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 Different World

FRANK J. OTERI: Your accent is a clear giveaway that you grew up in the South, but I recently discovered that you were born in Brooklyn.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Southern Brooklyn! [laughs]

FJO: But your years in the south are definitely what shaped your world view to some extent. You talked about growing up immersed in rock and country, and you still listen to this music. So what made you want to write music for the orchestra?

JH: Many of my high school classmates ask me that all the time, “What is it you’re doing? We don’t understand.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s a different world.” I actually didn’t grow up around classical music. My dad worked at home. He was a commercial artist, and he had a lot of ‘60s folk rock: Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul, and Mary, really good stuff, really juicy stuff. We had a lot of reggae before reggae was really big. My parents were always taking my brother and me to various art happenings around Atlanta, experimental animation festivals, anything that opened in the art exhibit world. We just went to everything. My dad would sometimes put these things together with art students, when he was teaching art in Atlanta. But I didn’t really have any classical music in my background, and then I picked up the flute. We had a flute lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and I taught myself to play from band method books. I think it was Belwyn-Mills, something like a “Level One: This is how you finger a D.” I taught myself to play, and so I joined the band at my high school. Actually, that was 30 years ago, now, because this is the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis’s death. I remember Elvis died when I joined the band. What a weird thing to remember, huh? [laughs] I joined the band and I decided I wanted to major in music, but now that I think about it, I didn’t know any classical music. When I went off to college as a flute performance major, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know the Beethoven symphonies, I mean, I knew nothing. I knew a few flute pieces, like some Bach sonatas, and Cecile Chaminade’s Concertino—what a piece!

FJO: That’s actually cool, though. One of the first pieces of music you knew was by a woman composer. So you didn’t get programmed to think, “Wait a minute, I can’t do this as a woman.”

JH: That’s true, and also because my parents at no time said to me ever, “You can’t do this because you’re a woman.” I don’t think it occurred to them; it never occurred to me. I don’t think there was any point where they said anything like that to me, that I couldn’t do it. And no one really said to me, “Well, you can’t really major in music, you don’t know the music. You don’t know anything.” And so I went off to Bowling Green to major in flute performance. But I was really starting at ground zero, though. They put me in “dummy” theory class. I didn’t know what an interval was; I didn’t know what a chord was. And I knew about five or six piece for the flute.

FJO: Wow. So, when you first heard all of this folk music and rock and reggae, did you ever try to come up with any of your music?

JH: No, not really. It’s very strange, I know. Talk about a late start. But I was always doing creative stuff, and this may be the connection to classical music and becoming a composer. When I was growing up, my brother and I used to make 8mm films. We had a camera around—we had a 16mm and an 8mm, and he and I would do claymation and all of these experimental animation things. We were always making films, and we were always drawing. And usually, when most kids quit, we were still doing things, and making little sculptures out of wires. And I also was writing all the time—words, not notes, but I was always writing. So there was always creativity in the house, and it eventually transformed into music.

FJO: So, with all the music you were exposed to, and all the music you still listen to, why classical?

JH: [laughs] You know what? I don’t know! There’s a real depth there. What is it that Peter Schickele says, “Country music is four chords,” to which someone says, “What’s the fourth chord?” But the nice thing about classical is that it’s about a thousand chords, so it’s a much bigger box of crayons. Maybe it’s the volume of an orchestra. It’s a good question, because I love chamber music and I must have written like 60, 70, 80 chamber pieces. That’s kind of how I got started as a composer. It was writing for friends, writing lots and lots of small works. And my flute teacher in Bowling Green was the one who got me started on composing. She’s the one who made me write a piece. The first piece I wrote was a chamber piece called Night Creatures. It was a minute and a half, and it only had six tones. It was a six-tone piece!

FJO: I want to hear that.

JH: Yeah, I don’t think we have it anywhere. Sorry! But I can tell you that the piano part was like this [plays repeated note on piano]. That was the whole piano part, and flute kind of meandering over the top of that. It was just one note on the piano, and the flute basically had six tones. And the whole thing was written in 6/4. It’s, like, my Opus Minus 6. But my flute teacher must have said something. She was an amazing composition teacher. She was an amazing flute teacher; she was an amazing music teacher: Judith Bentley. I learned more from that lady about music and how things are put together than anyone. She got me started on writing, and once I started doing it, it was addictive. I went ahead and finished my degree in flute, so I did the usual flute recital, and that kind of stuff, and I kept playing, too, but I had to compose. I had no choice, quite honestly, which I think is something most composers experience. You do it because you absolutely have to.

FJO: So, once you figured out that it was something that you could do, it was all you wanted to do.

JH: It took over. Kind of like how we say in the South, “Like kudzu vine.” It grows everywhere and takes over absolutely everything: that was composition. All the way through school I was catching up. I mean, I just didn’t know the standard repertoire; I just didn’t have the same body of knowledge as a lot of my classmates. And I tell students this all the time when they visit universities. Most of them are actually kind of further along where they are in their current degree programs than I was at their age. I think it was maybe only five of six years ago that was the first time I felt like I had any clue as to what I was doing. So I tell people that it’s really just a matter a hanging in there and really applying yourself to keeping the curiosity alive. Sometimes when you study something so much, you lose the magic of what that first experience of hearing Stravinsky was like, and—what the heck—the first experience of hearing Copland. Everyone’s got that memory, but somehow I’ve figured out how to keep that intact despite all the studies, the thousands of hours of practicing, the thousands of hours of counterpoint. And I love counterpoint, but, you can lose the fun of it, which would be sad.

FJO: You divide your time now between composing and teaching composition.

JH: Yeah, I don’t teach much anymore, I’m on the road so much. I actually only have two students at Curtis. I’m only in two hours a week. The school is all adjunct, so we call in and say, “I’m coming in on this day,” and they set up the lesson for the students. It’s really unusual, but it’s because everyone who teaches at the school is an active musician. I also do try to do some visiting work. This year I will be at Mannes as a visiting professor for the composers. Last year I did Ithaca [College]. I get a couple of those in every year, and then I usually have a couple of residencies with orchestras somewhere. So I kind of do it by proxy, master classes and visiting schools and stuff like that.

FJO: But I know it’s really important for you. I’ve seen you in action as one of the composer mentors at the ACO readings in Philadelphia last spring.

JH: I love doing it because it provokes interesting art conversations, and it’s so great to see a light-bulb go on. It doesn’t always happen. It’s the same as a performance: the interaction between the performer and the audience. It’s the same thing when you’re teaching. To see the student have a response and say, “Oh, yeah, I get it,” or, “Maybe I will check that out,” is just incredible. So instead of standing on the stage with my flute, I probably do it at the front of the classroom more.

FJO: I know that you don’t really play the flute much anymore.

FJO: I haven’t played much in the past two years. Last year I played on a recording that didn’t take much on my part; it was a pretty simple flute part. The last concert I did was with Eugenia Zuckerman. I was in residence at Vale a couple of years ago, and we did a two-flute recital. Boy, playing flute at that altitude! It’s higher than Aspen. I did one of the Brandenburg Concertos there with Helen O’Connor, Pam Frank, and Peter Wiley—incredible players. These are players that I’m used to sitting in the audience and watching, and suddenly I’m soloing at the front of the orchestra at this festival at a high altitude. I had a moment where I’m like, “How did I get here? What happened? How did I get up here in the front?” I really had a freak-out moment, but it was so much fun, and once I got over my freak-out moment, I was okay.