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.

Experimentation vs. Communication

FRANK J. OTERI: Hearing you describe freaking out reminds me of that little essay you wrote for us about John Cage.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Yeah, my dad loved that. My dad apparently danced around the house for weeks singing, “Jennifer said I’m right,” and my step-mom said, “Get over it!” My dad and I are always arguing about John Cage, and about art, and about what makes a piece of art. When I was younger, I was taken to so many art happenings with really strange things going on on the stage. Maybe I should tell you about one of the more bizarre ones. My brother and I went to this thing that was at the auditorium in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. This artist had strapped himself to a black canvas, and he was dressed all in black. The plan was to put glue all over the front of his canvas and his clothes and to turn on a fan down the aisle in the auditorium and put white feathers in, and have the feathers blow on the artist who was attached to the canvas. He thought that he would just appear out the darkness, and suddenly there would be white feathers there. But he didn’t think about the fact that if you use something like rubber cement, which you would have to use to be sticky enough to catch the feathers, that that stuff affects you immediately, that it can make you high instantaneously. And so, he gets out there on the stage. They’d just put the rubber cement on him, and he was standing there maybe two or three seconds, and then suddenly he just passed out. Now, he was strapped to the canvas, so he went over completely backwards on the stage. He collapsed, and it was quiet for a moment. Then I heard a guy behind us say, “Is that guy alright up there?” My brother and I looked at each other—I think I was about six years old and my brother was four, or I was seven and he was five—and I remember thinking, “What are these adults doing? This is what they call art?” I actually thought that at a young age. I actually might have gotten all the need for heavy experimenting out of my system by the time I was nine from attending so many things like this. I often think about that guy strapped to the canvas, and how he didn’t think through the process very well. Things like that happen in performances, and I think, “Hmm, I don’t want to repeat that mistake, so maybe I ought to figure out a way around it.” But it’s an interesting thing for a kid to see. Educational. [laughs]

FJO: What’s so interesting about the debate between you and your father is that it’s normally the kid who’s the rebellious experimenter, and the parent is, like, “Oh, that’s not art. That’s not music.” For you, it was the other way around.

JH: There’s a joke in the family that I’m the black sheep. My parents were into rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelics—my dad still wears tie-dyeds; he never stopped wearing them, actually! But the cool thing is they gave me the freedom to choose for myself, and then empowered me to do that. I think that was the gift. But I was the black sheep by going the more conservative route artistically. People are sometimes surprised that I’m aware of all the stuff that was going on in the ’60s. They don’t realize I actually was in the middle of my dad making all of these experimental films with all his art students. It gave me the chance to experience that kind of art-making, and allowed me to decide early on, like from kindergarten age, what I thought worked for me and what I thought didn’t work. So it actually opened doors for me in certain ways because I was getting through the decision-making earlier in the process. It’s really kind of unusual.</p.

FJO: What if being avant-garde is old-fashioned, and to have gone past that mindset is actually being new?

JH: I remember when I started really getting into composing, I made the decision early on that it wasn’t enough to do something new, that whatever I decided to write, whether it was atonal—like rapid*fire which is a pretty atonal piece—or whether it was tonal, the material had to be good. I figured that the manipulation of the material would have to be interesting for the listener, and it didn’t mean that something had to necessarily be new. I just didn’t feel the need to have to do this stuff. I experienced so much of it when I was younger that it just didn’t hold the thrill for me that maybe it does for others.

FJO: I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the raging debates in the Chatter section of NewMusicBox, but one of Randy’s recent threads about titles reminded me of your solo flute piece rapid*fire. Your notes for Patti Monson’s recording of it described how the piece was inspired by urban turmoil. And you can really hear that in the music, once you’re listening for it. You’ve also written all these string quartets with evocative titles. But the titles of all your concertos just refer to what they are, you know: Oboe Concerto, etc.

JH: I know. Why couldn’t I come up with an evocative title for those? There’s actually a real explanation for that. I search desperately for titles when I’m writing. From the moment I start writing the piece, I start pondering title possibilities. And at some point in writing the piece, a bunch of titles will present themselves to me. I start writing them all down, and I wait for one of them to emerge as the winner. But there are pieces, especially the concerti that I’ve been doing—they’re so much about the instrument and the orchestra that I could not come up with a title. I tried for the entire duration of writing. I finally broke that spell with the piece I just finished, The Singing Rooms, which is a violin concerto for Jenny Koh and the Philadelphia Orchestra that has a choral part. I used six different poems, and I imagined a person wandering throughout a house where there was always singing, and how every room would be different. So I came up with The Singing Rooms, and it stuck. The minute I saw the title, I knew that it was the one. So, it’s the first concerto that I’ve done that doesn’t have a boring title.

FJO: If you title something with a generic name that’s self-referential about itself—the piece is about the music. Something called an oboe concerto prepares folks to hear the piece in the context of music written for oboe and orchestra. But if you title it something else, if you give it a title like blue cathedral, it conjures up a bunch of other, extramusical things. In a way, you’re attaching a program to it. You’re saying that this music means more than just notes on a page.

JH: Are you? I think it depends on the person who actually created that work. I think all viewpoints on this subject are totally valid. I don’t depend on people knowing the names of the pieces or even the program notes.

I wasn’t going to reveal the story of blue cathedral to anybody. A reporter asked, and I couldn’t bring myself to lie about it having written a memorial to my brother, whose middle name was “Blue.” I actually talked about the commissioning of it, that it was a commission for Curtis, that it was their 75th anniversary. I tried to focus on that, but the reporter kept pushing and took it in the direction of, “There must be something else to it.” So I couldn’t not answer the question. And the minute one person wrote something in the press about it, that was it. Every time that piece was done after that, it was referenced. Then people started asking more specific questions: “Tell me about your brother.” So there was no way I could pull that information back. It didn’t occur to me to say, “None of your business.” It’s not a good Southern thing to do—it’s not good Southern manners! [laughs]

FJO: But given human nature, given your desire to communicate with an audience, and music being only an abstract combination of rhythms, pitches, timbres, and what have you, having the anchor of a story about your brother could be a way to bring people into this piece who otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten brought in.

JH: It is. But I have had a couple of instances where an orchestra forgot to put it in the program notes. And there was no pre-concert talk, and no statement from the stage. And the piece actually evoked the same reactions. I was out in the lobby at intermission, and people would be emotional; they’d come up and say, “What is that piece about?” Occasionally that happens, where there is no reference to what that piece is about. I think it’s O.K. for the piece not to even have the program notes. For me, the program notes don’t have to be there.

I sometimes really struggle with the program notes. I’m usually on programs of standard repertoire; most of my music shows up with Beethoven and Brahms. The audiences have a little more comfort in their first encounter with my music if there’s something. But if it were left up to me, I probably wouldn’t put program notes on anything at all. I think the music should be able to speak for itself, but I can understand why some people want them, so I try to find a way to accommodate. People have written program notes for my pieces, and I’ve looked at the program notes and thought, “Wow, they’re off the mark! They’re really, really off the mark!” But it’s going to happen. If you’re getting a lot of performances, things like that happen by mistake, you know: “Oh we forgot to put the program notes in,” or, “Someone just wrote something. They thought maybe you were interested in painting.” For blue cathedral, I was like, “Well, I guess that’s not untrue.” [laughs]

FJO: Well, I certainly witnessed an overwhelming audience response to the premiere of a piece of yours at Cabrillo this summer which did not have a programmatic title, your saxophone concerto. I’d been told there’s something extraordinary about the audience there—but still it was amazing to witness firsthand such a positive audience response to a brand new piece of music.

JH: There’s good energy in Santa Cruz. That whole festival really supports the composers, and the performers, too. The town turns out to cook all their meals when they’re having rehearsals, and they tell the composers, “Come in, you can have breakfast,” “Come in, you can have lunch.” That’s the citizenry of Santa Cruz. It’s amazing.

FJO: But this wasn’t just a function of having a very appreciative audience. I’m a life-long new music person, and I’ve seen it all: sometimes a piece gets responded to ecstatically, sometimes people are surreptitiously walking out, sometimes the venue is empty. But here you had an entire full house, and everyone was ecstatic. It was like someone had hit a homerun at a baseball game. I thought that it was something that should happen every time, but of course it doesn’t. And so it made me want to talk to you about it. How can you make that happen? Do you want it to happen? What do you do to try to make that happen? Where do you perceive yourself within the whole vortex of audience communication?

JH: I think a lot about communicating. I know that everyone who makes art has a different expectation of what that art’s going to do in the world. Some people are just expressing something inside. Some people are trying to communicate. I recently went to see Alison Krauss. I love bluegrass. She’s amazing: incredible voice and a great songwriter. She’s only 33 and she’s won, like, 18 Grammys, something really insane. But I was struck by the fact that she thinks completely about the performance and how she’s communicating with the audience, and you can tell by her interaction on stage.

People ask me all the time, “How do you feel about being accessible?” To me it’s not a matter of accessibility, it’s a matter of communicating. For me as an artist, that’s an important aspect of what I do. To me, it doesn’t make sense not to. And I actually find it a greater challenge to write something that I hope will communicate than it is to just set out writing anything without even thinking about the communication thing. I really have to ponder how I’m going to take the listener from the opening measure to the end of the piece, because I hope to hold their attention the entire time. I don’t think there’s any way to know how to write a “home-run piece,” though. I think you try to write something that’s true, that’s heartfelt, and I think the audience will respond. It’s like working on a seed of faith and hoping that the crop will come up with the crop you’re planting, but you just don’t know.

FJO: While you admit that you can’t write a home-run piece, you did say you craft your music so that an audience will respond. So, what kinds of things would you put in, versus things you wouldn’t put in? What are your basic building blocks?

JH: That’s a good question. I actually don’t know! [laughs] My theory teachers would be horrified to hear me say that. I actually write instinctively. Through the years I’ve done a lot of schooling and training and I’ve studied a lot of scores. But when it comes down to sitting down and actually writing a piece of music, I think about the person I’m writing for, and I think about the ensemble and the balance, and I try to think of something that will make that instrument sing, and things that show that instrument in a light that is typical of that instrument. But I don’t actually ever think about keys, I don’t think about motivic cells. I had a lesson with George Crumb once, and he said in the lesson, “Jennifer, the most important thing in the end is how it sounds.” And I remember sitting in the lesson and thinking, “Well, gosh, if that’s the most important thing, maybe I should start from that standpoint and trust that all my training will lead me.” Now, the ironic thing is, there are three or four students doing dissertations on my pieces now, and are dissecting them, and they’re finding all kinds of things, much to my surprise and much to their surprise, because they often come to me and say, “Alright, can you show me your sketches and what you’ve been thinking theoretically? How did you put this together? How did you construct this piece?” I usually don’t have many answers for them. But they find all sorts of things in my sketches. I think a lot of it maybe happens instinctively from studying enough music and having played in an orchestra and having conducted orchestras. I think there’s just a body of knowledge that just kind of accumulated over the years. And the pieces that don’t work, I throw away. I give myself permission to fail on things. I will try different languages, different styles of pieces, different speeds for things to unfold, and if it doesn’t work, I don’t keep it.

FJO: How do you know it doesn’t work if this is before it even gets to the performance stage?

JH: Sometimes you don’t know. There have been pieces of mine where I thought, “Oh, this is never going to work,” and we got into the performance, and it actually worked: blue cathedral was a perfect example. I actually conducted the first run-through with the Curtis Orchestra, before Robert Spano was slated to do the concert. They said, “Can you come in and actually run it with the orchestra, just so they can get a feel for it?” So I said I would, which was pretty scary, because I was trying to listen and conduct at the same time, which is not always easy if it’s your own piece. But even then I didn’t have a sense of whether the piece was working until I got home and really stopped to think about it, and said, “Oh, I think the piece really doesn’t work!” So I’m not always the best judge. I can tell that a piece isn’t going to work when we get into the rehearsals if I talk to the performers a lot and find out when they’re having difficulties. You can get kind of a gut feeling, but you have to be quiet and listen to the struggle they’re having and whether the piece is coming across or not. It’s really kind of an odd sort of thing when it feels like a piece is not working. It’s like it has low energy or something. A lot of times I’ll let the piece go out into the world for another one or two other performances. If it’s a consistent reaction where it just doesn’t make any kind of an impact, I think the piece probably doesn’t work, and I’ll pull it. I had a solo cello piece that was premiered maybe three or four years at Merkin Hall. The piece just didn’t work. I mean, it really wasn’t interesting to listen to. I was bored by it, and I think other people were bored by it, too. And I think it was also awkward for the cellist. So as soon as that piece was done, I withdrew it. It doesn’t need to be out there in the world.

FJO: Suppose 30 cellists read this talk and contact you saying: “I want to try this piece. Maybe I could make it work.” What will you say? “No. Play this instead”?

JH: Yeah, I actually do, I say, “The piece has been withdrawn.” We actually do get requests all the time for pieces that have been pulled. I probably have pulled two dozen pieces, maybe even a little more than that.

FJO: I guess that’s just one of the advantages of being self-published.

JH: That’s it! [laughs] Another lesson from George Crumb: He talked about being young and signing on with publishers, and then regretting later on that he couldn’t withdraw pieces. You could tell it caused him personal pain. He felt really uncomfortable with some of his pieces, and, in fact, I think he ended up buying back the rights to some of those pieces and actually removing them from circulation.

FJO: What happens then if a piece gets recorded that you no longer want out there?

JH: I had that happen with one of the first pieces I wrote. I thought it was only in my house, but it turned out other people were Xeroxing it—it was a flute choir piece—and it has been recorded a lot. There’s nothing I can do. It is now in the world at this point. The flute players like playing it, but I’m kind of horrified by the piece [laughs].

FJO: After a while you have to let go.

JH: Well, with this piece, I’ve done that. I ended up going back and putting it on the computer, because it was an awful manuscript, and so many flute players were asking for it that I thought, “Well, somebody’s enjoying it, maybe I should allow it.” And I can’t stop it; at that point I couldn’t prevent it from being out in the world because it was already out there in the world, so I let that one go. But I’ve been pretty successful in catching the others before they got away [laughs].