Jennifer Higdon: American Canvas


Inspired by three very different artists, Jennifer Higdon’s American Canvas was borne from a commission from the Dolce Suono Ensemble. In a later interview with WRTI Hidon explains her choices:


“Mimi Stillman, who runs Dolce Suono, said she wanted something connected to either poetry or art. And, I immediately jumped at art. Because I grew up in a family with visual artists and I’m very familiar with, actually, quite of few of artists – the 20th century, primarily. And so, I said, “Well, let me do that.” So, I started thinking, “Okay, what artist – if I were going to do a three- movement work, what artist would I want to try to capture in sound?”

So I made the decision early on, Georgia O’Keeffe; have always been fascinated with her paintings. And also her career, but her paintings really stand out for me. Jackson Pollock. I thought Pollock has an incredibly different style than what O’Keeffe has done.

And then I thought, of course, living in this area, Andrew Wyeth. I adore Andrew Wyeth’s works. I love the paintings. To me, if you walk into a room and there’s an Andrew Wyeth on the wall, it stands out. So those are the focuses of each of the movements.”


The Music

American Canvas is written for piano, flute and cello trio and consists of three contrasting movements, each named after the artist in question. 


Movement I – O’Keeffe

Based on the essence of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistry, Higdon creates an opening movement that shows bold lines of lyricism, as well as nuanced dissonances that create colour and contour within the music. Higdon describes O’Keeffe’s bold and distinctive style and translates this into music by way of orchestration and how she interweaves the three voices together. The movement on the whole is warm in character and see the piano take an accompanying role for a portion of the movement. The tempo fluctuates throughout, but is on the slower side for the most part. Small flourishes of melody are borne from a sparkling piano theme that returns a number of times throughout the movement. O’Keeffe’s movement concludes how it began – slowly and mysteriously.


Movement II – Pollock

Inspired by the paint splattered work of Jackson Pollock, the much more chaotic second movement is described as a constant whirl of sound. A quick tempo is set early on by the piano, with the cello and flute adding decoration and feeding the drive of the music. Quick flourishes soon fall back into the chugging accompaniment, creating an exciting swirl of music. Higdon uses lots of syncopation to keep the tempo high as the flute takes the reigns with a solo melody. The movement concludes with all three voices coming to an abrupt end.


Movement III – Wyeth

Higdon admits that this movement took the longest of the three to compose due to the level of detail that Andrew Wyeth puts into his artwork. Lots of intricate layering and nuanced changes in rhythm and dynamics lay at the core of this movement. Jaunty themes rumble through the ensemble as the chaotic atmosphere continues from the previous movement. Higdon uses repetition to create a link between the way that Wyeth paints and how this music will be perceived. The level of detail is quite astonishing and Higdon encapsulates this in the totally captivating finale movement. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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