Modern Composition | Music Matters, December 2014

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Jennifer Higdon; photo by Candace DiCarlo

Jennifer Higdon is among the most important and prolific composers working today—and one who’s frequently inspired by books and libraries. Her opera based on Charles Frazier’s National Book Award–winning novel Cold Mountain will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in August 2015. She spoke with LJ about the opera, her music, and some of her favorite books.

Could you tell me a bit about your opera based on Cold Mountain? Why did you choose this particular book?

Writing an opera is such an intense process that it would be insane to take on such a…project without having a real fondness for a book. I’m not sure it would even be possible. I love the book and immediately recognized the characters, their way of speaking, and the landscape, because when I was younger I lived in east Tennessee, not that far from Cold Mountain. It seemed like a superb point of inspiration for a first opera.

In order to compose the opera, I read the novel through four times. It took 28 months to write the opera itself (working seven days a week, seven to nine hours a day), so I feel like I really understand the characters’ personalities, motivations, and emotions.

What are some challenges you’ve faced adapting a work of fiction into an opera?

This is a really interesting question. Bear in mind that I don’t have a complete picture yet, because we are still in the process of putting the opera up. We wanted to keep the beautiful, poetic nature of Charles Frazier’s writing, while moving the story along, and keeping the integrity of the characters intact. Where the author could draw beautiful descriptions of the landscapes with words, and where the movie could reveal emotions through close-ups on the characters’ faces, I had to figure out how to make it happen through the music, keeping in mind the limitations of an opera set.

It generally takes three times longer to sing a sentence than it would to read it. So if you think about how long it would take to read each page out loud, it becomes obvious that an opera three times that length would be longer than anyone would want to sit through. My librettist, Gene Scheer, and I pulled out key scenes from the book that would allow us to move the action along and tell the story, while also revealing the changes that the characters go through as a result of the war. There are times when we had to conflate aspects of the story, so that scenes didn’t go on too long.

You’ve long championed moving beyond the standard repertoire and embracing music written by living composers. And you really practice what you preach by writing music that’s thoroughly contemporary but using a musical vocabulary that’s inviting and approachable. How can libraries, especially public ones, help bring contemporary classical music to a wider audience?

Having CDs of contemporary works that people can listen to would be a real help. I remember going to the Lawson McGhee Library in Knoxville, TN, and checking out records of all kinds. This turned out to be very formative for me and a fantastic way to discover unfamiliar music. I have also seen great enthusiasm among patrons for exhibits where musical manuscripts and sketches from the composition process are exhibited (especially since much of the population these days probably aren’t aware that there are a lot of composers living and working among them). People are generally curious about the creative process, and exhibits are the perfect peek into what goes into creating a new work of art.

What are some works by contemporary composers that every library should have in their music collection?

Chris Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body, Roomful of Teeth’s Roomful of Teeth, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, David Lang’s The Little Matchgirl Passion, Dawn Upshaw’s recording of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, and the Fort Worth Symphony’s double disc Take 6, which features six different contemporary composers.

In a perfect world, what would a public library be for you?

First of all, I can’t live without libraries! I’m a fan of the Philadelphia Free Library system…they do so much for the community. I think of libraries as the ultimate resource—also a quiet space. If I need quiet when I’m traveling, I’ll go to a library. I love books, I love the magazines, and for me, as a composer, I adore being able to look at musical scores. It’s a place of discoveries and answers. Libraries just make life so much richer.

5 Essential Jennifer Higdon Recordings

Higdon & Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon, 2010). Star violinist Hilary Hahn performs Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Violin Concerto.

Marin Alsop Conducts MacMillan, Ades & Higdon (London Philharmonic Orchestra, 2008). Features Higdon’s Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto.

The Rainbow Body (Telarc, 2003). Includes a performance of Higdon’s intensely moving blue cathedral, among the most frequently performed contemporary orchestral works in America.

On a Wire (ASO Media, 2011). Star chamber sextet Eighth Blackbird performing this bright and exciting work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for its world premiere.

An Exultation of Larks (Bridge Records, 2013). The Lark Quartet performs three exuberant chamber works by Higdon.

Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

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