It was a tough assignment even for a composer who had already fulfilled dozens of commissions: Create an orchestral piece to commemorate a prolific, prizewinning American composer and a century-old orchestra.
Dr. Jennifer Higdon, Gr’94, professor of music theory at the Curtis Institute of Music, met that challenge, and her resulting work, “Shine” (no relation to the movie by the same name) was recently recognized by USA Today as the “best new piece” of 1996 in classical music.
wrote in its review that Higdon’s “Shine” — performed last year at
Indiana State University’s Festival of Contemporary Music — “bubbles
over with color, rhythm, high spirits and invention, often sounding like
Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ at warp speed, but with a personality
of its own.”
34, says, “I was really flattered by being compared to [Hungarian
composer Bela] Bartok in the first place. He’s one of the best composers
in this century. But a lot of my work tends to be at warp speed, so
that part doesn’t surprise me.”
actually was created in 1995, when Higdon was commissioned by the
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to create a piece
commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Oregon Symphony, as well as
ASCAP’s past president, the late composer Morton Gould.
thought, ‘This is really difficult. How am I going to do this?’ So I
thought about building some sort of sculpture to honor these things,”
Higdon says. “I thought about all this energy all the musicians had put
in through one hundred years and about how Morton Gould was really a
multi-talented individual. If I could compress this into a sculpture, it
would be a very bright piece. That’s how I came up with the name
piece of Higdon’s personal life went into the composition, as well. “At
about the same time, my brother was diagnosed with cancer, and we
weren’t sure if he was going to live. So this piece for me was really
seizing at life,” she says. “That’s why I think the piece is so
energetic. I was trying to grasp a lifetime in music, but in twelve
minutes, basically.” Her brother has recovered and is now cancer free.
took her about six work-packed weeks to compose “Shine,” which the
Oregon Symphony performed at one of its concerts. The piece later won a
competion and was performed at the Indiana State University music
self-described “late bloomer,” Higdon started teaching herself to play
the flute at age 15 and didn’t receive formal music training until
college. She was almost finished with her bachelor’s degree requirements
at Bowling Green State University when she started learning
composition. The energetic pace of “Shine” comes through in most of her
pieces, Higdon says, attributing her musical style partly to her stint
in her high school marching band. “My pieces tend to always have a
strong pulse, I think.” Her other musical influences range from
bluegrass, which she heard often in her native Tennessee, and rock, to
the works of Bartok and Debussy. Higdon considers herself lucky to have
received over 40 commissions since her composing career began. They come
from sources as varied as people planning weddings to chamber music
groups, she says.
earning her doctorate in composition from Penn, Higdon had the chance
to fill in as conductor of the University orchestra and wind ensemble.
“Having the experience of being in front of the musicians and working
with them was so rewarding,” she says. She has taught at Curtis for two
years and continues to work on projects, including a piece she wrote for
two flutes and percussive piano that just premiered at an international
flute festival in Deeland, Florida, to enthusiastic reviews. Higdon
also has a new compact disc, rapid.fire, released under the I Virtuosi label. The recording features her playing the flute on several of her scores.
Higdon wrote “Shine” a year before the movie by the same name was
released, she does often field questions like, “Did you write the movie
soundtrack?” She answers no, but admits the coincidence is a weird one.
“It’s a little strange seeing ads for the movie everywhere. I feel like
I’m looking at my piece.”
— By Susan Lonkevich