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.

Seven Days a Week

FRANK J. OTERI: We’re here in your studio, and there’s a nice piano behind you. Do you create at the piano? On paper? There’s a computer here. Do you use computer notation software? What’s your method?

JENNIFER HIGDON: I do everything. I have a manuscript book that I write lots of ideas down in, and I always also have some sort of a blank notebook that has no music staff in it whatsoever that I write in. I have blank Finale documents where I will just try things out, and I go back and forth between the piano and the computer. I usually start every piece writing it out by hand. Part of the way through the process, though, the ideas start coming so fast that I move off of the page and go to the computer. It’s like the piece starts to take on a life, but it takes a little while for it to get going, and in the beginning it’s usually a massive struggle with self-doubt. Every time I start a new piece I think, “I can’t remember how to write.” Even if I finished a piece last week and I started a piece three days ago, I’m sitting here staring at the blank page going, “I can’t remember how to do this.” It happens every single time. I’m kind of amazed, but I don’t think that ever goes away.

FJO: How long does it take you to compose something—say, a ten-minute orchestra piece?

JH: A ten-minute orchestra piece might take me a month to six weeks, but I once had a piece about that length for orchestra that I was able to do in about two weeks. But, I write every day, though. I write for four to six hours every single day. I have the luxury of being able to do that, and it means I have concentrated, sit-down time every day.

FJO: And that includes weekends?

JH: Including weekends. Seven days a week. In fact, it’s hard for me to take time off, because I get anxious about the piece. But I have to go through so many choices when I’m writing a piece that it takes me that long to look at all the possible options for every passage, every instrument, every choice I make in orchestration. I labor over the pieces a lot, and when I travel I take the pieces with me. I write in hotel rooms. I carry a laptop with me. At 1:00 in the morning, I’ll get the laptop out, and I’m like, “I’m not sure this works.” So, I work on it constantly; it’s a never-ending process. And as soon as I finish a piece, I start another piece, like, almost the next day.

FJO: Wow.

JH: Yeah.

FJO: But you say you get back to it and you’re learning it again from scratch, each time you do it.

JH: Yeah, you wouldn’t think this would be the case! [laughs]

FJO: So that first day with a new piece is always bad.

JH: It’s not bad; it’s awful for the first three, four, five, or six days! I’ve been going through that for the past couple of days now, saying: “I can’t come up with any ideas; this is uninteresting.” I think every idea’s uninteresting. I think, “This is going to be hideous.” I think, “This is going to crash and burn; it’s going to be a public crash and burn.” Oh, the doubt is rampant, and the suffering is massive. Poor Cheryl has to cope with it. She calls it the technique of talking the composer “off the ledge.” She says she’s going to write a book on dealing with the different stages of grief over a piece. There’s also that point at the end where you actually have to give the piece to the group, which means you can’t make any more changes, so it has to be wrenched out of my hands. It has to go off to whoever’s going to play it, and it is pretty agonizing.

FJO: Well, you talked about taking pieces out of circulation. Are there pieces that you’ll revise after the performance and keep in circulation?

JH: There have been one or two pieces that I have revised, but my schedule is so full with new works—the deadlines are lined up one after the other—that I don’t really have much time where I can revise. Fortunately, I work the things so much that by the time we get to the performance, just about everything works. Usually it’s small stuff, like dynamic changes or maybe I need to change an instrument. As soon as I got back from the Cabrillo Festival, I took the soprano sax score, sat down at the computer, and put the changes in immediately, because the next day another orchestra called asking to see a score. I’d rather have an accurate score going out, so I try to stay on top of the changes, because this stuff builds up fast.

FJO: Now, that ten-minute piece that you can write in two weeks—if the first six days are agony, that means you’ve really written it in eight days.

JH: [laughs] That’s true. It’s an interesting telescoping of time. Although sometimes, when they come out that fast, I knew what I wanted to do. Occasionally a piece will start immediately, and it’s always a surprise when it happens. My ideas may actually come at some point in the middle of the piece. I don’t write from the beginning to the end; I frequently don’t do that. I often will write a middle movement first; I will skip around. Whichever idea comes first, that’s the one I grab. I just don’t know where that idea’s going to fit in the entire puzzle when I get done. So it does mean that there are a lot of sketches, because I’m writing ideas down and I don’t use a lot of the ideas. And then with some of them I’ll think it might be the beginning, but it turns out that it fits better at the end. So it’s assembling a lot of information, but I have to have enough hours working on it to figure out what works and what won’t work. But I never know until a year after the premiere. I swear, even then, I doubt after the premiere; I’m like, “Well, did that work, or do I need to change something there?” And usually about a year later I go, “Okay, maybe it does work.”

FJO: Are there any pieces that gestate for really long periods of time?

JH: Yeah. My Concerto for Orchestra. I found out about the commission in 1998, and it was premiered in 2002. It was the first large orchestra work I’d done in terms of duration. I’d written a lot of chamber pieces that were 30 minutes, but I’d never written anything like that for orchestra. I thought about it for a good year and a half before I started writing anything, trying to figure, architecturally, how I would design the piece, what would make it interesting. Some of my music is really frenetic, so I thought, “Boy, 35 minutes of frenetic—that might kill somebody, so I need to figure out how to chill out.” I really pondered that a lot. That one gestated. And to make sure, in case I had a creative block, I actually allowed a year and a half to write that one, and what I did is write a movement, then go off and do a little chamber piece in between each of the movements to let my brain cool down. But that one probably had the longest gestation: two years of really thinking about it, pondering shape, size, what to do, and also to get over the panic of writing something for the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was also the first time I’d written something for such a major orchestra. It took me a while to get my head around that; it was little intimidating.

FJO: And it was intimidating beyond that, because not only were you writing for the Philadelphia Orchestra, you were writing for the Philadelphia Orchestra during the American Symphony Orchestra League Conference, which means that almost every decision maker in the whole orchestra community in this country was going to hear it.

JH: Now, they didn’t tell me that aspect. When I found that out, I almost fainted, actually [laughs]. They didn’t tell me when they were going to program it. I knew they had a series of commissions, and they said, “Well, it will probably be at the end of the run of the commissions, and we think we’ll do these premieres over two years,” but that’s about all the information I got. I was probably two-thirds through the piece when they told it me it was going to be done at the conference.

FJO: But, of course that’s the greatest thing that could ever happen for a composer. Everyone you could possibly want to market the piece to in this country was probably there!

JH: Either the greatest or the worst—depends on how you look at it! I realized everything in my life was coming down to thirty minutes. If the piece bombed, that was it; there would be no more commissions. And I have been really adamant throughout my life about supporting myself on commissions, so I realized that if this went down the tubes, there’d be no going back. I’d be getting a job at Mickey D’s. I was having images—because your brain goes through scenarios—and I must confess it never occurred to me it would have the success it did. Somehow, that scenario did not enter my mind. I think because I was too terrified. And when I found out this was happening I knew that all these people would be coming to Philly to see the new hall; the hall had just opened a couple of months before. They wanted to hear the Philadephia Orchestra and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Ein Heldenleben, and they were looking at the program, justifiably so, going, “Who’s this Jennifer Higdon?” I mean, I totally understand, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s the whole first half of the program!” You can almost hear the debate, “Should we stay and have dessert and coffee at our dinner, and maybe go in for the second half?” [laughs].

An amazing thing though, and I have to admit I hadn’t thought about this, they had an open rehearsal the day of the concert, and I was so nervous I’m not sure who was there, but I think there were a lot of people there who popped in to see whether they should stay later for dinner and have coffee and dessert. And as soon as the open rehearsal was over, all the concerts sold out. Like, within ten minutes there were no empty seats left for the next four performances, and I suspect that that may have gotten me over a hump, and I was just so nervous I didn’t realize it. I can barely remember it, Frank, to be quite honest. I think I was just too in shock and too nervous and too exhausted from not sleeping for, like, weeks leading up to it. No one could have been more shocked than me at the reaction; I was really totally blown away.

FJO: And then you got a front page review in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

JH: A front page review with a photo. A color photo! Kind of surreal. So, the day of the concert, I go to this little cafe close to here, and I’m talking to the waiter and he says, “Oh you got a big concert tonight, so I’m going to see it on the front of the paper.” And I said, “Are you kidding? This is America! They don’t put composers on the front of papers.” The only instance I can think of where a composer’s been on the front of a paper was Charles Ives when he won the Pulitzer. And, in fact, I had told the kids in my class at Curtis, “That doesn’t happen.” So I told the guy this at the cafe, and the next day my mom sends me to the grocery to get bread and milk because we had a lot of guests here at the house, and the grocer looked at me, looked at the paper, and said, “Isn’t this you on the front of the paper?” And I looked down and it was me taking a bow at the concert. I couldn’t believe it. On the front of the paper! The Philadelphia Inquirer. I still can’t believe it to this day.

FJO: What happened the next time you ran into the waiter?

JH: He said, “I told you!” And I said, “How did you know?” He’s never let me forget that, actually, but what a great problem to have.

FJO: Now, in terms of it never happening, that’s not completely true. There have been a few other times that composers made it to the front page of a major daily newspaper, but normally it’s when somebody dies. I remember when Messiaen, Cage, and Bernstein each made the front page of The New York Times when they died.

JH: That I can understand, because those are legends. They’re historical figures. I was an unknown composer getting a premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The really funny thing is, some of the musicians confessed to me later that they had nicknamed my piece—they were doing Ein Heldenleben later on, in the second half—they’d actually nicknamed my piece Ein Higdonleben. They didn’t tell me this the week it was played—I guess I must have looked kind of pale, like no blood in my face, I was nervous—but they admitted it a couple weeks later. I was at a festival with them where we were working with high school kids in youth orchestras, and I was down there working with young composers, and they said, “We nicknamed the piece the Ein Higdonleben,” and I was like, “Really?” and thought. “Is that an insult or not?” Then I realized it was actually the ultimate compliment. Couldn’t get better than that, man! [laughs]


Now, in terms of, “This is America. This doesn’t happen,” I want to jump on that for a bit. Why doesn’t it happen?

JH: I’ve always wondered that. I don’t know; I have no idea. Because we’re a culture, I think, that embraces the performer above all. I know too many instances where composers have shown up with an orchestra, and there’s been a performer there, and they’ll put the performer in the Four Seasons and the composer in the Holiday Inn. I’ve seen that happen to a few of my colleagues. It’s just a culture built around the performers. Look at the pianist Lang Lang; I think he has endorsements with Rolex, Cadillac, Subaru, Dolce & Gabbana. When he was showing me his Dolce & Gabbana outfit, I had to ask, “What is that? Is that, like, two brand names?” I didn’t even know what it was! I had a certain level of cluelessness, but we live in a culture that looks at the performer as a rock star. We look at rock bands, we look at rappers, but we’re not always aware of who the songwriter is.

FJO: But Lang Lang’s not likely going to be on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer either.

JH: He’s in Vanity Fair, though.

FJO: Not on the front page!

JH: Not on the front page.

FJO: And a lot of rock stars write their own material, so they are the composers of their material.

JH: Yeah, that’s true. That’s right. Although Alison Krauss, at her concert the other day, always mentioned who the songwriter was for the song. I was impressed by that, I have to admit. She’s a songwriter herself, a very good one, so I appreciate the fact that she was willing to mention that. But I’ll see posters for things that are music or opera-based, and they won’t have the composer listed. They’ll have the director listed, they’ll have the librettist, and sometimes they forget to put the composer there. I don’t know why that is, but I guess it’s just something that—well, we have to change it, don’t we? Let’s march! [laughs] I tease people all the time, or I’ll tease orchestras, because sometimes the ensembles will go to record a work of mine, and they’ll forget to tell me they’re recording the work. Somehow the composer’s just not as obvious in their mind, as strange as that sounds. It shouldn’t be that way, and it kind of drives me up the wall.

FJO: At least they’re recording the work. It’s a lot better than a composer asking for a work to be recorded and being told that they’re not allowed to make a recording for whatever reason.

JH: Yeah, that’s true. This thing with orchestras and recordings has gotten a little bit better with some orchestras, but it’s amazing to me that orchestras would not give a recording to the composer. It’s just totally unacceptable. The orchestras are hurting themselves and the entire industry. And a composer’s not going to make money off of this, there’s just no way. Composers just don’t make that kind of money; it just doesn’t happen that way.

FJO: And for you, you’re at the point where you can’t possibly attend every performance of your music. You were talking before about how there were four performances of blue cathedral that happened on the same night.

JH: Yeah. Most weekends I have several performances going on. Sometimes it’s choral things and chamber, and occasionally I’ll have simultaneous orchestra concerts going on in different cities.

FJO: So one would imagine—or maybe not—that since you can’t be there, you’d want to hear these performances. So they should send them to you.

JH: Yeah, they should. But they often don’t.

FJO: Would you want to hear every performance?

JH: I don’t want to hear every performance, but it would be nice to have a recording, because occasionally a piece has had kind of a rough birth into the world, and you know that it’s had a better performance in another place that’s gone on that you couldn’t get to. Usually I have to make a dozen phone calls trying to get the orchestra to give me a recording—sometimes over six months. I’ve had to call for that long, and I’ll be persistent about it, but it shouldn’t be that way.

FJO: There’s something wonderfully logical about how you deal with all of these problems that I’d dare say comes across as quintessential Jennifer Higdon practicality.

JH: Is there such a thing? Is this that “Higdon hard” question people keep teasing me about recently? They’re like, “Is it Higdon hard?” and I’m like, “What does that mean?”

FJO: Well, the whole do-it-yourself aesthetic, the whole self-publishing operation. “Oh, I can make sure that the revisions get done.” It seems like it all ultimately comes out of the issue of being practical, more than anything else.

JH: Yeah, that’s true. The self-publishing did start out with a practicality thing. I couldn’t get any publisher to take my music early on, and they were probably really smart not to, because that was real junk I was writing, but it was a practical thing. People were asking for music, and I thought, “Well, why don’t I just do this?”

They have a new music festival at Bowling Green every year. Philip Glass was the main artist one year when I was there. And I remember we were all standing in the kitchen of the dean’s house talking to Philip Glass. You’d hear college students say, “Mr. Glass, what do you do? How do you make a living as a composer?” And I remember distinctly him saying, “If you want to make a living as a composer, keep the rights to your pieces.” And I think that went in my brain somewhere in a file in the back, but my initial foray into self-publishing came about out of necessity. People wanted the music, but the only way to get it to them was for me to give it to them, for me to either Xerox it or print it up. Not long after I started doing that, there was an orchestra I was conducting, and we couldn’t afford to rent music. We just couldn’t afford it. Our budget was too tiny, and I wanted to do new music. And I realized that there was a barrier there. I wanted to do new music, but we couldn’t do it. Now, I understand the way publishing works, you have to be able to support the system that is a publishing house, but I had too many instances of frustration. I played in a chamber music concert at Lincoln Center where I did rapid*fire and I did two Elliott Carter pieces. We had so many problems getting the Carter pieces that it was seriously problematic, and I realized somewhere—that was around the time that I was conducting the orchestra—how important it was to not have a barrier between performers who want the music and being able to get it to them.

FJO: But now you’re one of the most in-demand composers in America.

JH: Is that so? [laughs]

FJO: Well, you’re one of the ten most played by orchestras, according to the surveys done by the League.

JH: Yeah, we have a lot of performances.

FJO: You talked about 125 orchestras playing blue cathedral. If all the materials are coming out of this apartment, how the hell do you do that?

JH: It’s a lot of work. It’s a seven-day-a-week industry, it really is, and we always work. I became incorporated a couple of years ago so that I could have a full-time employee. We can turn an order around in 24 hours. We’ll call the orchestra back in a couple of hours after they call us. We can answer almost immediately, and I think that’s important. It’s hard enough getting new music done, anyways, so I didn’t want there to be an additional barrier. But the nice part is, we get situations where there’s a junior high somewhere and they don’t have any money, but they really want a piece. We’ll send it to them. I don’t see any reason not to if there’s a way to enable the spreading of music. Why not? We’re all supposed to be in the same boat rowing together; that’s the most important thing. But this also allows me to make changes in the pieces, or sometimes adapt pieces for a particular group if they have a particular instrumentation. I can sit down and do that because I have the copyright. It’s still my piece.

FJO: And doing all of this yourself—going back to Philip Glass—you can make a living?

JH: Oh yeah, absolutely. I make my living from commissions and publishing. My teaching is a negligible amount. And I’ve been able to do that since 1994, so, what is that, 13 years? What year are we in? [laughs] So it is totally doable. It helps other people, too, I think, because other composers can go, “Oh, well, if she can do it, maybe I can do it.” So, I often will talk to them about that when I go to universities: what you have to do, how to get it set up. So, it’s a different ploy, isn’t it? It’s not the way the music model has worked up until now, but with computers, Staples, and OfficeMax—heck, why not?