Decorah composer Ben Hippen studied music at Harvard in the 1980s, then programmed music software, then went in the 1990s to work on a feature film in Eritrea. The country touched something in him deeply and he stayed, teaching music and immersing himself in Eritrea's languages, songs and culture. What drove him away at the turn of the century was the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.
He decided to pursue a career that would let him directly help people in conflict zones and underserved communities. He enrolled in the University of Iowa College of Medicine in 2003, earned his M.D. in 2008, then practiced emergency medicine in the U.S. and abroad.
After a decade, he felt he’d contributed all he could as a doctor. He retired from medicine and came back to Decorah to focus on music again.
You can hear one result on Friday’s Performance Today at 5 p.m. CT on IPR Classical, when we will broadcast the 2018 premiere of a major orchestral work by Hippen called “American Nocturne.”
Performance Today host Fred Child considers the work timely.
“This piece by Ben Hippen is not just a world premiere performance, it has particular resonance in the current moment we’re all sharing as Americans – the third movement of the piece expresses pain prompted by what the composer calls ‘the original sin of American history: slavery and its legacy of racism.’ I look forward to sharing this with listeners in Iowa and around the country, and sharing our thoughts and feelings afterwards,” Child said.
The 2018 performance is by the Lviv Philharmonic in western Ukraine, conducted by another musician with Iowa connections, Ben Loeb. In one of Loeb’s appearances on IPR’s Steinway Cafe, he included a piano work by Hippen.
“American Nocturne” was also performed locally this February by the Oneota Valley Community Orchestra, and that event was covered in an informative “Driftless Journal” interview of the composer by Elisabeth Rosales. In it, Hippen discusses his decision to return to music, and details the inspirations of “American Nocturnes.” It’s an excellent program note. You’ll want to hear the performance after you read it!