Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The rock that anchors a classical composer

The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper' has exerted a major influence on the work of Jennifer Higdon.

'Gutsy writing . . . inventive use of color . . . unusual instruments . . . still pretty unique."

Those musical descriptions from Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon suggest a critique of Berlioz, Debussy, or some other classical composer with Mount Rushmore status.

But no - she was listening to the latest super-digitized incarnation of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an early, crucial musical influence and one that explains much about the music she composes for America's great symphony orchestras.

Now one of the nation's most-performed living composers, whose recordings have won two Grammy Awards, Higdon was a second grader in Atlanta when - two years after its 1967 release - her father brought home Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (an art lover, he liked the cover). Though it wasn't the only album in the house, it was one of the few. She and her brother Andy played it every single day for more than a year.

Superficially, you'd never know that: Higdon's music cooks but doesn't rock, rarely takes the form of song, and has a feet-on-the-ground solidity that would seem to be far from the fantastical realms of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." She can be raucous, but is rarely experimental. Where the Beatles were irreverently ironic, she uses wit.

Yet during Higdon's visit last May to the Beatles' hometown, where her Violin Concerto was being recorded by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the composer saw a less mythologized version of the Beatles that grounded their music in real-life roots - like hers. Lucy wasn't in the sky, she was a real person, now reported in the local press to be struggling with cancer. Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army home for children displaced by World War II. One of the ushers at the concert hall made reference to living on Penny Lane. "I said, 'You live on Penny Lane? Oh, my gosh! There is a Penny Lane!' " she recalled.

In more specifically musical ways, Sgt. Pepper had a profound impact: "It influenced the way I think about orchestration now. I'm always aware of sudden changes in sound, and that's the hallmark of that album," Higdon, 46, said recently while listening to it yet again. "There are times when I try to make those changes in sound. You wouldn't think that I would still be having a reaction to it, but there's so much color on the album."

The version released this month underscores how Sgt. Pepper seems almost to shift recording locales from song to song. Going from the dry acoustic of "When I'm 64" to the ultra-resonant "Lovely Rita," Higdon remarked, "It's the equivalent of a camera move that's positioned close and then pulled back so you can see the whole picture."

Often her childhood likes and dislikes still hold true. The album's most singular song, the sitar-dominated "Within You Without You," is one she skipped as a kid and is tempted to today.

The lyrics still inspire complicated reactions. The fact that she remembers them at all is remarkable - song lyrics never stick in her brain; Sgt. Pepper is the sole exception. Still, she never was inclined to look for multiple meanings, which came up as she listened to the seemingly inconsequential "Fixing a Hole."

"I always wondered if this was a drug-induced song - the mind wandering, pondering small things," she said. "I remember my dad, who was part of the art scene in Atlanta, wondering about these things. It seemed kind of silly to me."

The solidity of Higdon's music may be another surprising echo of Sgt. Pepper: Though considered experimental when issued in 1967, the album now seems more consolidated than later efforts by the Beatles, perhaps because it was created in intensive work sessions over 4 1/2 months, perhaps because later albums reflected the disintegration of the Beatles as a group.

"This delves into the psychology of creativity: When everybody is in the same groove, it makes a big difference," Higdon said. "If you get a recording where not everybody's mood is in the same place . . . you can hear that."

Real-life substance. Radical coloristic shifts. A strong foundation. Sounds like the Concerto for Orchestra Higdon finished seven years ago for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and much else since then. Concerto for Orchestra's modular succession of wide-reaching music also echoes the Beatles' Abbey Road, which ends with a fusion of song fragments.

The bridge between the Beatles and the modern symphony orchestra was, for Higdon, surprisingly short. The steep creative arc traced by the Beatles was inspiring to her, but such a progression in pop music probably wouldn't be possible in today's format-and-marketing-driven commercial music industry. For artists seeking the kind of freedom the Beatles enjoyed, classical and jazz are more likely genres.

"It's still hard for an artist to make extreme changes in their style," she says. "People freak out when they hear blue cathedral [a memorial she wrote after the death of her brother Andy] and then Zaka [which is noisier]. They say, 'Is that the same composer?' "

But nobody stops her, right?

"Good point," she said.