Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jennifer Higdon chats about life as a composer

The Third Angle New Music Ensemble will play several works by Jennifer Higdon in its upcoming concert this Friday at 7:30 pm at the Old Church. Higdon’s music has been much in demand by vocal and instrumental ensembles, and she has garnered a couple of Grammys as well. I talked with Higdon last week about her life and work.

You have done many residencies over the past few years; so where do you call home?

Higdon: I’ve lived in Philadelphia for the past 22 years; so I think of it as my home base. This is the first year in a while that I haven’t been in residence with an orchestra. I couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule.

Are you getting ready to travel anywhere besides Portland?

Higdon: Portland is part of a one month trip for me. First I’m going to Washington DC for a premiere with the President’s Marine Band, then to Minnesota for a violin concerto with chorus and orchestra, then to the Royal Liverpool for my other violin concerto – a recording with Hilary Hahn, then to Baltimore where Hahn will play that violin concerto. It’s busy. I won’t be back home until the 8th of June. I usually try to squeeze in some composing time, but this trip is going to be busy. Recording sessions, in particular, take a lot of time. But for the live performances, I do the pre-concert talks and meet with donors. But when I’m in Portland, I’m going to Powell’s bookstore. It would be terrible to visit Portland and not go to Powell’s.

Have you been to Portland before?

Higdon: Yes, many times. My dad lives in Portland. And my professional start was with the Oregon Symphony under James DePreist – around 1995. Actually, I hold them responsible for my career! They were the first orchestra to premiere on of my pieces. And that premiere led to a major commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra and that piece was premiered in front of all of the orchestra managers who attended the American League of Orchestras conference.

What gets you into the composing mood? Do you have four cups of strong coffee?

Higdon: I try to write every day from 4 to 6 hours. So writing music is a full-time job for me. But I have to have some Diet Coke before I start.

Deadlines are a real help, too. Deadlines create panic, which is an awe-inspiring thing.

Do you become inspired by the environment around you – in the city or in the country – or do you wake up with lots of musical ideas?

Higdon: Actually, both of those things. I’ve set some of my pieces at walking tempo, because of all of the walking around I’ve done in Philadelphia. But when I wake up in the morning, I’m usually ready to roll. I’m a morning person and like to compose in the morning. But I used to be a night person – when I was teaching.

I just picked up a copy of a recording called "Summer Shimmers" at Classical Millennium so that I can hear your music.

Higdon: Great! When I come to Portland, I always go to Classical Millennium . I love Classical Millennium. It’s one of the few real record stores left in the US.

I was listening to your piece “Zaka,” which starts out one way and then changes mood near the middle of the piece.

Higdon: Yes, sometimes my pieces do contain shift. I like doing that. I wrote the slow section of “Zaka” while in a hotel room. I can still remember the view out the window.

Do you use software for your compositions?

Higdon: Yes, I use Finale. I’ve been using it so long that I’ve never switched. I still start each composition by hand. What happens is that once I get going the ideas come so fast that I have to move to the computer, because it takes me so long to get write it all out by hand.

"String Poetic" has a lot of nature images – which are the names of the movements. I like to think of the Jagged Climb and Climb Jagged movements as bionic rock climbing. I have a lot of vivid imagery. I think that it was because I grew up around the visual arts. My dad is a fine artist.

Is this the first time that you’ve worked with Third Angle?

Higdon: Yes, but I think that they’ve done my music before. I think that they’ve done “Celestial Hymns” a few years ago.

What’s coming up for you in the future?

Higdon: I’ve got to write an opera for San Francisco opera. My librettist and I are working on finding a story right now. So I don’t have anything to tell you. We are trying to find out what story would work well for their main stage. It’s scheduled for the fall of 2013. The librettist is Gene Scheer, who has done a few opera libretti.

Do you try every instrument in an orchestra before writing for them?

Higdon: If there’s an instrument that I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll go in to Curtis, here in Philadelphia, pop in to a practice room and ask a player to if they can do this on your instrument or is there a better way. I learn a lot by studying other people’s scores and listening, but I also take a lot of chances and a lot of guesses. I love to check out the sounds that people can make. So a healthy curiosity is helpful.

What got you to be a composer in the first place?

Higdon: My flute teacher, during a flute performance master class, wanted me to write something. I didn’t know where to start. So my teacher showed me a six-tone row. So my first piece was a six-tone row piece for flute and piano. I loved writing music so much that I kept on doing it despite finishing a degree in flute performance. It was the joy of creativity. There’s something about creating something that’s extremely satisfying.

What about your second piece?

Higdon: That was a flute choir piece. We had a big flute ensemble at the university; so I wrote a piece that they played, and I conducted it. That was an amazing experience. I think that I’ve lost the first piece I wrote, but the second piece, for flute choir, gets played all the time.

We are looking forward to your concert out here.

Higdon: Thanks! See you soon!

PS: Congratulations to Third Angle for getting grant money and donations. See the Third Angle blog for details.

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