Jennifer Higdon: Carefully Composed
Jennifer Higdon is among the most performed living composers in the world today—but don’t get her started on those old dead guys.
Jennifer Higdon is an prominent classical composer whose music has been performed by numerous major orchestras. Among her many awards, she won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music and has three Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Born in 1963 in Brooklyn, New York, Higdon grew up in Georgia and Tennessee. She began playing classical music in high school, studied flute at Bowling Green State University and the Curtis Institute of Music, and earned a PhD in composition at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote her best-known work, blue cathedral (2000), in the wake of her brother’s death from cancer. It has been performed over 600 times by orchestras around the world.
Higdon has written two operas. Her first, Cold Mountain (2015), based on the 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, won the prestigious International Opera Award for Best World Premiere.
Higdon taught composition at the Curtis Institute from 1994 to 2021.
The composer Jennifer Higdon is no stranger to accolades. In 2009 she won a Grammy Award, in 2010 the Pulitzer Prize for music. But despite the lofty place she occupies in the culture, Higdon believes that music is for everyone.
Jennifer Higdon: I think it’s my job to make the music communicative enough that, if this is your first experience hearing something by a living classical composer, it should speak to you. I don’t think that you should have to have a PhD to understand what’s going on.
And though well versed in the works of Mozart and Beethoven, Higdon’s music is firmly rooted in the present day.
Higdon: Our world is much noisier, so I’m also aware when I’m writing a piece of music that I’m also marking our time here now. This is humanity’s time, this is what we’re experiencing. I’m both a mirror of our experience, but I’m also the hammer saying, “Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? This is what’s going on now.”
And Higdon is paying attention.
Higdon: So, for instance, Beyonce’s Lemonade CD, everyone’s talking about it. I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna buy this thing, I’m gonna check it out.” So I started listening to it, and I’m like, “Wow, this is really fantastic.” And most people aren’t really shooting for anything, they just wanna sell discs. For Beyonce, Lemonade was a statement, it was a point of grieving. You can hear it. It’s a point of coping, very much the same way the Blue Cathedral was for me.
Blue Cathedral is Jennifer Higdon’s most frequently performed work. She wrote it nearly two decades ago, in memory of her younger brother Andrew Blue, whom she lost to cancer.
Higdon: The whole last quarter of it, I think, I wept the entire time I was writing it, for, like, a couple weeks. It was very cathartic, but it was also just really hard to get through. And it’s amazing to me, because, somehow, in some unspoken manner, the audience picks up on that, even for people who don’t know that story. I get emails and letters from people who are like, “Wow, I was really moved by this piece, and I don’t know why I was moved by this piece, but I was.” And, to me, that’s kind of the magic of music. It’s the one language that you can go anywhere in the world and present it, and people will understand it.
Creating such emotionally resonant music benefits from a strong base of emotional support. For Jennifer Higdon, this comes from high school sweetheart turned partner of 36 years, her wife, Cheryl. Together they run Lawdon Press, a publishing company exclusively dedicated to distributing Higdon’s music—which they do at a rate of around half a dozen orders a day.
Higdon: We’re at FedEx literally everyday. And I remember one day I was walking down the street, and I’m carrying like four boxes to FedEx, and some guy across the street that I don’t know said, “Congratulations!” And I said, “Thank you!” And I kept walking, and there was a guy walking in front of me, and he turned and he said, “What are they congratulating you for?” And I said, “Oh, I won the Pulitzer Prize.” And he looked at me like, “What? You’re still carrying these boxes down the street?” I’m like, “Well job’s gotta get done,” you know. We have to get the music out.
AJC: You got super busy, not only with the publishing part of what you’d already written, but also people lining up at your door to offer you commissions.
Higdon: Well, this was an interesting thing, I thought, and I told some people, I said, “Look, I’ve got a lot on my schedule, so if you want a piece you’re gonna have to wait. ‘Cause I’ve got an opera coming somewhere in the future.” And they said they would wait, and I thought, “Oh surely they wouldn’t wait.” This was, like, five or six years off. But, much to my surprise, when I was halfway through writing the opera, these people started calling. They had actually waited.
The opera that demanded years of Higdon’s attention was an adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Homeric Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.
Charles Frazier: I realized very quickly that Cold Mountain was in really good hands with Jennifer Higdon. When you’re lucky enough to have the kinds of people wanting to adapt your work that I’ve had, you kind of step back and let them exercise their talents.
But a command of one art form doesn’t stop Higdon from exploring others. She’s recently begun dabbling in the visual arts, and has been surprised to find continuity between the two practices.
Higdon: When I’m composing, I am filling space. I am filling the sound space. When I’m drawing something, it’s kind of a similar thing. I don’t use light lines, and there’s barely anything there. I often have quite a bit—I’m, like, filling in the space. It’s the visual space, it’s not the audio space, it’s the visual space. But it has made me stop and look at everything in the world, every shadow, every shade, every curve, every corner, and the three-dimensionality of things. And the thing I realized with visual arts is anybody can walk up and look at it, and if they don’t like it, they can walk off, and that’s it. With music it’s an “in the time” experience. The person taking in the art has to actually kind of be present some way, and they have to be in the moment in a different way than they are if they just walk up and look at a piece of art. I think everyone needs music in some form. This is the thing about beat and pulse. It’s something so primal, and there’s something so basic that it registers inside as a little piece of familiarity in a very big universe of chaos. It’s just a reminder that we’re human.
Next up for Jennifer Higdon: a low brass concerto for the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. And a tuba concerto for the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Curtis Symphony. She’s also begun writing her second opera, as yet untitled.