Hey, why not ask for more?

And so nine orchestras and festivals co-commissioned a new, post-Pulitzer work from Jennifer Higdon.

Jennifer Higdon premieres concerto “On a Wire”
Philadelphia Inquirer
David Patrick Stearns

Though her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto limited the soloist role to a single instrument...

Hasn’t she heard that bigger is better? She must not love America very much.

...Higdon got out from under the long history of concertos by writing the new work for six soloists, specifically the contemporary- music [sic] group eighth blackbird.

I presume the question confronting her was “how do I outdo my last big hit?” Her answer, via Stearns: less history; more soloists; hot new music group.

Got it?

(An aside: is there a limit to the number of soloists one can have in order that they retain their status as soloist? Anyway.)

Members of that group think nothing of playing multiple instruments in a given piece, often switching between piccolo and flute or violin and viola.

That’s cool. However, it’s pretty standard fare for flute players to also play piccolo and violinists to play viola. That’s not the best way to support the point that they, and the piece, are out of the ordinary.

In addition, Higdon’s concerto asks its players to practice “extended techniques” - plucking and bowing the innards of the piano...

Not that I find this passage terribly worded—close, though—instead, I take issue with the interplay of description with the premise, that the piece is new and innovative.

You and I know that extended techniques have been practiced for some time (or depending on the argument, since the very beginnings of music). Yet, to place “extended techniques” in scare/air quotes, today, puts them in a position of being exoticisms (outside of a norm), which we know not to be the case. So, I can only assume that othering “extended techniques” is an intentionally misleading puffery strategy.

Please feel free to take issue with that; but I hope it will become somewhat evident, below.

In addition, Higdon’s concerto asks its players to practice “extended techniques” - plucking and bowing the innards of the piano, much like the techniques pioneered by...[?]

1. Erik Satie – Piège de Méduse (1913); inserted sheets of paper into the piano
2. Heitor Villa-Lobos – Chôros no.8 (1925); again, paper inserts
3. Maurice Delage – Ragamalika (1912-22); cardboard inserts
4. Henry Cowell – Aeolian Harp (1923); manipulation of piano strings directly
5. John Cage – Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48); nuts, bolts, doodads, etc.

...much like the techniques pioneered by one of Higdon’s teacher’s, George Crumb.

I also left out all the other, lesser-known experiments with prepared piano and/or playing inside the piano. (The above was mostly found via Wikipedia)

So, circa 1970 George Crumb, you say?

Call me paranoid, but scare quotes around “extended techniques” are patronizing, as well as ignorant, false, and archaic; plus, I sense a bloated case of name-dropping.


A few awkward, unrelated moments:

Always a seeker of extra-symphonic sounds, in the past she's trawled the aisles of Home Depot for trinkets that would give her orchestration an ethereal jingle.

Can I assume, then, that junk from True Value would have given her music a transcendental glow?

Higdon has perhaps never cast her net so wide.


So many kinds of musical incidents are contained within the 25-minute concerto that you'd think Higdon was inspired by the far-flung literary imagery of the Leonard Cohen song "Bird on a Wire."

Were there program notes?

However, Higdon, 48, swears she has never heard (or heard of) of the song.


Back to the meat of the issue.

The Atlanta premiere with a longtime collaborator like Spano turned out to be exactly what she needed in the wake of winning the Pulitzer in April.

I wonder why.

“I think you explored a whole new room in your musical mansion," Atlanta music director Robert Spano told Higdon on Sunday after a post-concert toast.

“I'm hearing things that sound exactly like you, but I haven't heard them before."

So, it’s new, but not too new? Like you just know Toy Story 3 is going to be good, because the others were?

That's one reason he scheduled a recording session the day after Thursday's premiere.

The other reason?

His plan is to rush-release the concerto as a classical-music single.

...to capitalize on her success. I love the free market co-mingled with the arts!

...[it is] yet another triumph in a series of Higdon works that have made her one of the most immediately embraced living American composers.

Example 1. How another immediately embraced American composer followed up his success (Hammerman).

Example 2. God Bless America rendered by the stylings of Canadian Celine Dion.


Gustav said...

Why bring up the Leonard Cohen song? Talk about name dropping, and making sure we all know that Higdon's piece isn't too new-musicky, despite it's "extended techniques".

Empiricus said...

This post was, more than likely, a little abstruse, I know. I tend in that direction. So, apologies.

But you're right, Gus. The Leonard Cohen song is superfluous. (I'm not even sure if it's correctly worded. I found numerous sources that called it "Bird on a wire"; I also found numerous sources calling it "Bird on the wire." The lyrics, however, clearly say "Bird on THE wire." So... obscure song much?)

Either way, I'm sure Stearns and Spano, et al. are simply promoting a composer they believe in, whether she's a friend or a local girl, or if they simply find her a good composer. Unfortunately, I sense a kind of overdoing it, and certainly at an expected and ripe time. But when does it become too much? When the facts are distorted to make her look a little more appealing?

It smells of doublespeak--it doesn't matter if they're telling the truth. As long as there is money involved, the praises will be shiny and exaggerated, truth be damned.

BP anyone?