Drum Corps International
From the concert hall to Camp Randall: Composer Jennifer Higdon reconnects with drum corps

From the concert hall to Camp Randall: Composer Jennifer Higdon reconnects with drum corps

by Michael Boo

Renowned orchestral composer Jennifer Higdon speaks out on the 2006 DCI World Championships, on the Boston Crusaders' performance of her work and on her love for the drum and bugle corps art form. Jennifer Higdon is one of the liveliest, most innovative composers writing today. She has been honored with awards and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. Her works have been commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Symphony, among many others. Higdon's compositions are being played by symphony orchestras throughout the world and her "blue cathedral" is listed as one of the most scheduled works in recent and upcoming American symphony repertoires. Drum corps fans discovered her work through Boston Crusaders' "Cathedrals of the Mind" show this year, which featured her "blue cathedral" and "Concerto for Orchestra." Through Jay Kennedy, arranger for the Boston Crusaders and vice president for experimental programs and institutional assessment at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, I was put in touch with Ms. Higdon and she graciously took time out from her busy composition schedule to answer some questions.

Jennifer Higdon
What did you first think when you heard that a major corps would be playing your music? I was thrilled beyond words, literally! It takes a lot to make me speechless, but this managed to accomplish this difficult feat. Despite that I was in the middle of rehearsals for a "Trombone Concerto" premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony (which is usually an exciting and distracting event), all I could think about during that week was Drum Corps International. Were there any concerns that you had? Actually, I'm not new to drum corps, I just hadn't been as aware of the activity in the past 10 years. When I was in high school, our marching band marched what we called "drum corps" style. We marched for hours and hours each day and every weekend we would go off to a competition. One of our instructors (Carson Caldwell) was a former Madison Scout so everyone in our band was very aware of DCI. I remember going to my first show in 1981, when one of the contests was held at a high school stadium in Sevierville, Tenn. All of my band buddies went and we were just blown away. For years after that, I used to watch DCI Finals whenever I could find them on television, but it has been many years since I've reconnected. I had no trepidation at the idea of having Boston perform some of my music. I knew it was going to be a real treat. What did you think about Jay Kennedy arranging your music? I'm glad I had such a first-rate arranger such as Jay. I trusted him completely. If I remember correctly, he was concerned that I might not like the arrangement, but I thought it worked well for the Crusaders. I'm not the kind of composer that feels they have to protect their works and have them sound just like I "originally conceived them"... I'm all for the music getting used in whatever way will best serve the community of musicians and audiences. It's supposed to be about communicating, and if that's happening, that is all that matters to me. What did you think when you first heard the Boston Crusaders perform your music? I first heard the show in Westminster, Md., on June 30. Some of my friends from college met me at the show, along with my brother, my partner and some of her co-workers. We had quite a few first-time listeners having their first corps experience. I was so blown away, both by the performance and the visuals. The last time I saw a corps live, the shows were different. There wasn't as much movement and certainly not at the speed that groups now move around the field. I was impressed that the musicians could play with such power and execute cleanly. But I have to say, I also wept! It was very moving. I thought as the season progressed I would be less emotional about it, but at each place that I saw the corps, I had the same reaction (especially when portions of "blue cathedral" would emerge). I made a great effort this summer to schedule some of my travels and rehearsals and meetings in conjunction with the Crusaders' performances. So when I went to Atlanta to rehearse with the Atlanta Symphony's music director for a work that the orchestra is recording, I made sure it was during the week of the Georgia Dome performance. (By a fantastic coincidence, there were quite a few of my former high school band mates who had driven from Tennessee to see the day's shows. They were very surprised to hear that one of the corps was doing my music). I also made arrangements for my meetings with the Green Bay Symphony to be in the week of the DCI World Championships. It was a treat to come to Madison with the entire staff and conductor of the Green Bay Symphony so that they could have their first drum corps experience as well. What did you think about the World Championship competitions in Madison? Those were absolutely mind-blowing. I had always wanted to attend a week of DCI World Championships, but it never occurred to me that it would be in conjunction with hearing my music. I got to hear the Semifinals and Finals. It was amazing to see all of the groups revving themselves up and putting on shows at the very best of their abilities and with such playing power. It's rare in life to come across that kind of volume and finesse while doing such athletic movement. Forget professional baseball or basketball — it doesn't compare to drum corps. What a powerful experience. What did you think about having the opportunity to talk with members of the Boston Crusaders? This was particularly moving. I felt very humble in their presence. I told them—and I truly meant it—that this was far better than taking a bow on the stage of Carnegie Hall this year. It's so obvious that these kids put their all into the shows and they had really thought about the stories behind the music. Their dedication was evident at every moment.

Higdon speaks with members of the Boston Crusaders this August in Madison.
I was impressed by the practice, its efficiency and control and the rehearsing of specific spots. As a composer, if I had my way, I'd thank each and every individual who put in months of much intense physical training and work on making a memorable show, especially considering how hot this summer was. Speaking to the Crusaders definitely counts as a real high point in my music career. Are you now a bigger drum corps fan? Definitely. It's good to reconnect and find that kind of joy in a musical experience. You can bet I'll be trying to get to major shows in the future. What are your lasting impressions of this experience? Thank you to all of the volunteers, administrators and directors who give so much of themselves to bring this experience to the performers. This time period will always be a significant memory in every corps member's life. It's obvious that there is a lot of love and dedication that goes into it. And I think that it's a testament to the power of drum corps that I have been running into people who work in the orchestral world in other capacities. They have excitedly contacted me because they found out the Crusaders had programmed some of my music. In the past couple of weeks I've heard from a bassoonist in the Milwaukee Symphony, an administrator from the Atlanta Symphony and one of the administrators of the San Diego Symphony, all avid fans. I've known these folks for many, many years and had no idea! It just shows the power of the Drum Corps International experience. Read more about Higdon on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Web site. She is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's composer of the year for the 2005-2006 season.

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