Zebulon Highben is a popular composer in the Augsburg Fortress catalog. In this interview, we learn how he got started as a composer, what he does today, and how he thinks about the writing process.
Could you tell us about your current job/vocation, outside of composing?
I am Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Muskingum University, a liberal arts college of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I direct the choral program there and teach conducting, choral methods, choral literature, and
composition lessons. I also serve as Director of Music at Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio.
How did you become interested in composing, and when did you first start composing?
My first legitimate compositions are from my college years, though when I was younger I would sometimes sit at the piano (when I was supposed to be practicing) and entertain myself by creating little melodies and rhythmic patterns. I have always loved singing, especially in church; that’s probably why my first serious attempt at composing was a setting of the Communion liturgy, written for the Lutheran campus ministry at Ohio State University. I worked with a friend who was a better pianist than me (he had practiced!). I composed the melodies and worked out the harmonizations, and he did the accompaniment. After that, I think the next thing I composed, and my first choral piece, was a setting of a William Butler Yeats poem. A group of friends performed it on my senior recital.
What is unique about composing versus other areas of focus, as a musician?
I think composing is more akin to score study, writing, or perhaps worship planning than it is music-making: the activity is certainly more cognitive than psychomotor. For example, I will spend quite a long time with a text or a potential melody “in my head” before I ever sit down at the piano or put anything on paper. Composing, too, is largely a solitary venture. You may be collaborating with a poet or librettist, and you are (presumably) composing for performers and an audience, but the bulk of the work is undertaken alone. As a choral conductor, that’s the opposite of my experience of music-making, which always involves other people. Conducting and composing feed different parts of my soul.
Could you tell us the story behind one or two of your favorite Augsburg Fortress pieces?
The one that comes most quickly to mind is The Lord Shall Come and Not Be Slow. I wrote the text on a flight from Michigan to Minnesota, a few days before Thanksgiving 2008. It had been a challenging autumn for my family, and we were all feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. As I sat on the plane, I was thinking about that and pondering the approach of Advent. My wife is the poet in our household, but I felt moved to write a hymn expressing what I was thinking and feeling. I had BARBARA ALLEN in my head at the time, and The Lord Shall Come (without the repetition of each stanza’s final line) fits well to that 18.104.22.168. tune. The following week, I wrote the anthem setting with its new melody, and my choir sang it on the second Sunday of Advent.
Do you have any recommendations or tips for choir directors?
I think all choral conductors—myself included—would benefit from more time spent in score study. I am particularly conscious of this not only because I am a composer, but also because I teach future choral conductors. There is so much information in a score that can shape our interpretation, rehearsal planning, teaching techniques, and our encounter with the text…but we can’t unpack all of that if we haven’t spent enough time with the music. It’s something we all should make more time for in our hectic schedules!
Listen to and order Zebulon’s anthem, “The Lord Shall Come and Not Be Slow,” on the Augsburg Fortress website: