TIME IN with Composer Jennifer Higdon: New Concerto, New Car, Favorite Podcast

Jul 29, 2020

What has been life been like for Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon since the start of the pandemic? In this late May, 2020 TIME IN interview with WRTI’s Susan Lewis, Jennifer shares how the COVID-19 shutdown has influenced her writing and teaching, and prompted her to explore new activities, including listening to a certain podcast and driving the first car she's owned in 22 years!

Jennifer's extensive body of work includes commissions for an array of musicians and ensembles. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2010 for her Violin Concerto, and Grammy awards for her Percussion, Viola, and Harp Concertos in 2010, 2018, and 2020. Her opera, Cold Mountain, won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere in 2016. She teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music.

On March 8th, 2020, Jennifer flew home to Philadelphia after a recording session for her low brass concerto with the Nashville Symphony. “I could tell at that point that things were going to be a rough ride for everyone. I needed to self-isolate for two weeks to make sure I hadn’t gotten anything while I’d been on the road for three weeks.” On May 27th, we talked about this strange and challenging time.

Born in Brooklyn in 1962, and raised in Georgia and Tennesee, Jennifer Higdon came to Philadelphia to study composition at Curtis and stayed. She later earned a master's degree and a PhD in Composition from the University of Pennsylvania. 1994, she joined the Curtis faculty.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

So, how are you doing?

You know, I'm actually doing okay. When this started, my first thought was, well, I'll have a couple of weeks where I can stop traveling and work on my projects, but I think none of us could see that this was going to go on for awhile. The ironic thing is—what composers do when they're writing is exactly what we're doing when we're staying in and not going out.

I have slightly less energy than I normally do, just from trying to figure out simple things like going to the grocery store. But I'm actually doing okay. I'm doing lots of zoom meetings, some teaching for classes ... We're dealing with all the ensembles that had to stop performances. I think 37 orchestras had to cancel performances and I had a couple of world premieres that have been delayed because of this.

But I'm healthy, so I feel like I've got nothing to complain about.

What are you working on?

During the pandemic, I had turned in an opera, believe it or not, which is a pretty big undertaking. So now I'm working on a concerto and just trying to make sure that -- every orchestra that has a program next year  who needs a little video snippet -- I'm trying to make sure I get those done. 

But you have to be a little more ingenious. I'm not used to being the camera person and the person thinking of what I'm to say and actually saying it. So it's a funny mix. We're having to all be very entrepreneurial, right?

And learn a lot of new skills!

It's so true.

So what was the opera?

The opera is for Opera Philadelphia, actually.  A Woman with Eyes Closed is the name. It’s a chamber opera for five singers and 12 instruments.

Has the shutdown changed the way you compose? 

Not really. It's exactly the same procedure. I spend about 80% of my time in my studio, just writing. 

One of the things I did -- I was at the very beginning of starting the piece that I'm working on now, which is a double percussion concerto. You have to make the decision of how many percussion instruments you're going to have on the front of the stage for, in this case, two soloists. 

And so there's always a lot of debate with percussion. Do you put drums? And do you put cymbals? I think from watching humanity slow down like this, I made the decision to do all of my solo instruments as pitched instruments, as opposed to using drums. I do use timpani, but they're used melodically ... I wanted it to be all pitched instruments, so a vibraphone and marimba, crotales, glockenspiel and then tuned timpani.

That was actually due to the virus, I think.

Really, what's the connection? 

It's kind of  witnessing humanity not being ....  I think sometimes when we write for drums we're thinking about rock and roll, and excitement, and the world didn't quite feel like that when I was in the early stages of planning and trying to figure out what kind of musical material I was going to have.  And because of that, there's a lot more melody in this.

And it's interesting -- through the years percussionists have said to me that they wish they had more musical concerti like a violinist would have. They wanted more melodies and more delicacy.  And then when I talked to my two percussionists who are going to be the soloists, they said the same thing.

So it was very easy to go down that road to make that decision, to not use any drums, when I started thinking about humanity and how much things slowed down. It was such a poignant thing to think about, and there's always a layer of grief in these things.

It’s a lot to deal with emotionally, but music is like the perfect medium for it. And in judging from the number of things that have been going on online, it really kind of proves the necessity of music in our lives to help us in different capacities.

Right. When you have to say that there's always grief in these things, you're talking about the pandemic.

Yes. I think in entire life changing to such a degree where everything shuts down, I think absolutely everyone's been going through grief of some form.

So it's just trying to figure out how to get yourself through it, which means everyone's tired. Everyone gets tired earlier in the day, that's actually part of it. And you just kind of have to give into it and say, all right, I'm going to take a substantial nap. 

So I was going to ask what, what's getting you through it? Well, partly napping.

Yes. I think naps really help. And you know, for me, it's kind of funny.  Composers, I think because we are organizing our world, this is what composing is, it's kind of like a consolation for us. We think we're controlling the universe. We're only controlling the notes on the page, but when you do something like that, it's something that's so familiar and you do it every day, there's something in your life that stays the same,  despite the fact that the whole world has stopped outside.

Right. Well, and we've talked before about when you're writing music, sometimes you hear sounds in your head and the object is to try to figure out what instrument would play those sounds.  Sometimes you end up inventing new percussion instruments.

That's true.

So do you hear different sounds during this time? Because I was thinking our sound world has changed a little bit, if you go outside.  I've noticed birds that I never noticed before.

Yeah. Center city has been really quiet. ... I think it has affected some things.  When I pick music to listen to, I think I'm picking calmer music.

But part of me is also just enjoying opening the windows and listening to the quiet outside. I think this was a field, during the, during the revolutionary war days; the building I live in was built in 1800.

This was the countryside. So I've thought a lot about that. What did Beethoven hear? What did Mozart hear? What were their lives like? They didn't have anything electrical. Everything was either horse-drawn or on foot. And that's a different sounding world. And so I thought a lot about that and I've also just been kind of enjoying the quiet. There's something magical about it.

Have you changed anything you do, or have you discovered anything? Gone out and bought a rowing machine? 

I did buy a car. I have not had a car for the past 22 years. I've walked everywhere. So I did go out and buy and car. When CarMax opened in New Jersey, they allow you do do things outdoors. So I did an entire transaction for buying a car in New Jersey. 

And have you taken your car out?

Yes, I have. I have indeed. I actually went out really early one Sunday morning off the Forbidden Drive out in the Wissahickon. 

And I just visited this past week Fort Mifflin, opened in South Philly. It was a fort built in 1777. I've always seen it flying over when you come into the airport, if you look out the window of the plane as you're landing, the fort is down there and it's really amazing looking. But you can tell it's an ancient fort made of earth. It was pretty amazing to go down there and explore.  The whole world was very quiet. Just the breeze. It was incredible. 

Now before you go - let's talk about the desert island question.  If you went to a desert island, what are the things you would take with you? We’re all on our own desert islands right now - what’s been inspiring?

For me, this is going to sound funny and this probably would not be on a desert island, but having the internet in a certain way has helped, having computers, because there have been some things that I've attended.  We've put together zoom sessions.  People have made a real effort to get their art up online, which means I've actually gotten a chance to experience more than I normally do.

Books? I've just been blowing through a lot of different books and not reading them in any kind of order, believe it or not. I was just looking at -- there's a book on Hamilton talking about the creation of that work and I've been thinking about musicals versus opera.

But I tell you one of the things I have enjoyed while I've been going slower is a podcast called Dolly Parton's America, which is one of the most amazing podcasts I think I've ever heard. It's really ingenious and it examines the culture around Dolly Parton.

A lot of people don't know this, but I grew up in the same area as Dolly Parton in east Tennessee. So she was always a big presence there. But I've always been aware too, of what she had done for the area in terms of getting people books.

She has a literacy program that's incredible, that basically guarantees if a family signs up, it guarantees a young child born into the world will have a brand new book every month for the first six years of their lives. And hearing this podcast, which was actually put out by WNYC, has been so entertaining, but it has really talked about Dolly Parton in the cultural phenomenon, how she has influenced things, how people have influenced her and what she has done to help people around the world.

So that is something I've really been enjoying. Podcasts, they're a new thing for me. So just having a chance to lie down and listen to podcasts and just kind of rest. There's been a new discovery. It's been a really fantastic one.

Wow. So that might be something you'll continue after this?

I think so, because now that I'm tapped into the podcast universe, there're so many things out there that are so cool to listen to.  So, yeah, I'll be checking it out.

Talking to you makes me feel super optimistic, about new art coming into being! 

This is the thing: the arts continue, because people express things.  When we come out of this, and we will come out the other side, there's going to be some amazing art. We're all going to go, "Wow! That's incredible."  Maybe it's the solitude of being very still that helps people feel the inspiration.

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