The Classical Station’s Interview with Jennifer Higdon for Quarter Notes

Interview with Jennifer Higdon

(photo credit: © Andrew Bogard)

Our Music Director Caleb Gardner speaks with the GRAMMY and Pulitzer Prize winning composer.

Caleb Gardner: Part of your background includes growing up listening to mostly pop music and not taking up serious composition until college. In what specific ways do you think that history affects your compositions?

Jennifer Higdon: Ooh, that’s a good question. One of the things I think I may have picked up from all the pop music I listen to, as a kid especially, was from The Beatles. I remember that I felt like they were always telling a story with their songs. There’s something about the need to communicate that feels imperative to me. And I know for every artist this is a little different. Some people are interested in just making a statement. Other people are interested in making a statement to a certain group of people, and then other people are interested in making a statement that they would like to be understood by as many people as possible. And when I look back on it now, I have a fondness for melody and rhythm. It sounds really simple, but I think that might come from the pop realm. It’s storytelling through music, even if you don’t have words. I’m getting ready to write a string quartet right now, and I’m sitting here obsessing: “What am I going to do that’s going to make this piece stand out on a concert? What can I do to hold up against, say, Beethoven?” Because as a composer, you want to make something that will still hold the weight of the concert along with the other composers on that bill.

Gardner: Contemporary classical composer is a pretty tough gig to get. Was there a moment—practical,philosophical or professional—where you said, “I’ve made it; this is my moment?”

Higdon: Yes, I have to admit; it was the day I won the Pulitzer Prize, which is kind of sad when you think about all the years you’re laboring and you’re never quite sure from year to year how it’s going to go. I always felt like I was catching up because I started late. When that happened, I literally stopped and took a beat and said, “Oh, wait a minute. I guess this means I’ve actually made it.”

Gardner: Are there any moments in your career—winning at the GRAMMYs, or accepting a Pulitzer Prize—that stick out in your mind?

Higdon: I think the things that stick out for me actually happened to be the audience interactions—people getting excited about a piece or coming out with tears in their eyes, or sometimes I get a letter from someone who said, “I was playing in a high school honors orchestra, and we did your piece Blue Cathedral, and I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.” So a lot of it is actually the personal interactions with audience members and musicians who felt touched.

I always say to myself it seems miraculous that I could make someone have that response. But it also reminds you why you write music. I think writing music a lot of the time is living with doubt. That’s the majority of your life, living with questions and doubt and never being on firm footing. That’s what it feels like because you don’t know if the next piece you’re going to write is going to work. Will this be a piece that will speak to the performers and the audience? You’re never on firm footing. This isn’t like accounting. It’s a form of art, and that’s pretty different. But I so love the interactions with audience members and performers. And I’m lucky because I’ve had loads of little tiny interactions that just kind of mean the world to me. The grandmother coming up to me with her granddaughter and saying, “Thank you for writing something that both of us like”. It does make you go, ‘Wow, thank you’. That’s a real compliment.