact with Jennifer was during a panel I moderated back in 1999 for the Women’s Philharmonic called “Composing a Career,” which featured the participation of some of the most knowledgeable people in the music industry. Jennifer, who was an emerging composer in the audience, was so well-spoken in a question that she posed to the group that we asked her to come up on stage and join the panel. Jennifer’s combination of articulateness and passion for the field has made her an ideal panelist in numerous contexts over the years, and she has been something of a goto person for NewMusicBox about self-publishing issues.

Inside Pages:

Another running theme in our discussions over the years has been her distance from the experimental tradition, a tradition which is something many listeners have come to equate with the very notion of new music. Perhaps one of the reasons her music is so successful is that it does not sound like that sort of music. But the aesthetic universe Jennifer Higdon inhabits is far more complicated than a listener-friendly vs. listener-unfriendly paradigm. She has written her share of challenging pieces. She even jokes about musicians referring to her trademark virtuosity as “Higdon hard.” Yet she breaks her own rules from time to time. After getting accustomed to her frequently fast and fiery sound world, I was totally surprised to hear her rapturously beautiful new Saxophone Concerto at the Cabrillo Festival this summer. I knew I had to finally have an in-depth talk with her for NewMusicBox as soon as I was back on the East Coast.

Jennifer is amazingly practical. In fact, I’ll dare to say that I’ve never had a conversation with a composer that was so completely down to earth. If ever there was a spokesperson who could clearly describe what this field is to folks who are not a part of it and get them excited to learn more about it, it’s Jennifer. And while her views on experimentation may ruffle a few feathers here—they’ve actually made me do a ton of soul searching of late—she is wonderfully open-minded and one of the most generous music citizens I’ve ever encountered. There’s quite a bit of sage advice to be mined from reading through our talk—everything from maintaining a steady work routine to being able to evaluate your music objectively—that I think we can all learn from.