Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

When I was very young (2 or 3 years old) I would visit my grandmother and watch her play piano. She was amazing – she could play by ear. The memory that is the clearest for me is listening to her play “Harlem Stride” piano – mostly songs by the great Jelly Roll Morton. She would have this incredible laugh. It was pure joy. I was captivated and I wanted that for myself. It‘s funny – at 3 years old I don’t think I knew what “that” was…

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

How much time do you have? (laughs) I think the single biggest influence on me has been film music. I have been listening to film music since seeing “Fantasia” (Disney 1940). I have always been amazed at how music and visual could work together. Even now, my recordings are so programmatic. I love creating “scenes” and characters in my songs. People ask if my songs are about me… or if I am the central person that the song is based on. The answer is a resounding “no”. Music is an opportunity for me to inhabit the lives and experiences of others – just like in the movies.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My new recording “Cupid Blindfolded” has been one of the most satisfying of my life. I think it started with the writing. I was very, very focused and disciplined and I think all of the preparation made a huge difference. Many of my other piano recordings have been either completely improvised or partially improvised – “Cupid” stands out as a triumph of performance and composition for me. I also think “Cupid” is the best sounding piano recording I have ever made. Engineer Tom Eaton is a genius and he did an amazing job. You can watch a “mini-documentary” about the making of the recording here:


Watch the first video here:

The other album that I am very proud of is: “The Shadows of October.” It’s a collection of my ‘classical’ chamber works including my two string quartets. You can listen to my String Quartet No. 1 here:

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

It’s hard to say because I only perform live 5 or 6 times a year. Frankly, I hate playing my pieces exactly the way I recorded them. In concert, I use the melody as a “jumping off point” and I take the audience on an adventure musically. It’s been fun to take a very popular melody like “I Have Loved You for a Thousand Lifetimes” and watch it evolve over the last 15 years. In the case of that song, I do NOT mess with the melody. I think there would be a riot at the performance! (laughs)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Last year, I did a concert for about 75 people – lovely space. No chairs. People laid on matts. Some did yoga (quietly). Some napped. Some held hands with their friends and partners and just “vibed” to the music. A woman even laid down UNDER my piano! It was wonderful. The audience loved it. I might do it again with all this new music I have created.

How would you describe your compositional style?

I think my language changes based on the type of music I am creating. I am something of a “chameleon” in this way. I might be creating a “rock” track for a jingle that has a very different musical language than a classical piece versus my solo piano music which is maybe the ONLY place in my musical life where I take shards of all the musics I create and press them into their own palette. On my new album, “Cupid Blindfolded”, you can hear my pop, jazz, soundtrack, classical and even my bent towards chromaticism – even avant-garde. I love the idea of self limiting systems in music. For example, a string quartet is the most rigorous kind of system where you have these four instruments and centuries of repertoire. Writing for solo piano is a similar challenge but you can surf more easily inside of “style” or “genre”. Recently, a reviewer on the radio said: “it’s ridiculous to call Michael Whalen’s music on ‘Cupid Blindfolded’ ’new age’”. (laughs) Honestly, I have to agree. I am pulling together 30 years of experience when I make my music. The only problem is that I trip over my limitations as a “pianist” while trying to execute the music I have created often!

How do you work?

Oh, this is TOP secret! (laughs) Honestly, it changes from project to project. However, for my recordings – – I do two things: first, I create the NAMES of the songs before writing a note of music. Secondly, I like to have some idea on the cover artwork as early in the process as possible. Having these elements helps me focus on the “story” and the “character” of each piece. I love writing programmatically. I guess it is from writing so much music to picture.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Freedom. Artistic, financial and creative freedom. Two out of three ain’t bad! (Laughs)

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Integrity. I think for musicians coming up to be true to who they are as artists versus trying to create “content” to be popular. I have friends my age who battle with this idea. They think to be relevant they have to be well liked. That is nonsense. To be relevant you need to be saying something that is connecting with people authentically. Fans can smell a fake a million miles away. You can’t fake soul, emotion or pathos.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Exactly where I am.


Michael Whalen’s new album Cupid Blindfolded, his first solo piano album in 20 years, is available now. Stream or buy “Cupid Blindfolded” here

Michael Whalen is a two-time Emmy® Award winning composer and music supervisor (with 8 nominations) who has worked in advertising, television, film and video games for over 30 years. Some of his best-known work: “Veronika Decides to Die” (2014), “What the Bleep Do You Know?”, “As The World Turns”, themes for HBO, CBS News, ABC News’ “Good Morning America”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, dozens of specials for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, The BBC, NHK and the History Channel and television films for Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. Michael is also an internationally known recording artist with 32 solo and soundtrack recordings to his credit. Well-known for his beautiful and thematic music, he performs when time allows. He has also produced and executive produced over 100 recordings for other artists. His work as a executive producer resulted in a Grammy Nomination in 2000. 



Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I was born and educated in the United States in the middle of the last century. My father was an excellent pianist and a college professor of music and humanities. He taught in a number of small colleges and universities when I was growing up so we lived in numerous towns and cities covering a 3000 mile circuit around America: New York, Michigan, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Florida. My mother was a modest amateur pianist who loved playing hymns and sat patiently with me in my early years of practicing the piano.

As children my younger brother, sister and I were encouraged to be creative, play instruments, sports, try new things, experiment, take chances and not be afraid to fail. My father was also a talented arranger and did a number of works for choirs, small ensembles, and marching bands. His enthusiasm for everything else Life had to offer had a profound influence on me not only as a musician but as someone who continues to enjoy an active life, playing sports, travel and adventure.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Probably the biggest single factor in becoming a musician and composer was a summer music camp 1957 while my father was studying for his doctorate at Florida State University (Tallahassee). Each summer the School of Music had a 6 week Summer Music Camp which attracted around 300 teenage musicians not only from Florida but the neighbouring states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. At 14 I’d become a decent pianist and was advancing on the French horn. The FSU Music Camp was a combination of hard work during the day and wonderful evenings of concerts, dances, barbecues, and pool parties. The array of excellent large ensembles, choirs, theory and harmony lessons, conducting, and creative exercises were prelude to exciting evenings of hot, humid, hormonal socialising and mandatory cold showers. It was the perfect balance. I was excited and learned a lot.

One memorable occasion was a visit to our beginners’ conducting class by Ernst von Dohnanyi, a professor at FSU. He was a lovely old man who clearly enjoyed being around young people. We were told he was Brahms’s favourite pupil and were mightily impressed. He radiated a kind of old world mystery with his heavy Hungarian accent but also radiated a musty, old man’s whiff at close range during the lessons. His heavy accent made his musical life and friendship with Brahms all the more real and exciting. He showed us how to beat in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8 time and told us to keep our shoulders down, our heads up with eyes on the orchestra, not the score. One day, to our amusement, he gave us a treat- how to conduct 5/4- ever so exotic in 1957.

My father later studied conducting with Dohnanyi and I was allowed to sit in on some of his seminars. It’s a pity I didn’t write down some of Dohnanyi’s comments particularly about conducting Brahms. I remember his comments often ran something like: “In zu score it’s written ‘Andante’, but Johannes always liked to take ziss section a little faster, like ziss. Johannes said he’d vished he could change za tempo mark but of course it vus permanently printed… zo No, not possible.” I later studied piano, conducting and composition at Florida State University, then Ohio State University both of which gave me an excellent foundation I only grew to really appreciate later on.

A Fulbright Fellowship to Warsaw, Poland, 1972-74, behind the Iron Curtain, had a profound influence on me. I worked in the Experimental Music Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw which at that time was an amazing state-of-the-art electronic studio. Through that and the annual Warsaw Autumn Festivals I met most of the outstanding composers in that part of the Soviet Bloc at the time: Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Gorecki, Pärt, Schnittke, and many more. The Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1972, ’73, ’74 radically changed my compositional outlook. Each festival was filled with one bone-crunching cluster piece after another and the festival lasted for a solid two weeks! I went to every concert- four a day. I was burnt toast by the end.

What saved me in my final festival (1974) was an English group called Intermodulation. Their performance of Terry Riley’s ‘Dorian Winds’ lifted me out of the clusters up into the clouds. Finally music that spoke to me, and I embraced it full frontal. It was a kind of instant white flag of surrender to the other side. My ‘Paramell’ (1974) for muted trombone and muted piano soon followed- modal and pulse driven. Later, meeting, working, and touring with John Cage completed my eclectic musical education by adding the ultimate tool to my musical toolbox- the idea of chance operations and experimentation. Ironically now is that I’ve moved back to revisit some of the earlier Polish influences in an effort to broaden further my harmonic and textural palette. So, like Henry Cowell, I want to live in the whole world of music, not just one corner.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge for any freelance person is surely earning a decent living. I’ve been freelancing in Britain and touring worldwide since 1974. Unfortunately the freelance profession has not gotten easier and, in fact, seems much harder, more competitive, and more difficult than ever. In the 1970s and 80s the BBC, Arts Council, and festivals all had much more money. My earnings from Performing Rights then were always a third to half my annual income. Over the past 40 years, in spite of more performances than ever, those PRS earnings have dwindled to irrelevance.

As a pianist I did lots of studio recordings and broadcasts for the BBC and many European stations. I had non-stop grants and commissions which seemed rather easier to come by then. Commission money now is definitely in shorter supply with far more of us chasing the dwindling sources. The challenge as a freelance composer is to earn a living using the expert skills we have all developed and dearly paid for over the years, and not to flip burgers at MacDonald’s to make ends meet. The arrival of Brexit does not look like a promising solution.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenge of a commissioned piece is usually the brief, the time frame and negotiating a proper fee. I like having a decent brief because it makes the first few decisions easy- the size of the ensemble, the duration, the context, the venue, and of course the deadline.

Where it can be a challenge is when the brief is too specific and uninspiring. My recent 40 min. orchestral score for David Bintley’s ‘The King Dances’ for the Birmingham Royal Ballet was an excellent combination of an exciting topic, a good scenario, and almost complete artistic freedom to do what I wished compositionally. The choreographer even wanted to use 10 minutes of music I’d already written for another occasion. The BRB commission was a delight, exciting, wonderfully realised by choreographer, lighting designer (Peter Mumford), and the costumes & staging artist (Katrina Lindsay). We even had generous rehearsal time for the production. The result? An extremely happy and rewarding experience. (See the BBC TV film of the making of the ballet – The King Who Invented Ballet which at c. 58:40 min has the complete performance of BRB performance of ballet, ‘The King Dances’). The downside however was the rather modest commission fee for 6 month’s hard work and not nearly enough money for copying the score and parts which had to come out of my fee.

The opposite end of the spectrum was an extremely well-paid commission for a 3 minute brass quintet. The commissioner in this case dictated a nightmare scenario: the mini piece which they stipulated was to reflect/echo the commissioning institution’s strengths in “medicine, science & technology, climate change, environmental sustainability, astrophysics, culture, human behavior, and philosophical beliefs.” A jaw-dropping brief for a 3-minute processional! The real passion-killer, however, was it had to be no harder than Grade 5 since the musical talents of their university students were modest! Now there was a true challenge (!), but all part of earning a living as a freelance composer. I managed to write the work and it worked. Fortunately no one asked me which notes were “astrophysics”, “medicine” or “climate change”.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I think every composer has people, ensembles and venues they like to work with, and certainly some you never wish to see again. I worked for many years in a duo with the pianist Philip Mead, a first rate musician and educator. We travelled all over Europe and North America touring programmes of new music and electronics. It was great fun and always exciting to perform together.

My work with John Lubbock and his OSJ chamber orchestra was always a complete pleasure and the source of several exciting commissions and recordings. The Smith Quartet is another ensemble that has been wonderful over the years, the results of which are two excellent recordings.

I have always had a good relationship with the BBC Symphony and working with them is always exciting and rewarding. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia with Paul Murphy was a wonderful experience because of Paul’s enthusiasm, expertise, and their brilliant realisation of ‘The King Dances’.

Venues are also vitally important. My ongoing relationship with Richard Heason, Artistic Director of St Johns, Smith Square, for example, has been absolutely exemplary in his enthusiastic production of large scale events for both my 70th and now 75th birthday concerts amongst the other collaborations.

With all these associations the enjoyment comes from the people who understand what you are trying to do and who work with you enthusiastically to help you realise just that. It is a symbiotic relationship so when we feed each other properly the results can be magical.

How would you describe your compositional language?

My music is tonally based but often makes use of the full panoply of harmonic possibilities from tonal/modal harmony/melody to bone crunching tone clusters and tone rows for dramatic effect. The musical structures are often based on the shapes of earlier centuries but modified to suit and exploit a modern format for each new commission.

How do you work?

Mornings are my best, most creative time. I get up early (05:30) and work 5 – 6 hours taking a short break every hour or so. I work on A3 landscape manuscript paper with a 2B mechanical lead pencil and a large pointed eraser. I hear the music in my head but check it on a keyboard. I have good concentration so can write under almost any conditions. I’ve never missed a deadline. Afternoons and evening are used for business work, copying music, promotion, meetings etc. I love having the evenings off going to the cinema, a concert, theatre, or out to eat.

Which works are you most proud of?

Most composers give birth to many ‘children’. A parent probably should not have favourites but with so many children, we all do! As in real Life, some kids just turn out better than others no matter how much time you put into their house-training, manners, education and grooming.

Of the nearly 200 or so ‘children’ I have, those who have turned out best are my String Quartet No. 1: in memoriam Barry Anderson & Tomasz Sikorski (with electronics), At the White Edge of Phrygia (chamber orch), Southern Lament (piano- for Stephen Kovacevich), Requiem: The Trumpets Sounded Calling Them to the Other Side (soprano, orchestra, chorus, fog horns), Varshavian Spring (chorus, orch), The King Dances (orchestra score for the ballet), A Dinner Party for John Cage (theatrical event for 12 singers in a chaotic chance determined dinner), Wilful Chants, (BBC Prom commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Brass and O Duo percussion), Snakebite (chamber orch), Dark Sun – August, 1945 (large orch, chorus, radios), Haiku (piano, electronics, tape), Paramell (muted trombone and muted piano), Paramell V (2 pianos), and Christmas Triptych (sop, baritone, chorus, orchestra). I like many of the others but some still need a little more grooming and my detailed attention before I let them out to play too often. And yes, I should really try and visit them more often too.

As a musician, what is your definition of “success”?

For me success is writing a piece of music I’m proud of and having those feelings re-enforced by an enthusiastic audience response. My goal is to reach out to an audience and reel them in to a place they may never have been. Seduction is perhaps the best word. And it flies in the face of an attitude in the 1960s where it was popular to say “who cares if they listen!” as Milton Babbitt and the post Webern movement declared. For them, alas, the audience voted with their feet at the exit. I’d much prefer an audience on their feet at the end.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Pianists: Stephen Kovacevich in full flight playing solo, chamber works, concertos of core repertoire. Rubenstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Marc Andre Hamelin playing anything hard, Philip Mead playing my music, and Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, and Dave Brubeck doing their thing.

Conductors: Toscanini, Solti, Bernstein, John Lubbock, Gregory Rose, Stephen Jackson, Grant Llewellyn, Paul Murphy, Sian Edwards.

Composers: Gesualdo, JS and CPE Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Ives, Bartok, Henry Cowell, Gershwin, Varese, Cage, Nancarrow, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Hoagy Carmichael, Tomasz Sikorski, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Bob Dillon, Stephen Sondheim, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, and Helmut Lachenmann.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing the European premiere of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra on the Huddersfield Music Festival and breaking 9 strings with my forearm clusters in the opening movement.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The first 10,000 hours I figure gets you through the basics for stepping into this profession. The next 10,000 listening to music, analysis, and engaging with other art forms gives you insight, bench marks, and perspective. The next 10,000 consolidates the first two and takes you to a higher level but not to the top. The very top is determined by an X Factor which is the mysterious Joker card. Nobody can explain why some up there are the winners while similar, or better talents, can be the ‘also-rans’. What is sure, however, is that it always takes longer than you think to get where you want to go and the path is full of wrong turns and traps! The trajectory of your professional career is a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping your eyes on the horizon but working hard on the daily detail is vital. Infernal desire and dogged tenacity as much as talent can be the key that unlocks that X Factor and deals you the Joker when it counts most.

If all you want is just a little fun in music, ignore all this. That works too, and you may lead a happier, more balanced life. Professional musicians have a rather chequered history in the ‘happy relationships’ department which makes interesting reading post-mortem but not at the time.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a well paid commission to write something I’ve always wanted to write for instrumentalists, singers, conductor and a large ensemble of my choosing for an exciting venue that is to die for. Perform it, tour it, then record it with the ideal post concert location an exotic hideaway with the one you love overlooking a warm sea in the Caribbean or a rocky perch on the Amalfi coast.

My schedule? Work 5 hours in the morning, lunch al fresco, a couple sets of tennis, afternoon drinks into the sunset, a candle lit dinner for two, something visually and musically stimulating in the evening, and a late-night cocktail on a moonlit sea followed by an erotic poem in bed.

What is your most treasured possession?

My memory.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Try to imagine.

What is your present state of mind?

The ancient Arabic saying: “Live for this day, for tomorrow is only a dream, and yesterday, only a memory.”

Stephen Montague celebrates his 75th birthday with a weekend of special concerts at St John’s Smith Square, London, including several premieres. Further information here

Stephen Montague was born Syracuse, New York, 1943 and studied at Florida State and Ohio State Universities followed by two years in Warsaw, Poland as a Fulbright Scholar (1972-74). Since 1974 he has been based in London where he works as a freelance composer, pianist, and conductor but tours world-wide.
Major commissions include London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms, London’s Southbank and Barbican Centres, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Warsaw Autumn Festival, Paris, Singapore, and Hong Kong festivals. Conducting work has included the London Sinfonietta, City of London Sinfonia, Danish Chamber Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony and many others.



Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

The joy of discovering new things in music inspired me. I was self-taught, and I just found the notion of making music such a thrilling adventure.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I think a composer draws inspiration from all of the events in their lives. But looking back, I’m pretty sure some of the music I listened to when I was young provided some serious influence…the Beatles in particular. My flute teacher, Judith Bentley was also a huge influence. And then there are all of my colleagues…they continue to inspire me every day.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Starting out in my undergrad not knowing much of anything about classical music was an incredible challenge. For a long time I felt that I was climbing a huge mountain of knowledge, trying to pick up as many “pebbles” as I could manage to carry. But every step made me smarter and stronger. Along the way, I realized that one spends an entire lifetime learning.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Every piece is a challenge. To create something from nothing is a big thing. Sometimes I’m learning about a particular instrument’s needs (I just finished a tuba concerto…so I studied a lot of the repertoire and talked with various players to get a sense of what would be ideal in the piece). Other times, I’m trying to craft something that works for the performer(s). Then there is the challenge of getting notes on a page, which I hope the performer and listener will find interesting.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I don’t think it’s possible to make a generalization about this (I’m so lucky to be able to work with such a huge assortment of performers)…each piece is different and the challenges and pleasures change daily and yearly.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know if it’s possible to be proud of one particular work. They all reflect so many things for me. But the one that feels very personal is “Blue Cathedral” … it seems to affect so many people. I’m sometimes surprised at how many instrumentalists and composers tell me this is the first piece of contemporary music that they encountered when they were younger. Even more surprising is how many people have performed it more than once. That’s one of the things that makes it special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I let other people decide that for themselves.

How do you work?

I try to work every day, composing 4-6 hours a day: consistently, persistently, and conscientiously.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Impossible to name as there are literally thousands!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’m lucky to have had many incredible and memorable experiences. One of the most life changing was the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of my “Concerto for Orchestra” which took place at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference. My life changed over night after that performance. Suddenly I was known, and commissions started coming in.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Make sure you love what you’re doing, as you’ll spend so much of your waking time doing it. Work hard and do it to the best of your ability. Share the joy with as many other people as you can.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Composing in my studio

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing in my studio


Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon (b. Brooklyn, NY, December 31, 1962) is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. Higdon started late in music, teaching herself to play flute at the age of 15 and beginning formal musical studies at 18, with an even later start in composition at the age of 21. Despite this late beginning, she has become a major figure in contemporary Classical music and makes her living from commissions. These commissions represent a range of genres, including orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and wind ensemble.

Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.M. in Flute Performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Hailed by the Washington Post as “a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form and a generous dash of pure esprit,” her works have been performed throughout the world, and are enjoyed by audiences at several hundred performances a year and on over sixty CDs. Higdon’s orchestral work, blue cathedral, is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral compositions by a living American with more than 600 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000.

Her list of commissioners and performing organizations is extensive and includes The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony, The Atlanta Symphony, The Baltimore Symphony, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luzern Sinfonieorchester, The Hague Philharmonic, The Melbourne Symphony, The New Zealand Symphony, The Pittsburgh Symphony, The Indianapolis Symphony, The Dallas Symphony, as well as such groups as the Tokyo String Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the President’s Own Marine Band. Higdon has worked with musicians that include Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Hilary Hahn, and Yuja Wang.

Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in January, 2010. Higdon also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, with the committee citing Higdon’s work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”

Among her national honors, Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. She was also honored by the Delaware Symphony with the A.I. DuPont Award for her contributions to the symphonic literature. Most recently, she was awarded the Distinguished Arts Award by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

Higdon has been a featured composer at many festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Grand Teton, and Cabrillo. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with several orchestras across the country including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Wheeling Symphony and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Higdon was also honored to serve as one of the Creative Directors of the Boundless Series for the Cincinnati Symphony.

One of Higdon’s most current project was an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. It was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. All performances in Santa Fe were sold out and Higdon’s opera became the third-highest grossing opera in the company’s history at Opera Philadelphia. Higdon recently won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere.

Dr. Higdon currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she has inspired a generation of young composers and musicians. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.

For more information: www.jenniferhigdon.com

2751c7d40-04b5-aae9-56825b8f0700ef0fWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

It was a slow process, with music growing into such a presence in my life that midway through college I realized it had taken over, so I switched from pre-med and never looked back.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

That has changed many times: As a teenager I tried to play piano like Erroll Garner, then more like Keith Jarrett. In college I fell in love with the music of Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe, but listened about as much to Bonnie Raitt and the Band. In more recent years my work in opera led me to Verdi and my work in ballet to Prokofiev. Next week I might mention different names, but just now these are the influences that spring to mind.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?  

My challenges are the same as those of most composers: almost all orchestras and opera houses pay lip service to the importance of new music but in practice consider it a risk to their box office. So our work as composers is marginalized, perhaps set apart as a prestige item; classical music as a whole is correspondingly impoverished. Wonderful music is being created and performed all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it from Lincoln Center or similar places.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

I find it most inspiring to be given very specific guidelines, such as “an oboe quartet of about 15 minutes, to be paired with the Mozart for the same ensemble.” Or “5 minutes of fight music that becomes a love duet, for changing numbers of dancers.” These are both challenges and pleasures.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

For most of us this is the usual situation, and it’s a healthy one, because as a composer I don’t write for the audience – I write for the performer, who in turn shares the music with the audience. Performers can do that best if I can write effectively for them – show off what they do best, while giving them something a little unlike the rest of what they perform. I love tailoring the music in that way; it also offsets the essentially solitary nature of composing.

Of which works are you most proud?

My four operas, because I think the way I combine the various elements that make up opera (text setting, stage timing, vocal deployment, use of the orchestra) is not like anyone else’s, and works better than most. Each of my operas is full of the most radical music I could think of, and at the same time each one reaches out passionately to the largest possible audience of non-specialist listeners. I try to combine those goals with anything I write, but opera feels particularly congenial.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

I’m a “notes and rhythms” kind of composer. There is lots of life left in traditional musical devices, in fact more life than there is in straining for extremes or following musical fashions of any kind. I enjoy inventing unusual melodic lines, finding surprising moments for traditional chords, and combining fairly simple rhythms in unexpected ways.

How do you work? 

It depends on the piece. If I have a text, that helps me to organize the music. A dance or film scenario gives me another kind of structure. A portrait done from life is a combination of meditation and improvisation. A tribute usually starts with some sort of core of pre-existing music around which I spin other notes and rhythms.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I return over and over to the music of a few composers of roughly my own generation. In no particular order: Judith Weir, Stephen Hartke, Lee Hyla, Arthur Levering, Poul Ruders, George Benjamin, Chen Yi, Scott Lindroth. I’ve also played and conducted music by most of these composers, and highly recommend any of them to listeners looking for a fresh musical experience.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Here are a few: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony when I first heard it live; Sibelius 6th symphony live; The Band in concert; the opportunity to conduct Ramifications by Ligeti and Corpus Cum Figuris by Poul Ruders.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Composers should write what they actually want to hear; performers should play and sing what passionately inspires them; audiences should demand excitement, not settle for what the PR agents are peddling that month.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Writing more music, probably in New York.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Coffee and composing in the morning, friends and a good meal in the evening.

What is your most treasured possession?  

Nothing physical – I treasure my family and friends.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides composing? Playing tennis, I guess, if I could only find the time to do it more.

What is your present state of mind? 

Opening out to new possibilities.


Scott Wheeler’s new album ‘Portraits & Tributes’ (works for piano 1977-2014), performed by Donald Berman, is available now. Further information here



Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

As a pre-teen, I taught myself the piano, after abandoning piano lessons in 3rd grade. Coming from a musical family, however, there was a great deal of musical osmosis. Two of my older siblings played guitar, and my initial piano style sounded more like fingerpicking than piano. Later, at age 14, I began accompanying my mother, who sang Jazz standards, and my style expanded as I help to arrange more and more of her music. But what inspired me the most happened on my sister’s deathbed, when she was 19. She told me to learn Joni Mitchell’s “River”, not just to play it, but to understand it. The act of playing the piano has always included an element of that moment.

Perhaps the most important psychological push that directed me to make music my career was the story passed down to me from my mother regarding my grandfather. In the days of silent pictures, Grandpa John had been a violinist for a beautiful movie house in Wisconsin. When talkies took over, he became the theater’s janitor. He would play violin at home, accompanied by his wife on piano, but she never appreciated his demanding expectations. So he took up the banjo and, on it, would write a special song for every family member’s birthday, as well as many holidays. But he carried a certain humbled sadness throughout the rest of his life, rarely playing the violin after that. My mother’s spin on the story gently encouraged me to do what her father could not: make music for a living. She urged me to follow my dream, but it was always implied that music should be that dream. The piano was the only instrument that seemed all mine, on which I played mostly self-composed or self-arranged music. I still sit at the piano and improvise for hours. When I am lost in my own music, I am most certainly living within my dreaming, in precisely the way my mother had intended.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

It’s very difficult to hone my list of influences down to a few. Debussy, Chopin, Stravinsky, Bach, Copland; George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett; Joni Mitchell, Rick Wakeman (Yes), Keith Emerson (ELP), Bruce Hornsby; Stephen Sondheim. My musical career hasn’t followed an ordinary path, if there is such a thing. I played Jazz and 20th Century Modernism in college (1970s), while learning Classical music; was one of the initial developers of New Age piano in the late 70s-early 80s; began writing, performing and touring Musical Theatre in the 1980s; moved to Manhattan to pursue musical theatre writing/composing in the 1990s; wrote my last musical drama in 2005, the same year I recorded my first solo piano album.

When I became a solo piano artist in 2005, I went back to my roots. My music was labeled Jazz, but was really a Neo-Classical/New Age/Jazz hybrid. As such, I am able to synthesize all my favorite disparate styles under the eclectic umbrella of personal expression… I have my own sound and try to have everything I play fall into that genre-less category.

The most important musical influences often depended on the different projects I became involved in. For example, Astor Piazzolla influenced the score I wrote for a film shot in Bucharest, utilizing mostly Tango rhythms. Stephen Sondheim peered over my shoulder while I was writing my musicals staged in NYC. Dave Brubeck, a personal mentor, watched through my eyes as I choose voicings and worked out fingerings. Keith Jarrett’s sense of cool innovation also casts its shadow. But, I must say, the ghost of my sister is the greatest influence.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

The first challenge was to find a place to thrive: I lived in a small town in Wisconsin (a northern Midwest state in the USA). I could become a big fish in a small pond, receive positive feedback and good press, but had little professional criticism (which you need to improve) and a limited market. I became friends with many fabulous Wisconsin musicians who still rank among the best I’ve ever worked with, but I needed to move to New York City, the center of musical theatre, if my career was to blossom. Or, so I believed.

Extended gigs in NYC, which eventually took up 6 months of the year, ended in my moving to the West Village and, then, getting a divorce. Dealing with that disconnect was difficult. Being an involved stay-at-home father had been a huge aspect of my sense of self. Now I was 1000 miles away from my kids. It was very lonely, depressing. I dealt with this sense of guilt and dislocation by working all the time.  And I mean nearly every waking moment. I slept only a few hours a day, wrote 1-5 songs a week, recorded whenever I could, constantly networked with others, and never rested. This was my late 30s, early 40s, and it became my most important growth period.

For the most part, nearly every project in my musical career involved something I didn’t know enough about yet, something I was intensely curious about, a style I hadn’t yet conquered, an intellectual or creative challenge. It is part of what drives me, this internal artistic restlessness. A desire to know more. An agitation to grow. An inability to say no to a request for something I might not be qualified for, yet. I have an aversion to repetition. It keeps me young (if I can use that term metaphorically).

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I always think my latest recording is my best. My 2015 double album, “Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller” is my best piano recording, technically, but might also be the best at striking a balance between my drive to sound innovative and the audience’s need for accessibility and conceptual clarity. “Impressions of Water and Light” extended my musicality tremendously, incorporating stylings of Impressionism. I think I learned the most doing that album. (I’m always proud when I learning things.) But “Flow” is the most difficult playing I’ve done, and, at least until my next album, is my favorite performance.

My three jazz ensemble recordings all make me smile. It’s hard to compare an ensemble project with a solo one. There are so many more memories, so much more energy that grows out of an ensemble project. The logistics and time required to organize players, recording sessions and post-production, etc., make those projects more like events, plus working with great musicians provides better stories. My latest Jazz recording, “Come In Funky”, which features legendary bassist Ron Carter, received good reviews, but I think “The Muller’s Wheel” had stronger sessions, and “Rain Bather” won more accolades.

I like all my instrumental albums better than those on which I sing. But that may be my own  sense of criticalness about my voice.

Two musicals also rank up there as my proudest work: a progressive rock opera “Creature”, based on the Frankenstein story; and “Runners In A Dream”, an intimate story of survival and imagination/madness set in the Holocaust. (You can see that I tend toward the dramatic and macabre.) I love writing about death, or cheating death, or finding meaning around death. But I also love to write about those things using beautiful and thrilling music.

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

I play my own works better than I play other people’s. I am far more comfortable doing so. Tackling Bach was humbling. Although I love the arrangements where I flip between Bach’s score and my own inventions in quick succession (seamlessly, I hope). But the second CD from “Flow” might be my favorite CD I’ve ever recorded. The two original piano suites on Disc 2 enabled me to use theme and variation over 6 movements, which I love. Yet, the piece I replay the most is “Joy” (based on “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), the first track from Disc 1.

My piano style favors Bill Evans style Jazz, or the constantly changing keys of Fred Hersch. As I get older and my hands and wrists hurt more and more, I prefer slower pieces. I have to prepare longer than I used to in order to play fast. Perhaps my best performances happen when I’m playing all by myself in my living room, however. I actually don’t like audiences that much anymore. I take more valuable risks when I am by myself.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

At the height of my musical theatre career, I would write a show and get it produced in 9 to 12 months, sometimes going into rehearsals before every song was finished. The subject/stylings of the show came from internal curiosities and fascinations, but had to be backed by my financial team of producers. So there was a collaborative defining process that would occur before I would throw myself into the writing/composing process.

After 9/11/2001, everything changed for me. The New York Off-Broadway scene didn’t want serious musical dramas for several years after the terrorist attack. I lost my backers. I had to start over. My next show took over 3 years to mount, after a long succession of readings, etc. Then my health starting to fail and all of my choices were altered. I’ve had 16 collapsed lungs. The damage I’ve suffered from volunteering at Ground Zero, along with a genetic disorder, A1AD, began to affect me seriously when I turned 54 years of age, and has forced me to reduce stress to very low levels. My nerves sometimes swell, my muscles cramp, I have coughing spells, I tire easily. Live performances are few and far between. I try to do only studio work now.

Currently, I choose my next project as if it will be my last. What do I want to “say” if it’s the last music I leave behind me?

There is an interesting thread that runs through my last solo piano recording projects. It started in 2013 when I decided to finally do a Christmas album (after having it been requested/suggested to me for many years). “Midwinter Born” had 18 tracks, a long album, but I still had musical ideas that didn’t get included. I ran out of space. One of these ideas turned into a Jazz arrangement of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and formed the basis of my next project, “Impressions of Water and Light.” Thrilled with how fulfilling these two project became, re-arranging “Classical” piano music, it occurred to me how long it had been since I played any Bach. Over three decades! That’s how “Flow” began. It was not originally going to be a double album, but the idea of writing original music for a second disc, to show how Bach effected my own compositions, seemed a perfect balance. Plus, I hadn’t written anything original since 2012. While putting my personal spin on Bach, I realized Chopin was an even greater influence, thus my next project has presented itself. “Of Two Minds: The Music of Chopin and Mueller.”  I like the continuity.

Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in and why? 

Can I say “my living room”?

I prefer being a studio musician. I feel less pressure to be perfect, more freedom to experiment, and need to medically avoid stress. I’ve always preferred rehearsing to performing, so maybe I’ve always had an aversion to live performance. I get quite nervous before performances, intestinal upset and all that. My favorite moments are often in the rehearsal process. Most performances are a blur.

One of my favorite places to perform was The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh WI. Fabulously well-preserved, great acoustics, it also had a rich history of fabled hauntings and ghostly sightings. The Green Room was off a dark maze of tunnels and pipes. One time, while singing by myself on the Opera House stage, I let my emotions run away with me and began crying, for real, as I sang. It was one of the most emotional highs I’ve ever achieved while performing. But, at the end of the song, when I thought I had created a transcendental moment for the audience, I looked down and saw a string of mucus, illuminated like a glowing gossamer thread, coming from my nose. I deftly wiped my nose as I finished the song, hiding my embarrassment. But it taught me a very important lesson: It’s not the emotion you conjure up within yourself that is important, but the emotions you stir within your audience. Being self-consumed on stage can lead to a performance disaster.

Favorite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love performing songs from The American Songbook and giving them a peculiar Tobin Mueller spin. “Over the Rainbow”, “Impossible Dream”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “The Long & Winding Road” are masterpieces that should never be played the same way twice. The fluidity and unpredictability of the moment works well within emotional songs.

Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Fliter’s 2014 release, “Chopin Preludes.” But I might also mix in 1960s Bob Dylan, 1970s Chick Corea, 1980s Michael Hedges, 1990s John Medeski, 2000s John Scofield, recent Fred Hersch.

Who are your favorite musicians? 

Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Jacques Loussier, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch; Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, The Brecker Brothers…

My favorite musician to play with is my Jazz collaborator and saxophonist Woody Mankowski, from Los Angeles CA (although we met when he lived in DePere WI).

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of the most memorable moments that occurred while I was attending someone else’s concert occurred when I was a short-on-funds college student. My University had a special program in which students could attend concerts at the Milwaukee P.A.C. at greatly reduced rates. I bought season tickets to several concert series.  At one concert, Virgil Fox played all by himself at center stage on an organ specially outfitted for maximum visual drama. At the time, I wasn’t that familiar with Virgil Fox, and, in my arrogant youthfulness put him in a category with Liberace, someone more interested in showmanship than art. I had box seats, fabulous. Somewhere in the middle of his first set, he performed “Ave Maria” (Gounod/Bach). I was transfixed. I lost my peripheral vision. Really. The world fell away and only that man playing that music existed. No other performer has done that to me, except when I saw my daughter sing a duet with Hans Christian Anderson, “And my thumb”, as a three year old Thumbelina.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

There is no destination achieved, no goals that sustain, only a never ending process. Your work will never stop. But that’s a good thing. At moments of depression, dislocation and discouragement, you can return to your music and continue to perfect your craft, and a sense of peace and direction will come. As you nurture your skills and breadth of knowledge, music will nourish, in turn.

Consider the perspective that the journey is not as much about you as it is about the music. Serve the music, and you will find your internal life expand. Sometimes music isn’t even about music. Rather, it is the sum of your experience, an expression of those who you have encountered winding their way through your fingers and hands. In that way, music ties you to something beyond your life, inclusively.

Remember, it’s called “playing” for a reason. Retain the childlike innocence and expressive joy that is at the heart of play. Never let the work overshadow the wordless spirit that is given voice through your skills and energies. But always honor the work; it is essential.

That said, I get the most satisfaction out of composing and creating my own music, feeling the thrill of creative improvisation, and getting lost in the music making process. My moments at my own piano, in my own living room, free of stress and critique, are my most cherished music moments. Never lose that intensely intimate personal relationship with your music.

What are you working on at the moment?

I will be reinterpreting and rearranging several pieces by Chopin, adding an equal number of original pieces. I may play a Chopin Prelude and then play an original piece in response. The accompanying booklet might incorporate some of George Sands words, not sure yet. The working title is “Of Two Minds: The Music of Frédéric Chopin & Tobin Mueller.” The more I explore Chopin, the harder it will be to trim down the pieces I will want to tackle. I think another double album might be necessary…

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

I’d like to be alive. And healthy enough to play. Breathing well enough to sing. And maybe live in a place with lower property taxes. Ha!

The last thing my mother said to me before she died, in a barely audible whisper: “make…history…not…money…” I figured it was code for “don’t worry about anything but your music.” She had to say it in as few words as possible. Perhaps she meant “history” in the personal sense. I will always be working on making that kind of history, thinking up things no one has done in quite the same way. Doing something new, for me, at least.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

“Perfect” anything is a phantom. Thinking that perfect happiness is a real goal can set you up for a life of frustration and disappointment. You might even regret being “merely” happy. Happiness is fleeting, like any emotion. Enjoy it as it exists. It is a byproduct of other actions and thoughts, not really a thing held in its own right.

Some people are born happy. Or not. I was. Sometimes things that sadden, such as the memory of lost ones, can bring deep joy. The paradox of joy that comes from carrying the weight of ghosts on your shoulders is profound. This sort of dual emotion is far more interesting than pure happiness, in my experience.

I’ve had my successes. But life more often follows a pattern of failure, recognition, redemption; moments of confusion and defeat, followed by growth and a sense of meaning. And, hopefully, self-understanding. Failure can introduce you to yourself and remind you that you are not the person you thought you were. Not yet, at least. It can open doors to a better you. Often, this is how honest art is born.

Risk, failure, and trying something new, more than happiness, are pieces of the larger narrative, even if happiness is the destination we all strive for. On that journey, making music is my refuge.

What is your most treasured possession? 

I thought long and hard on this. My beautiful mahogany grand piano? My favorite fedora? My home, my backyard gardens, my art collection? My personal discography? My family?… If I’m honest, I have to say: my new iPhone. It’s the one thing never far from my hand. Sadly. Although my grand piano and family might win in the long term.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides moments alone with my wife? Or my personal concerts for her after I’ve cooked dinner and she’s done the dishes? Hmm… Not sure anything beats those two…

I love creating something new. Mostly, that’s music. But not always.

Tobin Mueller’s latest album Flow: the Music of J S Bach and Tobin Mueller is available now. Further details at www.tobinmueller.com

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I have just been making up music since I was very young and have kept on.  Music inspired me.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

Musical life:  music of Gershwin (my first love), Schubert, Copland, folk songs, blues, and basically every sound I’ve ever heard; plus my piano teachers Barbara Lister-Sink and Alice Shapiro.   And almost most importantly, my dear friend the late Geoffrey Golner, a piano-playing theoretical physicist who loved music, had a very discerning taste, and encouraged me even when I believed “doing music” was useless!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Recognizing that I am actually a composer!  I think of myself as a pianist who makes up music.  It has taken me a long time to realize that a pianist who makes up music is a composer.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The special challenge:  Creating music with my authentic voice while also discovering what the person commissioning the music really wants.

The special pleasure:  The kind of back-and-forth that Keith (Porter Snell) and I had while I was composing ‘Verbs’ for him.

Which works are you most proud of? 

Well, ‘Verbs’ generally, especially the preludes Tangle, Shatter, Release, Bless, and Forgive.  Of the solo pieces I’ve created for myself,  What the Stars Saw on the Prairie, and Something Water, Something Light.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Gershwin, Schubert, Copland, Tavener, Keith Porter-Snell, Barbara Lister-Sink, Lee Bartley.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

You have a wonderful gift and an opportunity.  Respect yourself, respect your audience.

I believe that most people need more beauty in their lives.  We musicians inspire and uplift our listeners when we are able to express both joy and sorrow through beauty.  It’s not about inflicting our own pain or other ugliness on our listeners.  They have given us a great gift of trust by listening to us (especially those of us who create new music—our listeners have no idea what we might be offering!)  Music can offer a doorway to insight, comfort, joy, peace.

Please note:  I’m not talking about avoiding dissonance!  I’m talking about always reaching for the most refined expression possible, using all the musical resources available to us, which of course includes dissonance.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A suite for piano (2 hands this time) for a wonderful young pianist, Meara Oberdieck; and a chamber ensemble for piano left hand and two violins, for Keith Porter-Snell.   Also, writing down all the improvisational pieces I’ve made up over the years, aka my repertory.  Oh, and editing the print version of ‘Verbs’ for the second edition.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 


What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Morning tea on my porch, watching the mountains across the way and listening to the breeze and the birds, followed by piano time.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Steinway, or possibly my special mug for my morning tea!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Playing piano for people.


Kathleen Ryan’s ‘Verbs’, a set of 24 impressionistic preludes for piano left hand alone, composed for Steinway artist Keith Porter-Snell, is available now.

In addition to practicing scales and classical repertory on her way to earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, Kathleen Ryan played snare drum in a marching band; wrote and performed singing telegrams; improvised music for avant garde dancers; composed a folk rock opera based on the Tristan and Isolde legend; and sang and danced in a hippie liturgical drama presented at the Ohio State Fair.

After a brief (very brief!) fling as a folk singer, and a somewhat longer interlude as a classical pianist, Kathleen began searching for ways to “sing the piano” — that is, transform the piano into a medium as intimately expressive as the human voice.

“When I am composing,” she says, “I don’t necessarily hear music inside. Instead, I experience a subtle dissatisfaction until the sounds my hands create match the deeper emotion I feel within.”

Read Kathleen’s full biography here