“Starting a piece is the worst,” she said, “and that can stretch from one day to three weeks of agony. The cats run and hide.”
Despite the angst, Ms. Higdon, 47, comes across as friendly, down to earth and upbeat. And her creative struggles have paid off. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize this month for her Violin Concerto, which she wrote for the young soloist Hilary Hahn. The Pulitzer committee praised the work, which received its premiere in February 2009 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”
Those are qualities integral to many of Ms. Higdon’s scores. Her large catalog also includes a piano concerto (which was given its premiere in December by Yuja Wang), a saxophone concerto and numerous chamber and orchestral works. “The Singing Rooms,” for chorus, orchestra and solo violin, recently had its premiere with Jennifer Koh as soloist. The San Francisco Opera has commissioned an opera for fall 2013.
Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has conducted and recorded several of Ms. Higdon’s works, including the lively Percussion Concerto. She described her music as American in its immediacy, vitality and sense of optimism. Echoes of American composers like Aaron Copland can be heard in works like “Blue Cathedral,” the most frequently performed piece in the 2007-8 season of those composed during the past 25 years, according to the League of American Orchestras. Another of Ms. Higdon’s most popular works is the bluegrass-inspired “Concerto 4-3.”
Her scores are “very strong rhythmically,” Ms. Alsop said, “with real scope and shape and architecture. She knows how to bring out the best of the various instrumental colors in the orchestra.” She added that Ms. Higdon’s music is “very immediate, authentic, sincere and without pretense.”
“I’m not sure when ‘accessible’ became a dirty word,” Ms. Alsop said. “I’m not of the belief that something has to be inscrutable in order to be great.”
Ms. Higdon got experimental urges out of her system at a young age. Her parents were hippies, she said, and she and her younger brother were fed a steady diet of avant-garde film, art and theater in Atlanta, where her father, Kenny Higdon, worked as a freelance artist for advertising agencies. A huge black-and-white abstract painting by Mr. Higdon hangs in his daughter’s living room.
When Ms. Higdon was 11, the family moved to Seymour, a tiny town in Eastern Tennessee, where she and Ms. Lawson met in high school.
Ms. Higdon, who still speaks with a lilting Southern accent, had almost no exposure to classical music growing up, but taught herself to play the flute at 15 and entered Bowling Green State University at 18 as a flute major. After catching up on theory classes she began composing at 21. She received an artist diploma from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she now teaches composition, before studying at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was kind of the black sheep of the family going into classical music,” said Ms. Higdon, laughing, but said her parents were fully supportive of her choice. At Bowling Green she took a conducting class with Robert Spano, now music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He describes her music as “expressive and beautiful and communicative and fresh and inventive.”
She is “very representative of something that’s happened in American music with composers of her generation,” Mr. Spano said, “a palpable aesthetic shift from the generation before them that I find very powerful.”
Ms. Higdon, who studied with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania (where she received master’s and doctoral degrees), does use some experimental touches in her scores. The Violin Concerto (which Ms. Hahn has recorded for a Deutsche Grammophon disc to be released in September) begins with percussionists using knitting needles on crotales, or small cymbals, and glockenspiel. In her piano and string duo “String Poetic” Ms. Higdon makes imaginative use of the strange texture of stopped piano strings (a sound created when the pianist damps the strings inside the instrument with one hand and plays the keys with the other).
But any avant-garde touches are mostly incorporated into traditional structures and sound worlds. In the first movement of the violin concerto, after a spare introduction, the violin soars with propulsive vigor over a rich orchestral fabric, with introverted passages alternating with fiery outbursts. A jaw-dropping cadenza concludes the movement.
One of Ms. Higdon’s biggest obstacles has been her own success. As a self-published composer she was overwhelmed with administrative tasks. So Ms. Lawson, a former event planner, now works full time dealing with score rentals, sales and shipping. The average of six to eight orders a day has spiked to a dozen since the Pulitzer announcement.
Lawdon Press, the name under which Ms. Higdon’s music is published, is an amalgamation of the couple’s last names. “I figured it was smarter for us financially for me to take over and keep the copyrights and sales than for me to keep my job and turn it over to a large publishing company,” Ms. Lawson said.
The split-level apartment is their publishing house with all the requisite equipment; Ms. Higdon works seven days a week in her first-floor office, which has a Steinway baby grand, a Yamaha keyboard, a computer and an enormous cactus.
Ms. Higdon said she doesn’t experience writer’s block and composes fast: “I think it’s a little like working out. You get that muscle going, where you’re just using it all the time. So I tend to move on to the next project pretty quickly.”
Despite some days of writing anxiety and dark moods, she rarely puts down her pen. Composing “is a very serious need,” Ms. Higdon said. “I have to express things.” She added that writing “Blue Cathedral” in 1999 after the death of her brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, from melanoma “was the most cathartic thing I could have done.”
Ms. Higdon has had her share of detractors, who told her she couldn’t compose because she had started so late; that a flute performance major couldn’t be a composer; that she would never make a living; and that she would never get into graduate school. Some male composers grumbled to her face that her she’s only been successful because she’s a woman.
“Everyone runs into naysayers,” Ms. Higdon said, “but if you love something enough and feel passionately enough, you just go on ahead, walk right round the person saying it, proceed down the road and don’t look back.”