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Jennifer Higdon [Photo by J. Henry Fair]
25 Jun 2015

A Chat with Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer Jennifer Higdon

American composer Jennifer Higdon has won many awards for her imaginative music. Her percussion concerto received the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

A Chat with Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer Jennifer Higdon

An interview by Maria Nockin

Above: Jennifer Higdon [Photo by J. Henry Fair]


The following year she won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her violin concerto. On August 1, 2015, her opera, Cold Mountain, will have its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera. On June tenth, I phoned her for an interview to be published in Opera Today and was greeted by a friendly, “How ya doin?”

MN: Where are you from?

JH: I was born in Brooklyn but we moved to Atlanta, GA, when I was six months old. Later, we moved to Seymour, TN, near Knoxville. After high school I went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio where, during my last year of undergraduate work, Robert Spano led the university orchestra and I was allowed to study conducting with him. Although I did not see him for a number of years after that, he was the first to record one of my orchestral works. He is a great champion of contemporary music. I got my master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. I also have an artist diploma from the Curtis Institute, which is a really great school. Currently, I occupy the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies there.

MN: George Crumb is said to define music as "a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse." What did you learn from him at the University of Pennsylvania?

JH: I learned how to handle instruments and think beyond the norm. His extended techniques on the instruments are always unusual and sometimes unique. Examples of extended techniques might include bowing under the bridge of a string instrument, blowing into a wind instrument without a mouthpiece, or inserting objects on top of the strings of a piano. Crumb is very inventive and he made me think about color a great deal. Many of today’s listeners think of music in terms of its rhythm. That may be one of the reasons for the popularity of my music, which usually has a strong rhythm.

MN What do you play besides the flute and how do you handle composing for instruments you don’t play?

JH: I play the flute and a little bit of piano. You’re right, it’s not easy to write for the instruments I don’t play. (She adds with a knowing laugh). I have to be sure to learn a great deal about each instrument because I don’t play most of the instruments for which I am composing. It’s a pretty big thing.

MN: When did you start composing?

JH: I began during my undergrad days. I was about twenty years old and had been working on a performance degree for a couple of years. I know some people have started composing as children. I am a late bloomer who taught herself to play the flute at age fifteen. I did not begin to study music formally until I was eighteen and went off to college. At Curtis I was unusual. Most of the students had begun music lessons at the age of three or four.

MN: How did you meet violinist Hilary Hahn?

JH: She was in a class I taught entitled Twentieth Century Theory and Music History. It was a fun class to teach and a serious responsibility because the amount of material to be covered between 1900 and 1999 is enormous. The class is a requirement for all Curtis students.

MN: The end of the last century produced a great deal of dissonant music. Are we now returning to melody?

JH: Oh yeah! People are asking for more melodic music. My new opera, Cold Mountain, is definitely melodic.

MN: Do you have a routine for composing?

JH: I write every day. For two years while composing the opera, I wrote eight hours a day, seven days a week because I felt that was absolutely necessary. Writing an opera has been very different from composing symphonic or chamber music. It simply does not feel at all the same. I did not expect composing an opera to be that different, but I knew it was the minute I started working on it.

MN: How do you allow for individual differences among singers?

JH: It is really the same thing as writing the violin concerto for Hilary Hahn and then having other violinists play it. I just had to make the best possible guesses. Before I composed Cold Mountain I knew that Nathan Gunn would sing the leading part of Inman, but I did not know who would sing the other roles. Later, we selected the renowned Isabel Leonard to sing Ada and Emily Fons, who made a fine impression as Zerlina in the San Diego Opera Don Giovanni, to be Ruby. The Siegfried from the Met’s HD Ring Cycle, Jay Hunter Morris, will be the villain, Teague. Ticket sales for Cold Mountain have been impressive. The first two performances are already sold out.

MN: How did you come to work with Gene Scheer?

JH: When I realized that I was going to write an opera, I knew I needed to work with an experienced librettist. I asked a lot of people for recommendations and the consistent answer was Gene Scheer. We got together for lunch and within five or ten minutes I knew that he would be ideal. We connected. It was important because composer and librettist spend a lot of time discussing creative ideas. When you’re going to work with a person for a long time, it’s important to choose someone with whose personality you are comfortable.

MN: I’m told Cold Mountain has more than twenty scenes. How did you decide which parts of the book to use?

JH: We primarily followed the three main characters, Inman, the hero, Ada and Ruby. We searched for scenes that advanced the story and showed the changes that occurred to in those characters. An opera has to have strong roles. I just looked for situations that resonated with me. You live with an opera for a long time so you need to feel it. We also needed scenes that presented good musical possibilities. We both read the book over and over.

MN: Where does Cold Mountain go after Santa Fe?

JH: It goes to Opera Philadelphia, which will present it in February of 2016. Cold Mountain will be part of their American Repertoire Program, which is committed to produce an American work in each of ten consecutive seasons. It then goes to Minnesota Opera, which tentatively plans to stage the opera in its 2018-2019 season. It will be part of Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative. Many more companies have asked about it as well but nothing is firm enough to talk about yet. I expect that Cold Mountain will be recorded as well.

MN: What is next for you?

JH: I’ve already written six pieces since I finished the opera. I did a song cycle for Thomas Hampson that he premiered at Carnegie, and a viola concerto commissioned by the Library of Congress. I had a whole bunch of commissions stacked up. Right now, I’m writing a string orchestra piece for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her group, The New Century Chamber Orchestra. She will premiere it in San Francisco in early May 2016. I’m working on that right now. I’m also looking at subjects for another opera. I also have other pieces coming down the road so I have quite a bit on my plate. I have work lined up until 2020. I only teach two hours a week at Curtis so most of my time is spent composing.

MN: Do you have any stories about recent events?

JH: A couple of weeks ago the White House called me and left a message wishing me well for Cold Mountain. I get recognized now. Sometimes I get stopped on the street, which surprises me. One time when my wife, Cheryl, and I were in the Delta Airlines Lounge in Paris a kid came up to me and asked if I was the composer of the violin concerto that Hilary Hahn had just premiered.

MN: Do you have time for a private life?

JH: Cheryl and I like to watch movies and travel when we can. I have to admit I have so much going on right now that my career takes up most of our time. Once the work on the opera got going, everything else slowed down and I did far fewer residencies than usual. My life is really full and it’s lots of fun. I feel very fortunate that I get to make my living writing music. That’s sheer heaven.

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