Conversation: Pulitzer Prize Winner in Music, Jennifer Higdon

BY Tom LeGro  April 15, 2010 at 1:14 PM EST

Composer Jennifer Higdon is the recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music. Her winning ‘Violin Concerto’ premiered in February 2009, performed by violinist Hilary Hahn, for whom the composition had been written, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Higdon also took home a 2010 Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for a piece written for percussion and orchestra. She teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

I talked with her by phone about her win:

Editor’s Note: You can listen to an excerpt of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto at NPR.

 
A full transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jennifer Higdon, hello and congratulations.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess this must have been something of a surprise even though you’ve been doing pretty well this year.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Yeah, you know, I’m not sure anyone can ever prepare for a Pulitzer. It’s very big. It feels very big anyway, so yeah, 2010 is shaping up to be a really good year.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you write a violin concerto in the 21st century without being intimidated by the history, the tradition, all those famous works of the past?

JENNIFER HIGDON: Actually, I think the trick is to be a little intimidated. There’s nothing like a little bit of fear to kind of get the imagination running.

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel that fear?

JENNIFER HIGDON: Yes. One of the things I had to do, and this is what I do with all pieces, but with the violin concerto there was even more of it, was research into the history of that instrument’s concerti. And the violin in particular has an extraordinary amount of incredible literature. Some of the most inspired works, I think from some of our greatest composers throughout classical music have been violin concertos. So it was quite intimidating to even think about endeavoring to do it, but fortunately for me I had Hilary Hahn, who’s an extraordinary violinist and is a real advocate and is probably the ultimate dream to write for someone with such a technical musical gift.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she’s someone you knew when she was a young student, I gather?

JENNIFER HIGDON: That’s right. She was at the Curtis Institute and used to teach a class there — 20th century music history and theory. So I’ve actually known her for quite awhile and that helped, because you get to know the personality and their playing style and that goes a long way in mapping out a piece.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that. How does her style or abilities or interests influence your process or what you end up with?

JENNIFER HIGDON: Well, first of all, I think Hilary can play just about anything. Everything I’ve ever seen her play, she can nail. But not only that, she’s got this gorgeous tone in the top register, but also down really low, so I try to make sure I kind of utilized her entire range, her lyrical gift, her ability to play super fast and negotiate through complex meter changes, she plays harmonics, these glassy sounding notes really well, and actually I open the piece with that. I thought about her personality. She wanted something substantial. She said I want a 30-minute work, a big piece of music, and so that’s what I kind of endeavored to do. I kept writing. I sent her off each movement as I finished it, and I kept thinking she was going to say, “Oh, this is too hard,” but she said, “It’s my job, I’m going to learn it,” and boy she did.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve got her on the one hand and then you’ve got this long tradition in history as you say you researched, so out of that comes the question of influence and originality. You have to somehow have an original voice while keeping in mind all that from the past?

JENNIFER HIGDON: That’s it exactly. That’s probably the hardest part about being a composer, because we are so surrounded in music all the time now. If you’re like me, you’re lucky enough to get to write all the time, you tend to develop your own voice that stays consistent. My music has been characterized by a lot of people as being very American sounding. It’s tuneful, I like a clear pulse and rhythm. It’s sometimes kind of hard for me to articulate in words what it is, because I am so close to the music, it’s a noisy sound world in my head, but I think for other people it’s probably a little more clear, but you just try to make sure you’re utilizing the solo instrument really well, you’re using the orchestra in a way that doesn’t cover the soloist. It’s a little bit of a tightrope, you do a little bit of guessing. You keep your fingers crossed and hope that it all comes out OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there’s the violinist, there’s Hilary Hahn, there’s the tradition, and then I want to ask you about one other piece of this, which is the audience. There’s a lot of talk, of course, these days about the audience for classical music. I wonder do you as someone who is writing all the time, composing, do you think about the audience? Do you think about reaching more people and does that have some kind of effect on the composition?

JENNIFER HIGDON: I’m always thinking about the audience, because I’m thinking about it’s my job to communicate. I know this is a different thing for every composer, but for me, I ponder constantly the fact that someone has paid some money to come into the concert hall and I’m taking—

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s nice of you.

JENNIFER HIGDON: —-a chunk of their time. And I realized early on that you can write quality music without — I think a lot of people think it’s dumbing down, but I don’t think it’s that. The trick is to actually write quality music that speaks. You have to really think as you crafting the work: Is this interesting, is this engaging, where is this idea going, will it lead to the next thought? And part of that is thinking about the musicians, because if you can convince them, they play convincingly to the audience. What I’ve actually found is a lot of people are thrilled to be hearing quite a bit of new music. I actually get people coming back to the concert hall, and I’m lucky enough that I have probably around 200 performances a year so I have lot of conversations with people about their experience. So I’m finding that in certain ways the new music is helping with the younger generation. They seem to be more interested in that. But I do think about the fact that it is my job to communicate and so I take that as a very important aspect of my composing process.

JEFFREY BROWN: And speaking of people coming to music, I read that you yourself started relatively late in music. How and when did you come to music and how come to composing?

JENNIFER HIGDON: Yeah, that’s good question. Well, I taught myself to play flute at 15.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was not music at home so much?

JENNIFER HIGDON: Well, we had music; we just had rock ‘n’ roll. That was the music in the household. My dad’s a commercial artist who worked at home and he had the stereo on, so you were more likely to hear the Beatles or Bob Dylan, we had a lot of reggae around, Peter, Paul and Mary. So that’s kind of what I grew up on. We also had a flute laying around the house and a beginning band method book. I taught myself to play. I joined the high school band, and then I decided — and this is kind of a crazy idea for an 18-year-old who doesn’t really know much classical to major in music. It was during my undergrad days in Bowling Green, Ohio, that my flute teacher, Judith Bentley, got me started on composing and it was just so fascinating, creating sound and manipulating it that it took over. It’s pure joy for me. It really is.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jennifer Higdon is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her violin concerto. Congratulations to you.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Thank you.