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Classical Music, but With a Modern Sound

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. This week, we begin the first of two programs about classical music composers at work today in the United States. Some continue the traditions of European music from centuries ago. Others take a more experimental approach to their music.

(MUSIC: Symphony No. 1/Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)


Ellen Taaffe Zwilick was the first woman composer to win a Pulitzer Prize
Ellen Taaffe Zwilick was the first woman composer to win a Pulitzer Prize

We start with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Her music is often described as complex but accessible, appealing to wider audiences. In nineteen eighty-three she became the first female composer to win a Pulitzer Prize. She won it for her Symphony Number One.

She says this is a special time to be a composer. Thanks to technology, more music is available to more people than at any time in history.

Ellen Zwilich began her musical exploration playing the piano, violin and trumpet. She started writing music as a child. She studied music at Florida State University and later moved to New York City to study violin and composition.



One of Ellen Zwilich's teachers has been a big part of American classical music for over seventy years: Elliott Carter.

This is Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord, Piano and Two Chamber Orchestras.


He began his musical studies at Harvard University in the nineteen thirties and went on to study in Paris.

His early works were influenced by composers of the classical period of the late seventeen hundreds and early eighteen hundreds. But he later broke away from this neoclassical sound to create a freer and more expressive modernist sound.

Elliott Carter has written over one hundred thirty works, many of which he composed after the age of ninety. He is one hundred one years old.

(MUSIC: ''Facades"/Philip Glass)


The music of Philip Glass is often described as minimalist, though not by him. He would rather people describe his music as having repeating structures.

Philip Glass experiments with many different sounds. He has written operas, concertos and symphonies. He has worked on projects with singers, dancers and artists. He has also written music for many movies, including "Koyaanisqatsi," "Kundun" and "The Hours."



Becoming a composer generally starts with musical training and education.

There are many well-known music schools in the United States. These include the Juilliard School in New York City and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Others include the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston is also the home of the New England Conservatory of Music, the nation's oldest independent music school.

And it is not just Americans who study at these schools. At the Manhattan School of Music in New York, for example, an average of thirty-five percent of the students come from outside the United States.


Carol Aicher is a professor at the Manhattan School of Music. We asked her how success is defined for a composer today.

Success, she says, is all about getting your music played. Having established groups hire composers to write new music is important, but that is not enough.

Professor Aicher explains that many composers have exciting premieres, where their music is played in public for the first time. But she says the real measure of success is whether or not their music gets replayed. For example, performance groups might buy the rights to play the work live. Or the music might get recorded and sold on CD or online.

Carol Aicher says most composers teach at music schools to add to their income.

(MUSIC: "Secret and Glass Gardens"/Jennifer Higdon, pianist Maria Mazo)


Jennifer Higdon clearly fits the description of a successful composer. Her works are played by orchestras and at music festivals around the world, and this year she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Yet she came relatively late to music. She taught herself to play the flute at the age of fifteen. She began her musical schooling three years later. Soon, she became interested in composing. She currently teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


For a classically trained composer, Jennifer Higdon's musical influences might surprise you.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "The Beatles. That's probably the first influence. Lennon and McCartney, because I listened to so much of it growing up. I actually didn't grow up listening to classical music."


She is known for choosing unusual instruments and sounds. In a recent concerto piece called "On a Wire" she had the musicians play a bowed piano. They took the hairs off the kind of bow used to play a violin or cello and placed them inside the piano, under the strings.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "It makes for this haunted sort of sound. It's a little bit like a wine glass, when you play a wine glass. It's very unusual."


One of her more widely performed works is "blue cathedral." She says the work is a poem about the people who cross our paths in a lifetime. It was influenced by her brother's death from cancer.

(MUSIC: "blue cathedral"/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)


We asked Jennifer Higdon how she goes about planning a new work.

JENNIFER HIGDON: What I do is I always know who I am writing for, I always know the ensemble or the soloist. And I know how long a piece they want. Then I daydream a lot, trying to figure out what might be interesting for that group to do."


She writes down her ideas with a pencil in a music notebook. She considers not only what would be interesting for the musicians to play, but also what would be interesting for the audience to hear.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "There's a lot of sketching that goes on, and a lot of times I don't know where things are going to fit in the texture. I may come up with an idea and it may end up being something in the middle of the piece. When I wrote 'blue cathedral' there is a huge English horn solo in the middle of it, and that's actually the first idea I came up with."

Next, she plays some ideas on the piano before entering the beginnings of a composition into a computer.


Jennifer Higdon says the classical music world still has a way to go in supporting more women composers, as well as conductors. She considers composers like Ellen Zwilich and Libby Larsen to be mentors who opened up possibilities to her.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "I was very lucky because my parents never discouraged me. They never said you can't do it because you're a woman, so it never occurred to me that I couldn't do it."


But she says things are starting to look better for women composers.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "We're starting to see a little bit of a change. I suspect my winning the Pulitzer this year will probably alter quite a bit because it meant that I was in the news enough that there’s some little girl out there who says 'Oh! I can do that!'"


Jennifer Higdon is currently working on an orchestral piece for the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming. The music will celebrate the festival's fiftieth anniversary next year.

Ms. Higdon says one important thing about her work is her general goal when writing music.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "I write music for people who may have no experience with classical music. I often think you don't need to have a [music] degree, you don't even need to have been to a concert hall."


Jennifer Higdon says she is always thinking about her audience when she is composing.

JENNIFER HIGDON: "What if this was someone coming to the music for the very first time? Maybe they've never heard classical music. So give it a chance, see what you think. There is some cool stuff out there."

(MUSIC: "String Poetic"/ Jennifer Higdon, violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida)


Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein.


And I'm Steve Ember. You can read and listen to our programs at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for more about contemporary American composers on THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


Recording of "On a Wire" provided courtesy of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra