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Jennifer Higdon on the Process of Composing


by Stephen Becker 14 May 2010

Jennifer Higdon was the guest of honor at today’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra Guild luncheon at the Tower Club downtown. Higdon, as you surely know by now, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last month for her Violin Concerto, which is being performed this weekend by Hilary Hahn and the DSO.

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Jennifer Higdon was the guest of honor at today’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra Guild luncheon at the Tower Club downtown. Higdon, as you surely know by now, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last month for her Violin Concerto, which is being performed this weekend by Hilary Hahn and the DSO.

Higdon-and-BeauAfter lunch, she took the podium for a highly entertaining 20 minutes or so, during which she spent most of her time discussing how she goes about composing. She says she was particularly nervous composing the Violin Concerto for Hahn.

“This is where composers start to sweat. Violin concerti – wow there are a lot of violin concerti in the world,” she said. “So I asked Hilary what she wanted, and she said, ‘I can play anything, and I like to play everything.'”

In other words, Higdon had a lot of room to roam.

It took her six months working about six hours a day to write the 32-minute piece. That equates, she said, to writing anywhere from five to 15 seconds of music a day. And while she didn’t write the concerto in order from beginning to end, she says she did at least try to string together those five- to 15-second chunks day in and day out to “stay on the road” as she put it. Still, when an idea presented itself that could work in another movement, she says she didn’t hesitate to take a detour.

“I’d see a sign for a museum and say, ‘Oh, let’s check that out’,” she said, metaphorically. “And then I’d get back on the road and go a ways and see a sign – ‘Oh, there’s a candy factory. Let’s see what kind of chocolate they have there’.”

In some ways, her composing process mirrors her path of musical discovery. She didn’t grow up around classical music and didn’t even take an interest in it until she was 15 years old, when she taught herself to play the flute. When she got to college, she found herself working hard to catch up to other students who knew a lot more about music than she did.

“Many of my teachers would say, ‘We don’t remember you coming through the school’,” she said with a laugh. “That’s because I was behind in remedial theory classes.”

If you attend one of this weekend’s performances, obviously Hahn will be the star of the show. But be sure to glance over at the percussion section during the first movement. Part of the process of writing music is giving it a go with the musicians and seeing if the live sounds match what’s in the composer’s head. In the early stages of the Violin Concerto, Higdon says that she found that at times the dynamics weren’t quite right. In one case, the mallets that the percussionists were using to play the bells were creating too much sound.

So she searched and searched for something that might have a lighter touch.

Her solution: knitting needles.

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  • nmlhats

    Ms. Higdon has also graciously agreed to speak during the Guild-sponsored Performance Preludes lectures at the Meyerson. This week’s program is being presented by the excellent Jamie Allen, DSO Director of Education, and Higdon will be with him for part of the hour (probably at the beginning, but it may vary). Performance Preludes are free and begin one hour before each concert, downstairs in Horchow Hall.