In the last twenty years, American composer Jennifer Higdon has made a substantial mark on contemporary classical music. Her work receives dozens of performances each year, and she has commissions stretching into 2022. In addition, she has earned a Pulitzer Prize (2010) and two GRAMMY Awards (2010, 2018) for three separate concertos.
Congratulations, Jennifer! But . . . why should we care?
Higdon is a composer that is far more than the sum of her accolades. In interview after interview, Higdon shows dedication to and investment in the people who perform and listen to her music. She regularly communicates with performers, especially when composing a new work, in order to write music that showcases their instruments and individual skills. When available for a performance, she opens herself to audiences through interviews, concert talks, and various print and digital media. Higdon also recognizes that people will have different reactions to her work. She regards different perspectives of her work as valid, and as such allows performers and listeners to play an active role in interpretation. There is not a single “right way” to play or hear her music. With this inclusive attitude, Higdon invites people into her work, and, more widely, into new music.
Since Higdon encourages listeners to have an active role during a performance, I offer only a brief description of Dark Wood. My hope is that most readers of the blog will be able to experience Dark Wood at the Royal College of Music Illuminate concert on 16th February 2019 and form their own musical thoughts there!
With just a single listening, it is clear that Dark Wood alternates between fast and slow sections. A discerning ear, though, may notice a structural organization of ABA’B’A”. Each time a section returns, tempo and other musical elements connect past music with present sounds.
More specifically, the fast A sections are punchy, featuring separated and sharp articulation. This pointed sound, alongside dissonant chords and trills, creates a “bite” that Higdon references in her own program notes.
“Dark Wood” is a work that features the bassoon...a wonderful instrument that does not have a tremendous amount of chamber literature. I wanted to create a work that features the bassoon prominently, but also respects it within the framework of a true chamber dialogue (along with its partners, the violin, cello, and piano). Since much of the literature for this beautiful instrument is slow moving, I made the conscious decision to explore its virtuosic abilities. While there is slow music within the piece, there is an emphasis on real “bite” within the language, rhythm and tempi.
The title refers to the beauty of the bassoon’s wood.'
The A sections also contain brief periods of single, repeated notes and passages where instruments trade musical fragments, with the latter creating a sense of almost agitated conversation.
Conversely, the slow B sections are lyrical. Often an instrument retains a sense of individuality, moving independently of the others to create its own melodic shape. In fact, independent melodic lines are a hallmark of Higdon’s style, appearing frequently in her orchestral and chamber music. Additionally, the bassoon and the violin utilize their high registers in this section, adding unexpected colors to the calmer sections of the work.
Timbrally, the choice of instruments is slightly unusual. Higdon alters the fairly standard piano trio (piano, violin, and cello) by adding a bassoon. She explains that Dark Wood refers to the wood of the bassoon, the featured instrument of the work. Yet, it is worth mentioning that all the instruments in this ensemble – violin, cello, bassoon, and piano – consist of primarily of wood. The colors may vary, ranging from lighter spruce or maple on a violin to dark or black-lacquered wood on a piano, but wood is central to all four instruments.
Performances of Dark Wood (and Beyond!)
There is little, if any, scholarly writing on Dark Wood, but a handful of reviews over the past twelve years reveal generally positive reactions to the work. Premiered in 2002, the work was written around the same time that Higdon made a big splash with her Concerto for Orchestra at the national conference of the League of American Orchestras. As such, a review by Steve Schwartz places Higdon as an emerging composer in the early twentieth century.
[Dark Wood] is music with a sharp tang, even in the slow sections, and we see the composer coming into maturity. Her artistic search has begun to yield fruit. The momentary echoes of somebody else have been sublimated into a distinct personality. [. . .] The most recent score on the program, Dark Wood rates as my favorite, I'm happy to say, and adumbrates the considerable composer just around the corner.
Performances of Dark Wood have occurred across the United States in large metropolitan areas including San Francisco and New York City, as well as “smaller” big cities such as Tulsa (Oklahoma), Charleston (South Carolina), and Hartford (Connecticut). Dark Wood has played in formal halls and brewery taprooms, in ticketed concerts and open rehearsals. This myriad of performance places and spaces points to what Andrew Farach-Colton of Gramophone identifies as Higdon’s “most striking achievement.”
[This] achievement doesn’t fit so easily into a biography, and that’s how thoroughly her music has filtered into every stratum of classical music culture in the United States. Glance through the “Upcoming Performances” page of her official website and you’ll find that her work is being played not only by the Houston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, but also by municipal, community, and high school ensembles across the country. On the surface, it appears to be a simple formula: Higdon writes music that audiences like to hear and musicians find gratifying to play.
Though Farach-Colton wrote these words in early 2017, his observations hold true today. From October 2018 to June 2019, Higdon’s music is scheduled to play in 29 states and Washington, D.C. Performances are also scheduled in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
But perhaps more significant than the number of performances is the fact that Higdon’s music resonates with musicians and audiences. Why? Higdon has taken the time to build relationships with performers and listeners and create inclusive environments. She has advocated for her music, and new music, to play in all types of spaces. Her most recent and upcoming concerts are scheduled in museums, churches, and concert halls with performances by youth, university, and professional ensembles. Higdon’s music truly is for everyone: student musicians, seasoned performers, and every person that wants to listen to it.
Written by Dr Laura Dallman
To get a taste of the piece before Illuminate's concert at RCM on 16th February 2019 take a listen to a clip of the Dark Wood from Jennifer Higdon's website.
Bibliography and Further Reading
The City of Charleston, Office of Cultural Affairs. “Magnetic South Music: Bártôk, Higdon, and Koumendakis.” November 2017. http://charlestonarts.org/event/magnetic-south-music-bartok-higdon-koumendakis/(accessed 2 January 2019).
Edwards, Grego Applegate. “Jennifer Higdon, Sky Quartet.” Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review Blog. 6 August 2013. http://classicalmodernmusic.blogspot.com/2013/08/jennifer-higdon-sky-quartet.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Farach-Colton, Andrew. “Contemporary Composer: Jennifer Higdon.” Gramophone. 20 March 2017. https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/contemporary-composer-jennifer-higdon(accessed 2 January 2019).
Gasser, Nolan. “Jennifer Higdon Exclusive Interview.” Classical Archives. 24 April 2012. http://classicalarchives.com/feature/jennifer_higdon_2012_interview.html(accessed 3 January 2019).
Hamad, Michael. “Bach, Brahms, Beethoven (And Beer) at Hog River.” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT). 11 November 2017. https://www.courant.com/ctnow/music/hc-hso-intermix-hog-river-brewing-co-hartford-20171110-story.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Higdon, Jennifer. Composer’s personal website.http://jenniferhigdon.com(accessed 2 January 2019).
———. Interview by Bruce Duffie. “Composer Jennifer Higdon: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie,” Duffie’s personal website. 14 February 2004. Transcript. http://www.bruceduffie.com/higdon.html(accessed 3 January 2019).
———. Interview by Marianne Lipanovich. “Composer Jennifer Higdon: Enjoying an Explosive Year . . . and Career.” San Francisco Classical Voice: Events and Previews. Online. 25 July 2010. https://www.sfcv.org/events-calendar/artist-spotlight/composer-jennifer-higdon-enjoying-an-explosive-year-and-career(accessed 3 January 2019).
Kelly, Jennifer W. “Jennifer Higdon.” In In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States, 42-60. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
McKinney, Donald. “Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).” In Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers, edited by Michael Slayton, 141-89. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Midgette, Anne. “Medicine That Really Tastes Smooth.” New York Times. Music Review. 3 November 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/03/arts/music/03chamb.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Oteri, Frank J.“Jennifer Higdon: Down to Earth.” NewMusicBox. 1 September 2007. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/jennifer-higdon-down-to-earth/(accessed 3 January 2019).
Reitz, Christina L. Jennifer Higdon: Composing in Color. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.
Schwartz, Steve. “Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works.” Classical.Net. 2014. http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59752a.php(accessed 2 January 2019).
Sferra, Joe. “Jennifer Higdon: Early Chamber Works.” Where Are We Now? Classical and Contemporary Music in the 21st Century. Blog Review. 11 October 2013. https://concerthub.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/jennifer-higdon-early-chamber-works/(accessed 2 January 2019).
Verzosa, Noel. “Reverberations.” San Francisco Classical Voice. Online Review. 28 October 2008. https://www.sfcv.org/reviews/reverberations(accessed 2 January 2019).
Watts, James D. “She Benefits from a Trend Toward New.” Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK). 15 June 2008. https://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/artsandentertainment/she-benefits-from-a-trend-toward-new/article_ed42ee04-f292-5e1c-99b8-5c2b679726ed.html(accessed 2 January 2019).
Dr Helen Thomas