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Classical Album of the Week: Pacifica Quartet's Grammy-Winning Album with Jennifer Higdon

March 15, 2021. The Pacifica Quartet's new album, Contemporary Voices, features works by three Pulitzer Prize winners, including Shulamit Ran, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Jennifer Higdon. Higdon talks to us about how her 1993 piece, Voices, featured on this album, has the seeds of many of her subsequent works.

Contemporary Voices just won the Grammy Award for "Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance." In addition to Higdon's Voices, the album also includes Ran's Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, a 2014 tribute to Felix Nussbaum, a painter who died at Auschwitz in 1944, and Taaffe Zwilich's 2007 Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet.

When the Pacifica Quartet told Higdon that they wanted to record Voices, she was "super excited," she says, for several reasons. "It's rare for a composer to actually have a group that has played something repeatedly over the years. Normally, Beethoven gets that kind of treatment!  And pieces do mature in the performances; and the Pacifica Quartet - they're fantastic."

And while Voices is one of Higdon's earliest works, listening to it now, she can see in each of the three movements, seeds of her different styles,  and the compositions she would go on to write.  "In a way, this is like a sampler box piece!" she says. 

Higdon, who's won a Pulitzer Prize, multiple Grammy awards and the International Opera Award for her first opera, wrote Voices back in 1993 for her dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. The work was commissioned by The Chamber Music Society of Philadelphia and premiered by an ensemble that has since disbanded. The Pacifica Quartet first performed it in 1997, when they were paired with the composer at a music camp in Sundance, Utah.

"I was just coming out of school," says Higdon, "and they had just come out of school, so we were all just trying to get our careers going. And they loved the piece, I think." Loved it, and kept playing it over the years. Higdon, moved by their performances, decided to dedicate the work to them.

She met with me on Zoom to talk about how she created Voices those many years ago, and what it means to her today.

Here are some edited excerpts:

SL: What was the idea behind the piece?

JH: I thought, could I tell a bunch of stories and connect them logically? Have them start out very, very frenzied and then get calmer as the piece went on? That's kind of the opposite from what we usually do when we build a piece. So the most logical thing was to make three movements that that were basically shaped like that and connect them with no break in between.

SL: The first movement, Blitz, plunges us immediately into an environment of frenzied energy.

JH: I was thinking about the old black and white films of the Blitzkrieg with planes dropping bombs. I thought, can you create relentlessness in a string quartet, with enough thematic variation and color variation to keep it interesting, despite the fact that the tension stays completely there for like five or six minutes?

SL: The second movement, Soft Enlacing, you describe in the notes as a walk through a dark house in the middle of the night, with shifting shadows.

JH: Yeah, I've always found fascination with the moon, and I think part of it comes from living on a farm when I was growing up for part of my childhood and being amazed at how the moon created magical shadows. The color changes, the moon changes, the angles in the room change. Everything is so quiet, the world is so still. But there's a safety being in your home; that's the soft enlacing. It's almost like arms hugging you and saying it'll be okay.

SL: And when you get to the third movement, Grace, there's a calming sensation.

Because this was my dissertation piece, I think the beginning of the piece actually is probably my frenzy to get the dissertation done to get through the degree! By the end, I think part of what you're hearing is me taking a really deep breath. But one of the things I was thinking about is the fact that 'grace' has so many different meanings: whether it's the title of the song like "Amazing Grace," or the grace you witness in someone's act of kindness or the grace within our soul.

SL: When you revisit a piece like this 28 years later, does it take you back to your state of mind when you wrote it or does it mean something new to you?

Both actually. It does bring me back to the state of mind and the emotion, but looking back, I hear the little germ seeds of my style, about to pop out. It's like I planted these specific seeds, each one of these movements and I thought which one's going to grow? It really felt like that to me. Having a chance to look back, basically, more than a quarter of a century later, and hear it done by a really good group that I've known, and they've known me a long time, really gives me an amazing viewpoint: to think of the trajectory of all my different pieces and how different pieces connect to the first movement, to the second and the third.

SL: Can you point to any particular parts of it that that have meant something to you and you've carried forward like that.

I have loads of works that have the harmonic language of Grace; my harp concerto has a lot of the open fifths, which the cello has, which is a violation of the counterpoint rules! I've got lots of parallel fifths in there, and so I feel like a lot of my music, especially during the pandemic, probably veers more towards Grace.

I've got a bunch of works that were requested to be very virtuosic that are kind of spiky. This piece Running the Edge and a piece called Rapid Fire that are much more like the first movement. Now that I think about it, Rapid Fire was written the year before this, so I was also testing the waters of music not being quite tonal, but being energetic and being communicative.

And that middle section is very much like a lot of my choir music and my vocal songs.

In a way, this is like a sampler box piece!

SL: You called your piece Voices; the album title is Contemporary Voices. And all three of you have won Pulitzer Prizes!

For me that realization was hugely shocking because when I was going through school as an undergrad I became aware of Ellen Zwilich. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, and I think one of the first albums I got was her symphony. And, ironically, Shulamit [Ran] and I crossed paths when I was a student at Curtis; she had pieces done with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

So to get to be on a disk with them! To have these four people that I adore -- four excellent musicians perform it! For me, my piece is Voices because it's telling three stories, but I suspect it's the same thing for the Pacifica Quartet; they're telling stories from three different women's perspectives.

Jennifer's enthusiasm for her contemporaries is also evident in her role as rotating co-host of  Living American Composers, which airs on WRTI HD-2 on Fridays from 8 to 9 PM.


Contemporary Voices tracklist

Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, String Quartet No. 3

Jennifer Higdon, Voices

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Quintet for Alto Saxophone


Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.