Composer Jennifer Higdon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but
raised in the South, Jennifer Higdon received a Bachelor of Music from
Bowling Green State University in Ohio, a Diploma from the Curtis
Institute of Music in 1988, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University
of Pennsylvania. In addition she has studied conducting with Robert Spano and
flute with Judith Bentley. She joined the faculty of the Curtis
Institute in 1994.
She is the recipient of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto, a 2009 Grammy
Award (Best New Contemporary Classical Recording) for her Percussion Concerto, a Guggenheim
Fellowship, Pew Fellowship, a Koussevitzky Fellowship, and awards from
the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Her works are performed around the world, with commissions coming from
a variety of ensembles and individuals, such as the Philadelphia and
Cleveland orchestras; St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; Gary Graffman; Hilary
Hahn; the President's Own Marine Band; Tokyo String Quartet; Time for
Three; Philadelphia Singers; Mendelssohn Club; eighth blackbird; and
Opera Philadelphia and Santa Fe Opera.
She has works on more than four dozen recordings, including the
Grammy-winning Higdon: Concerto for
-- Biography adapted from
the Curtis Institute website
-- Names which are links (both here and below) refer to my
interviews elsewhere on this website. BD
It is always interesting to catch someone early in their career,
especially when the promise of youth blossoms into full-blown
success. I met Jennifer Higdon on Valentine’s
Day of 2004, when she was in Chicago for a performance of one of her
chamber pieces on the MusicNOW series, which is an adjunct of the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and includes some of their members along
with a few guests.
Her career was well on its way even then, and it got an additional
boost in 2010 when she won the Pulitzer Prize. Since that
time, she has continued apace, with performances and recordings in
So this conversation reflects her as she begins to blossom, and shows,
perhaps, how she emerged to the success she is today.
Throughout our conversation, she was bubbling with enthusiasm and
showed a kind of self-amazement about the whole business.
Here is that encounter . . . . . . . . .
You mentioned that you were starting to write something for junior high
band. Is it particularly difficult to write something interesting
that is not technically challenging?
Actually it is much harder than writing for professional groups, I have
to say. I was just talking to Gusty [Augusta Read Thomas] about
how difficult that is; the limitations are extraordinary. The
kids only have very small ranges on their instruments, and moving into
anything with sixteenth notes is a problem. I’m sure they feel
it’s interesting, but when you compose a lot of music you’re always
trying to make it sound interesting. But what’s interesting to me
and what’s interesting to them are two different things! [Laughs]
BD: Is it
your responsibility to make it interesting to them, or is it your
responsibility to make something that will become interesting?
probably both. That’s a good question. It’s funny; the
whole idea behind this Band Quest series is that they’re trying to get
established composers — people like Chen Yi and Michael
Daugherty — who normally writes orchestra music to try writing
something for band, but something that will communicate to a much
younger group. It is really amazing how difficult it is because
you write something, you look at it, and you wonder if it is going to
work, or if they can play it. To me it looks simple, but I
realize with all the training that we go through, it’s a different
prospect for a junior high group! [Laughs] Oh, boy, is it!
general you get a lot of commissions. How do you decide, yes, I
will to do this one or no, I will turn that one aside.
gut instinct. It actually is completely gut instinct; just what
sounds like it might be interesting to work on. It has no
logic. I have to say when a really good group — like
the Philadelphia Orchestra — comes to you and
they say, “We want to commission you,” of course your brain goes oh
yeah! [Both laugh] There’s not much thinking in that.
But you do have to learn to balance it, because this past year I went
through eleven commissions, which is a lot.
almost one a month.
about right, and that was a little too many. I said no to a lot
of projects, but things kept coming up that just sounded so interesting
that I couldn’t say no.
BD: I would
assume it takes you more than a month to do each commission?
JH: Yes, but
it depends on the piece. Some of the commissions were for shorter
works. I had this commission for the Gilmore Piano Festival, and
I guess they were little short snippets. It was based on the idea
of the theme of the Goldberg
Variations by Bach, and they wanted everyone to do a
variation. So something like that is very different than writing
a full piece. I wrote two string quartets and a piano trio this
year. One of the string quartets was thirty minutes, so that took
a couple of months. In the month that I did actually the Gilmore
piece, I think I did two other short pieces. So they kind of
bunch up, but some of them take longer.
You work on more than one piece at a time?
JH: No, I
don’t. I’m always thinking ahead. That’s what it is.
In the actual writing process I’m only working on one, but my brain is
processing the next piece down the road.
BD: I would
think it would be good, though, to have the next piece in mind, so that
if you come up with an idea that doesn’t work in this piece it might go
in the next piece or the piece after that.
Absolutely, absolutely. I find my brain works out details while
I’m working on piece A that I know will be okay, for piece B. You
start just thinking of a piece down the road. And then I always
keep notebooks for it, because I generally know a couple of years in
advance what I’m going to be working on. I’m always keeping
notes. I have insomnia or something. I’ve noticed the past couple
of nights I have not been able to sleep as well. One of the
pieces that’s two or three pieces down the road for me is for
bass-baritone and orchestra for the Brooklyn Phil. I’m not sure
who’s conducting, but Robert Spano is the one who had asked me to write
it, and I’ve been coming up with ideas in the insomniac hours... one
someone who worked night for years, I’m glad to welcome you aboard!
Yes. It’s a good creative time.
Absolutely, and it’s very quiet.
Absolutely, yes. It’s pretty amazing.
BD: You don’t
have to mention the name, but do you know the singer?
actually. It’s Eric Owens.
BD: Is it
better to know which singer will be doing it?
Yes. I like to know the ensembles, the musicians I’m writing for,
or if I can get to know the individual musicians and the singer.
I know Eric from Curtis. He went to Curtis there, and I saw him
last year doing John Adams’ El Nino in Atlanta. Eric and
I talk occasionally and I thought, wow, what a voice he has!
Brooklyn requested Whitman texts because it’s an anniversary, and
Whitman has such a connection to Brooklyn. So somehow Eric seemed
very logical. I don’t know, for Whitman it seemed just his voice
BD: When you
write for a specific voice, that doesn’t preclude it from other voices
or other artists?
I get that question a lot because my Concerto
for Orchestra, which was written for Philadelphia, was so
tailored for the orchestra. But nine other orchestras have done
it. People have been asking what it’s like
hearing Dallas do it, or Milwaukee, and it is different, but it
works. It does work.
there’s lots of right ways?
Yes. It’s kind of funny... A lot of composers feel there’s
only one way to do it, but I’m interested in hearing everyone’s
interpretation. I really am. I find them fascinating.
Sometimes people do things very differently than what I had written,
but if they can do it in a convincing way, I’m with them.
BD: Are there
ever times that you want to go back and revise the score, incorporating
these new little discoveries?
I have done that before, especially with tempos. It’s interesting
with tempos; it really changes from ensemble to ensemble and from hall
to hall. I’m amazed at how much it changes. When I play my
own pieces, I change the tempos, too, so I don’t hold anyone to them
strictly! [Laughs] I tell musicians that, because they
always ask. They ask if I mind, and I say, “Oh, no. I’m
changing my tempos all the time.”
BD: How much
stretch is there before it gets to be too much and it’s no longer your
JH: That’s a
good question. I have heard those moments where they stretch like
rubber into something else that I’m not recognizing. That usually
happens with less experienced musicians who actually need to take it
more slowly because my stuff actually looks deceptively easy on the
page, but it’s pretty hard. Some of the players were saying this
won’t be hard at first, but then they start putting it together.
It’s got its own challenges.
BD: But you
don’t write it to be hard?
JH: No, I
don’t. I’m writing it to just be musical and interesting,
whatever my quirky rhythm thing might be. It sounds very natural
to me, but I know for everybody else — seeing so many people struggle
with the pieces — I always know where they’re
going to have problems. There are certain rhythmic things that
occur that I think makes the pieces difficult.
BD: Do you
ever think about revising the rhythm a little bit, to get the same idea
a little technically easier?
JH: To me,
when it comes to the rhythm it feels like it would be compromised in
the piece. I know it sounds kind of weird, and believe me, I
know. I’ve had to play my own pieces, and I’ve thought, “Oh,
my gosh! What the heck was I thinking?”
But people always say, “You can’t complain. You’re the one who
wrote it!” [Laughs] And it is interesting to watch. I don’t
have any pieces that haven’t been played again. They all get done
quite a bit, so it means I’m able to follow kind of the history of a
piece. It is interesting to watch the different players take it
up, and hear what they do with it. I find it completely
BD: Do you
view all of these pieces as little children that are out making their
JH: Yes, and
the older the child is, the less it seems attached to me. Do you
know what I mean? I‘ve got a flute quartet from 1988 that gets
done all the time, and that was so long ago, it seems, I can’t even
remember writing it. It’s amazing.
you’re pleased that it’s out there?
JH: Yes, oh
absolutely, yes. The piece works really well for four flutes, if
you can imagine that combination. It’s not your every day typical
string quartet situation, but...
BD: Is it
four C flutes, or four different flutes?
JH: Four C
BD: I would
assume it would be piccolo, C flute, alto flute and bass flute.
JH: Yes, I
know. That’s why I decided to do four C flutes. A lot of
flute quartets are mixed flutes, but I decided to write a really
intense piece with very close intervals, so the four C flutes work
really well. That piece gets done all the time. It
sometimes shocks me how much that piece is done.
it has become a challenge, perhaps if you can do that piece then you’ve
really made it as a flute quartet.
JH: A lot of
college groups will do it, and there will be individual students who
are doing it for their junior or senior recital and want to play
something with their friends. The piece has a lot of bite to
it. I’ve played three of the four parts, and it is fun to play. I
call it my atomic roller coaster ride. It moves at a real serious
clip and it has these really complex rhythms. It’s only about
four minutes long, but man, it’s a ride! It’s a ride and a
half. Yeah, it’s fun.
BD: A really
short ride and a really fast one?
intense, yes. It does have that feeling to it. Often I love
watching the audience, because they’re often like, “Oh, my gosh!”
I’ve got the flutes high up, playing minor seconds, which is just...
exactly. [Both laugh] Exactly, Bruce! You got it.
BD: You write
these pieces for specific people or even general people. What do
you expect of the audience that is listening to it for the first time?
JH: I’m often
thinking about the audience. For me music has to
communicate. That doesn’t mean hit has to be a certain tonal
language, but I’m constantly thinking if this is the most effective way
to talk to the audience. So they are in the back of my
mind. I usually think first of the performers, because I know
that I’m going to have to go through them to convey the message to the
audience. Having been a player myself in a lot of situations
where I’ve done new music, I know how hard it is sometimes. You
want to make sure the players are getting something from all the work
they’re putting into the piece. We’ve all played pieces before
that we said, “Ugh, I just worked 16 hours on that, and boy, it didn’t
feel like it was worth it.” So I do my best to make sure it’s a
worthwhile musical experience.
BD: What is it that
makes a piece of music — either your music or
other music — worthwhile?
JH: I often
think about that because there’s something I do instinctively pondering
this, and I’m always trying to figure out what that is. What is
that quality that makes it worthwhile? I’m always aware that
people like interesting lines. I often think about what it’s like
for the people who play the off-beats in Sousa marches. I have a
couple of friends who played in the President’s Marine Band, so they
are always doing things like that.
French horns are always off the beat.
know! I was talking to a French horn player just the other day
about this very thing. I’m very aware that every line I write,
whether it’s the solo or it’s some principal line, or maybe it’s just
the background line, every line has to be shaped to be
interesting. It doesn’t matter how utilitarian it is.
BD: And it
still has to be within the general shape of the whole piece.
Exactly. So you got a couple levels of architecture going on,
basically. You want make interest on the level of the individual
part, but also fitting in the context of the piece. So that’s the
biggest thing, and also making sure it fits well in the
instrument. In other words, it’s comfortable. Even though
I’m challenging people to push themselves technically, it shouldn’t be
unplayable on the instrument or off-chord on the instrument. So
I’m forever going to musicians and saying, “Can you play this?
Can you play this?” I’m forever cornering the kids at Curtis and
asking them, “How does this fit? Is there a better way to finger
it? Does it sound okay?”
BD: Is it
better to go to the kids at Curtis, or would it be better to go to the
JH: It’s the
same thing. [Both laugh] It actually is the same thing, and
I do corner some of the people in the Philadelphia Orchestra. But
because I teach at Curtis, it’s much easier to corner the kids at
understand, but a professional player who has been doing it for twenty
or thirty years might know a trick or something.
Right. It’s interesting, though, because the Curtis kids tend to
be more open. They don’t bring to the experience the bias like
the orchestra members, so I guess there’s pros and cons both
ways. But because most of these kids study with Philadelphia
Orchestra members, I figure I’ve got myself covered. [Both
laugh] And then a lot of times if I’m writing something for a
younger group, I’ll actually go to someone who’s less experienced
because I need to know. They’re perspective is going to be really
different; it really is. So I think a lot about who I’m writing
for. It’s important.
BD: You were
talking about shaping the lines and shaping the big picture. When
you start out writing the piece, do you know the shape of the whole
thing, or does it take shape as you are writing?
JH: I usually
know pretty much what the shape is, and then the details work
themselves out as I am writing. I often start in the middle of a
piece. I don’t always start out at the beginning.
simply know that this section belongs in the piece?
Yes. I have done a lot of sketching, and I’ve also ended up not
using ideas. Some pieces come to me that are very clear, and some
pieces I’m a little more in a fog. When I was writing this
Philadelphia Orchestra piece, the piece was so big! It was a
thirty five minute piece, and it took a tremendous amount of sketching
to get the details worked out. But when I wrote a piano trio a
year ago, it was a lot more clear. Maybe that was because it’s a
much smaller piece; it’s only three instruments. So every piece
is a different degree. I don’t actually don’t use a regular
form. It’s all through-composed. That would be the
technical term for it, but I sometimes want to draw out things and find
what the shape is dramatically and where are things going to
happen. Then I listen to the music to see if I’m achieving
that. If it goes against what I’ve first come up with as an idea,
I go with the music. I don’t follow the graph or the drawing that
years from now, will the theory text say this is the Higdon Form?
that’s a scary thought! [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about
that! I guess it could be. Or they’ll ask what was she
thinking? [Laughs] I studied with George Crumb at the
University of Pennsylvania, and he told me, “The answer really is
always finally what you’re hearing. The true test is what you
hear with your ear.” So I thought to myself if that’s the final
test, why don’t I just start at that point? So I tend to follow
my ear. I write instinctively, which is impossible to explain
because how do you explain instinct? It used to make my teachers
a little crazy, because school is geared in the other direction; it’s
geared in a theoretical study of form.
BD: Do you
feel that you are a part of any kind of musical lineage?
JH: Yes I’m
sure I am, but I have such a bizarre background leading up to my career
in classical music that I’m not actually sure. It’s been funny to
watch the press reviews. Everyone is trying to figure out where
to put me. The lists of composers the people are saying I’m like
cracks me up, because they are not related. One guy in the Washington Post mentioned four
different composers in review — Messiaen, Steve Reich,
Lutosławski, and Stravinsky.
JH: I’m like,
my gosh! That’s basically okay; we got an entire array of the
twentieth century here. That’s a lot of different styles, a lot
of different languages, a lot of different rhythm.
not a line, that’s four corners.
Exactly! So we’re talking a huge picture, and I wondered what is
he trying to get at, what is it that he’s trying to find, what it is
BD: Do you
want to fit into a line, or do you just want to just be you?
JH: I just
want to be me. That’s probably the more accurate
description. I didn’t grow up around classical music, so for me
line probably doesn’t have as much meaning, or I don’t feel the context
I’m working in as much. Maybe because I write so much music I’m
always thinking how I can make this piece better. I’m always
focused on the music, and I never think about historically what is
happening. Maybe it’s better that way, though. The weight
of history might be a little bit of a daunting experience.
BD: Then the
obvious question is how did you get into it? Where did you come
from, and how did you get into the classical side?
JH: I grew up
listening to rock and roll. We didn’t have classical music around
my household. My dad was a commercial artist who worked at home,
so he always had the music of the 60s and 70s playing. Simon and
Garfunkel, The Beatles, Kingston Trio, a lot of reggae. This was
before reggae was hot. He had lots of those sorts of
recordings. So, it was probably folk and rock and Rolling Stones.
BD: So why
aren’t you the next Joan Baez?
JH: That’s an
interesting question. I’m not sure what happened.
BD: Does your
father say, “Where did she go wrong?”
know! Yes, I am the black sheep of the family. Because I
went into classical music, I am completely, totally, the black sheep of
the family because my parents have been to a lot of rock concerts
— probably more rock concerts than classical music
concerts. There just wasn’t much classical music around.
BD: So is
this your rejection of their ideas?
JH: It might
be. It actually might be! I know it sounds really funny.
that means there is hope for classical music because all of these
parents are listening to rock, but everybody can reject them and come
back over to our side!
true! Its very interesting because it occurred to me at some
point that I actually come more from the musical background than
most. I don’t mean, necessarily, classical listeners, but anyone
who listens to just music in general. I come more from that
background than I do from people who just listen to classical because I
didn’t grow up on it. A lot of people say they think my rhythm is
influenced. I’m having to listen to what other people are saying
because I’m too close to music to be able tell what is happening that
people are responding to. A lot of people think that my sense of
pulse and rhythm is probably from the amount of Beatles I listened to
growing up. I would have to say that probably was the biggest
influence for me. Every day of my childhood I must have listened
to some sort of Beatles recording, and I think that probably did
influence me. But how the heck did I get into classical music is
really a good question!
BD: Does that
help your music speak to others who grow up that way?
JH: I think
so. I’m guessing that’s what’s happening. I’m not really
sure. I bet in ten years I probably can give you a clearer
answer. It’s really kind of funny. It would be an
interesting perspective. This is weird... I recently found a box
of stuff from my childhood...
drawings. I used to draw a lot. My brother and I used to
draw all the time. We just drew and drew, more than most kids,
even beyond the age when most kids stop. I found I had actually
written, at age six or seven, a classical music tune with a staff and a
treble clef and a melody. The melody had shape and form. I
didn’t know anything about classical, nothing at all about reading
music or anything, so it makes me wonder where that came from. I
totally forgot about it, and just recently I ran into it again.
I’m looking and I thought, “My God, I wrote this!”
BD: Are you
going to use it?
JH: That’s a
BD: It could
become Variations on my Childhood.
[Laughs] I might have to do that. So I realized something must
have been in my head. When I discovered that, I thought there’s no way
a kid would be writing this at six or seven years old with no
background.” We had a flute laying around the house and I always
was aware of the power of music, but I was always doing other creative
things. My brother and I used to make 8mm animated films.
My Dad had an 8mm camera, and we used to do like little claymation
things. And I used to write a lot, literary stuff. He and I
used to draw and paint, so I was always doing those sorts of artistic
expressive things, the kinds of things kids normally do. At some
point I picked up this flute and taught myself to play, which, now that
I think about it, was a late start. At Curtis where I teach,
everyone started at age two. Everyone was a baby when they
started. I started teaching myself to play at fifteen. So I
didn’t really get any kind of musical instruction, and when I started
college, at the age of eighteen, I didn’t know the Beethoven
symphonies. How many people do you know who work in classical
music didn’t know the Beethoven symphonies at eighteen? Now that
I’m saying it, it sounds completely ridiculous.
BD: But it
gives you a different perspective on the whole thing.
JH: It does,
and what I used to think was a disadvantage, I now think might have
been an advantage. It was pretty hard going through school
because they expect you to know that stuff. You have to have it,
especially at the doctoral level. People were passing the ‘drop-the-needle’
exams quickly, and I was trying to learn the stuff. So it may
have slowed me a little bit, but now I think it might have been an
BD: I would
think approaching a symphony late like that, with all of that
experience, will give you a whole different outlook.
Different, totally, and I feel like I’m still discovering this
stuff. I didn’t know piano trios before I wrote the piano trio
last spring. People kept saying, “Oh you’ve got to check out the
Brahms. You’ve got to check out the Fauré.”
BD: For you a
trio is piano, bass and drums.
it, exactly! So I’m going to Tower Records and I’m buying
trios. I didn’t know a single solitary piano trio. It’s
kind of neat having the knowledge I have now to actually be able to
explore these things. I get really excited that I know it’s got
to be totally different than for my colleagues who have known those
pieces since they were teenagers.
BD: This will
make a wonderful doctoral dissertation sometime to look at your trios
from a fresh perspective.
Yes. There’s a student actually in Philadelphia who is doing a
doctoral dissertation right now on a couple of my flute works.
When I start thinking about these things or when I do the interviews
with people, I’m like, “Yeah, why does that happen that way?” I
have to really think about it. But it’s such a bizarre beginning,
it probably has really affected my whole approach.
students doing doctoral dissertations, does that make you feel old?
JH: Yes, it
does. It’s really strange. I keep wanting to say, “Are you
kidding? [Laughs] Are you crazy?” I mean, it’s
totally funny, because I realized the other day that I just graduated
with my doctorate ten years ago. I didn’t realize the proximity
of this occurring. I’ve only had one other person do a doctoral
dissertation on one of my other flute pieces. The flute players
were aware of me before, because that’s the early stuff that I was
writing and the instrument I play.
BD: So, have
you had a good decade?
JH: It’s been
an amazing decade. I have had the most amazing ride, and the
trajectory has been unreal. I have to admit, I’m still trying to
adjust; it’s been moving at such a clip.
BD: Too fast?
JH: I don’t
know. Is it possible for it to be too fast? Ask me that in
ten years! [Laughs] It seems like a pretty joyous ride
right now, and I have to say, the level of performances! This
year alone I have maybe forty orchestra performances, and I’m averaging
around 120 performances a year.
JH: It’s a
BD: You must
be doing something right.
JH: I guess
so. I know. Really.
BD: When you
write a piece of music, do you feel it should be for everyone?
JH: Can it be
for everyone? I’m writing for some people, and I know it won’t be
for everyone. My parents were so involved in experimental arts
stuff when I was growing up, that I got a chance to see a lot of good
stuff but also a lot of junk. I also came to realize early on
that there’s no way that everyone’s going to like what you do.
There’s just no way. There are a lot of things that I hear that I
don’t care for, but I respect that the person did it. So usually
when I’m writing, it’s always with the realization that this will work
for some people and it won’t for others, and that’s okay. It’s a
little less stressful, looking at it that way. Maybe it’s being
the child of hippies in the sixties and seventies, and seeing so many
of these bizarre arts happenings. We were living in Atlanta at
the time, and really there was a lot of strange stuff going on.
But I got all of my experimenting out of my system early on. I
swear, I did! [Both laugh] I saw so many bizarre things and
heard so many bizarre musical ensembles that went with these
experimental animation and film festivals, that it kind of satiated my
soul for that. So rather than thinking about creating a new
sound, I’m often thinking about just what’s interesting and what will
make something good.
BD: With all of
these commissions, are there still some pieces that you just want to
write and have to get out of your system?
Fortunately, the commissions have fit with that. Somehow it’s all
jiving in my head. People often ask if I ever write something
just for myself, but I have to admit I’ve been so fascinated with the
commissions I’ve been given, that I find those challenging and engaging
enough that I haven’t felt like I’m missing anything. About two
years ago someone approached me about doing a piece for orchestra and
juggler. They were saying, “This guy can actually play
rhythmically. He can throw things and bounce things.” I
thought about it, and there was actually nothing appealing about
it! So I decided to pass on that.
BD: The only
thing I think of which is close to that would be the Morton Gould Tap Dance Concerto.
exactly. I think there is a typewriter piece I heard once [The Typewriter by Leroy Anderson]
and maybe some day that juggler thing will appeal, but I have to admit
right now, it doesn’t appeal in the least.
kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the easy question straight
out. What’s the purpose of music?
JH: I think
it’s to express the human condition and really to express the
soul. I really do. It expresses the human condition on so
many levels because there are those angst pieces and there are those
pieces that sound like ecstatic joy. There are the relaxed pieces
and there are the uptight pieces. It’s such a perfect reflection
of life and the soul, and yet the people who are listening don’t have
to know a thing about it. Usually while I’m writing, that’s one
of the things I think about. I know there’s been a lot of debate
in the twentieth century about the fact that maybe people don’t
understand it because they don’t know about this or that type of music,
but I have to say my approach is I don’t think you should have to know
anything about my music, or anything about music in general, to enjoy
it. It should still be an enjoyable experience. But I look
at music as a mirror. It’s a mirror of everyone, everything, our
society, people. I often think of it as a mirror of people,
though. I know some people think of it in terms of objects.
I know Ravel used to talk about factories all the time, and
clock-making, but I often think of it as people.
BD: Is your
music a mirror of you, or is all music a mirror of everybody?
JH: I think
all music’s a mirror of everyone. I don’t know what my music’s a
mirror of. It’s probably of other people, but there’s probably
certain pieces that are more a mirror of me.
not using music as self-analysis, are you?
it feels like self-analysis. About five and half years ago I lost
my younger brother. He passed away, and to compose in the years
after that was the most therapeutic thing. You can tell that
there is something about those pieces, so, self-therapy?
Absolutely. It was easier for me to get through the grieving
process having music to express it. Blue Cathedral on that Rainbow Body disc was written for
my brother. I was writing a lot of those pieces at that time and
they helped me deal with it tremendously. So it is kind of a
self-analysis, kind of a working it out in a way, but certain pieces of
mine seem completely like reflections of other people. Then other
pieces feel like they have more of me in them. It changes from
piece to piece. That keeps it interesting, at least.
BD: A number
of your pieces of yours have been recorded, and more and more are
coming all the time. Are you pleased with the recordings that
have been made of your works so far?
JH: Oh, yes,
absolutely. I’ve been really pleased. I’ve been so lucky to
work with superb musicians. I’ve had more than the normal share
of spectacular performances, and I have to say working with the Atlanta
Symphony and Robert Spano has been just an incredible experience.
BD: Spano was
your teacher for a while?
JH: Yes, for
a year. This was so funny. It was his first year out of
Curtis, and we bumped into each other in Bowling Green, Ohio, of all
places. So I’ve known him since ‘85! I had Conducting with
him for a year and it was amazing! It was incredible. He’s
one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.
BD: Does that
help you in getting your music looked at by his eyes?
JH: I don’t
know if it’s because of that, but neither one of us did anything about
it. He just started conducting my music four or five years
ago. I had never really sent him anything. I’m real shy
about imposing on people. I don’t know what it is. It’s so
hard for me to go up to him and ask him to look at something. I
know him really well, so you would think I would be a little more
BD: But don’t
you find it better if the music stands or falls on its own merit,
rather than you pushing it?
that’s it exactly. My whole philosophy has been that the music
needs to sell itself, and no matter how much I’m going to pester people
about it, they don’t have time to look and listen to this stuff.
If they’re interested, they’ll ask. Robert came to my music,
actually, even after we’ve known each other after all this time, by a
weird fluky thing. Blue
Cathedral was commissioned by Curtis, and he happened to be the
conductor who was engaged to conduct that specific Curtis Symphony
Orchestra concert. It was completely accidental. I’m not
even sure the people who had scheduled them realized that we had known
each other. That’s when he started doing my music, and that was
in 2000, so it’s actually fairly recently.
he likes it. He must think these are good pieces.
JH: Yes, and
he commissioned something, actually. The disc that’s coming out
in March has Concerto for Orchestra,
which the Atlanta Symphony did an amazing job with! Also included
is a piece that they commissioned which is like a full-length
symphony. So the disc is all my music. Wow! It’s all
my orchestra music, and that’s big. It’s amazing!
BD: When you
get through with that, then, do you want to go back to a flute sonata?
JH: No, no
flute stuff. I’ve done enough of the flute stuff for a while!
something for a solo instrument.
Yes. Actually, I have to say, I enjoy alternating the different
things. I don’t like doing a lot of one kind of thing. I
like doing a string quartet, then an orchestra piece, then an organ
piece. I like mixing it up.
BD: Right now
you’re composer in residence with a vocal group?
JH: Yes, the
BD: What’s it
like working with the human voice?
great. It’s totally different. My music is pretty virtuosic
for instruments, but boy, you can’t be doing it with the voice. I
must confess, I must belong to the Sam Barber School of Choral Writing,
or the Aaron Copland. I like hearing the text, so I like a
simpler texture, basically. There is something very different
about it because the text dictates the form, that that makes it
BD: Does that
help or hinder when you’re selecting text?
JH: I think
it helps, actually, although there have been a couple of occasions
where I’ve had to write the text. That was a little scary because
I’ve had a couple of commissions that were really specific. I had
this one commission where the couple wanted a piece that would honor —
let me see if I remember this correctly — the winter solstice,
Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. But finding a text that fits
that kind of requirement? So I figured maybe I better write
something. So I wrote kind of a spiritual text that kind of
encompasses all of those things. It had to be a general sort of
thing. Occasionally I’ll get ideas for words along with the
music, though. A lot of times it’ll happen when I’m writing an
individual song, but I’ll tackle anything; I really will. I’ll
try it out. Last year I did something with Latin in it.
That was an interesting exercise in trying to figure out how to set
anyone speak Latin anymore?
JH: No, but
there are a lot of sacred pieces that use Latin. So I had to go
back and look at how other composers do it, to try to figure it out and
make sure I was doing it correctly, putting it in the right place in
the line. It’s really tricky, but it’s worth trying. It
came out all right, so I can’t complain, thank goodness!
BD: When your
score is presented to an orchestra or a soloist, is it pretty clear so
they can work with it, or is it littered with lots of little directions?
mine’s pretty clear. I always try to imagine what it would be
like if I were at one end of the country and someone else was doing it
at the other end, and I couldn’t get to the premiere or I couldn’t
coach it. That happens on a fairly regular basis with me, so I
try to make sure that everything is there that they need, as if I
weren’t going to be there. I probably got that from George
Crumb. He used to talk about that all the time, notating very
carefully so that you are conveying as much as you can. Also, its
good for the performers, because when they go in to practice these
things, they are very shy about calling the composers and saying, “What
did you mean by this?” So I try to give them as much information
as I can without overloading them, but enough that they can find their
way and try to answer their questions. I try to anticipate what
it is they might need.
BD: Is the
internet maybe throwing another joker into this because it might be a
little easier to email you, rather than pick up the phone and call you?
shy; they won’t do it. It’s amazing. I often send notes
with pieces. I have said, “Now let me know if something doesn’t
work, if it feels awkward, if you have a question,” and I don’t hear
from people. Then if I go to wherever it is being done, I’ll say,
“So how’s it going?” and they’re like, “Well, I wanted to ask you about
this one thing.” “Why didn’t you ask me before?” because they are
trying to practice something that’s awkward. People are really
BD: I assume,
though, that it does please you that a lot of people are taking up your
yes! I can’t tell you how thrilled I am. Actually I’m kind
of amazed because the music is hard. It’s impossible to take up
my music without having some serious commitment that you’re gong to
have to work on it, because there’s like no getting around that.
BD: Would it
surprise you if you heard it in the elevator of this hotel?
JH: It would.
That has happened to me before! [Laughs] I almost wrecked
the car in Atlanta when Blue
Cathedral came on the radio. I just had the radio on, and
suddenly it was like, my gosh, that’s my piece! It’s happened
every once in a while and it always surprises me. I usually run
into the furniture or walls when it’s happening, I get so
distracted. It’s totally funny. That’s pretty amazing,
though. It’s a pretty privileged place to be, because there are
so many composers out there, and they’re good. They just haven’t
had the same kind of breaks I’ve had. Some of it has been just
literally being at the right place at the right time. That’s
definitely part of it.
doing some teaching at Curtis. Is this composition, or flute, or
composition. It’s not a lot. We have a pretty small studio
there. I’ve got three students so it’s a pretty miniscule amount.
BD: What kind
of general advice do you have for those, or other students?
JH: Every one
of those students is different. Composition is such a difficult
thing to teach. It’s not like when I was taking flute lessons and
we are all taking the Prokofiev Sonata.
There are just certain ways to do things, to articulate, to observe the
dynamics or marks. But trying to get a student out of themselves
from nothing is so difficult, which means everyone has different
Prokofiev Flute Sonata you
know is there. In their own music, you don’t know whether it’s
the student thinking of all the possibilities of what they’ve started
with? It’s a game of detective work. Each student is
different. Everyone needs something different, but I try to give
them as many different ways of looking at something as I can, because
that’s the problem they’re going to have when they leave any kind of
teaching studio. They need to know how to solve their own
problems. I vary it. If they’re the kind of student who
writes a lot of music real fast, I’ll try to get them to slow
down. I try to get them to try the opposite of what they are used
to, just so they can see what it feels like.
BD: [With a
slight nudge] You’d be a great one to say slow down, don’t do so
know! Just don’t pay attention to what I’m doing! It’s
true, Bruce; you’re absolutely right. Sometimes they look at me
and think, “Who are you to talk?”
trying to squash my creativity!”
JH: That’s it
exactly. It’s kind of funny.
advice do you have for audiences who hear your music — just
Yes. That’s it, exactly. You don’t need to have any
preconceived idea about my music. You don’t have to know a thing
about classical music. Just come and hear it; I think you’ll
enjoy it. This I say after watching audience reactions for years
now. I’m starting to realize that the music actually works, and
you don’t have to know anything about classical music. I’ve had
an awful lot of people who’ve written me letters and emails after
concerts. This is really sweet. I get emails all the time
from people who are saying things like, “I only like Bach, but I like
your music.” That’s just like an incredible compliment if you can
speak to someone like that. Wow!
means you’ve touched them in some way.
which is just the ultimate compliment. It really is.
Sometimes people come from the audience who can’t speak because they
are teary. I’m often amazed by that, too. That’s an amazing
thing to have in a lifetime, to be able to do some sort of art form
that moves people.
BD: Is that
scary to know that some of these little dots and squiggles you put down
are really going to touch people?
JH: Yes, it
is scary, actually. Sometimes it’s kind of an awesome
responsibility. I’m aware of it. It’s true, but I’m always
aware that I have a certain responsibility in creating an art
form. Because I have the opportunities, I know that I need to
make the most of them. I’m constantly going through other
composers works and trying to find things that I might be able to pass
along to somebody. I’m always doing that, and I find it
fascinating to hear what other people are doing. That’s the other
thing I love.
trying to keep up.
always in Tower Records buying things, and people send me CDs all the
time. So I’m always listening to those and seeing what people are
doing. Sometimes I’ll get calls from orchestras asking, “Do you
know anything from a young composer that’s seven minutes, that’s kind
of fast?” Because I
judge competitions and things, I run across things. You go
through several hundred scores and recordings, and occasionally you’ll
run across a real gem. So usually I’ll contact the composer to
see if I can get a copy. Also, the kids at Curtis are having to
apply for competitions and things, and sometimes there are
requirements; they’ll need a violin piece that’s from 1995. So
they’re looking for things specifically, and sometimes I’m aware of a
piece that I can pass on.
BD: Put it on
a page your website.
JH: That’s a
good idea. That’s a really good idea. I hadn’t thought
about that. [Laughs] I’ll have to talk to my website
guy. That’s great, Bruce. That’s actually a really good
idea. I don’t maintain my website because I just can’t. I
don’t have enough time to do it, but I have a flute friend who does,
and it’s good having him. I’m amazed how any people access that
website to find information! It’s invaluable. Those things
are just invaluable! It’s incredible. It has changed music,
really, because now you don’t have to be with a publisher. You
can do it yourself because people can find you. That used to be
one of the battles, so I think it’s altering it a lot. It really
for the better...
Yes. Well, I guess we won’t know for a while, will we? We
must have another conversation in ten years. Think about the
decade between 1994 and 2004, the changes have been
extraordinary. So what will it be in 2014? [Purely coincidentally, it is now 2014 when
this conversation is being posted on my website.]
BD: I’ll meet
you back here then.
BD: Just for
my records, may I ask your birth date?
Yes... New Year’s Eve, 1962. December 31st is kind of an
odd time to have a birthday. It means I’m always a year
older. I look a year older than I actually am because everyone
always calculates by the year you were born, ’62, so I just turned
forty-one. But it’s kind of an interesting time to have a
birthday then. I don’t forget it.
BD: Plus it
gives you an extra tax deduction that year.
right. That’s what my parents always tell me, “You were a tax
deduction.” [Both laugh] So I tell them, “Thanks, Mom and
Dad. I’m glad I could help out.”
BD: One last
question. Is composing fun?
JH: It’s both
fun and agonizing. Parts of it are joyous and parts of it are
just agony! It’s amazing how hard it is, and I don’t think it
gets any easier. It’s hard; you’re always worrying. You
think this isn’t going to work! This isn’t going to work!
And sometimes I think it’s not going to work right up to the
performance. It’s amazing how often that happens. I was
really encouraged when I read something recently. John Adams said
that every time he hears a piece of his for the first time, he is
always horrified. Wow, that’s encouraging! I always
considered John Adams to be a real pro at handling things, but to hear
him say that made me feel a whole lot better.
BD: I would
think you would be relieved when your own piece worked!
JH: I am, but
my music is hard enough that I sometimes have a little bit of anxiety
of what I’m putting people through. I also know that my
perspective of hearing is not going to be what the rest of the audience
is experiencing. I know the spots that I’m worried about, and I
swear I have some sort of reaction when they are going through the
music. I’m like, “Will this work? Will this work?” and I’m
sometimes really caught off guard by whether it works or not.
I’ll ask musicians, “Do you think this works? Does it feel all
right?” Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise though; it really
is. It’s a hard job, but I can’t live without it, so I’m not
exactly sure how to answer the question. I need it; I really need
it. I have no choice, but boy, sometimes it‘s real agony.
BD: As my old
teacher Tom Willis,
the Music Critic for the Chicago
Tribune used to say, we all work to support our habit.
that the truth? It really is.
BD: I’ve got
some recordings of some of your compositions and also your flute
playing. Are there some recordings of your conducting?
only on someone else’s recording. Robert Maggio, a composer from
Philadelphia, has a piece that came out on CRI. Probably if you
typed me in on a place like Amazon, I think it does pull me up as a
conductor. But I’ve actually curtailed my conducting stuff
because Spano made me realize that if you are going to get up on the
podium, you have a real responsibility to know what you are
doing. It’s almost impossible to learn the scores like you really
should know them and still maintain the amount of composing I’m
doing. But I’m sure at some point I’ll probably get back to
it. I’m sure I will.
BD: Will you
keep up the flute playing?
that’s a little more consistent. I am also running my own
publishing company. It’s a lot of work. I’m still trying
figure out how to balance that with so many performances going on in a
BD: Do you
get enough time to compose?
although this year I am struggling a little more than I normally
do. I carry a laptop around so I can work in hotel rooms! I
worked on the plane all the way down here from Philly to Chicago.
I actually spent the whole time composing ‘til they told me I had to
turn the computer off. I’m trying to clear out a little more time
so I’m not so squashed. It’s maybe more healthy creatively.
sometime you’ll just have to take a few months off. Build it into
JH: Yes, I
think that’s what I’m going to have to do. I think you’re
BD: Go sit
on a beach for a month.
JH: Oh that
sounds good. [Both laugh] That’s funny... I was dreaming
about Hawaii today. I was thinking I bet it’s 80 degrees
there! What are we doing on the mainland? [Note: This interview took place in
mid-February, so it was very cold in both Philadelphia and Chicago.]
[Both continue to laugh]
know. Folks, I’ve got to do this in Hawaii! Oooh, that
sounds good. It does. Then I can go to the
Caribbean............. [More laughter as we said our good-byes.]
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
© 1994 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on
February 14, 2004. Portions were broadcast on WNUR later that
This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2014.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.