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An Uncommon Woman: Composer Joan Tower Reflects Upon Six Decades in Classical Music

Posted in MusicWorld on September 19, 2018 by
Photo: Bernie Mindich

Most artists hope for a long, rewarding career in the music industry, and composer Joan Tower has raised the bar with an action-packed career spanning more than six decades. Recognized by The New Yorker as “one of the most successful woman composers of all time,” Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York, but spent most of her childhood in Bolivia, where her father worked as a mineralogist. Tower, who showed exceptional talent for piano as a child, first started composing when she was studying at Columbia University.

Tower founded the Naumburg Award-winning Da Capo Chamber Players in 1969 in New York, and her many accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, and three GRAMMY Awards. She was the first composer commissioned by the Ford Made in America program in 2005, a nationwide effort linking smaller-budget orchestras to commission new works by major composers.

Today, the trailblazing Tower splits her time as a composer with her duties as the Asher Edelman Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and she is an artistic consultant to the BMI Foundation. Tower recently celebrated her 80th birthday in style with celebratory concerts featuring the world premieres of three new compositions at New York’s DiMenna Center for Classical Music and Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts.

How did you first start working as a composer?

I was asked to write a piece in college. I was 18; I was never asked to write a piece before that. I was a pianist — and I got pretty advanced as a pianist — but luckily, I didn’t pursue that career, which is very tough. It was in a class, and everyone was expected to compose at one point or another. They asked me to write a piece, and then I heard the piece and it was a disaster. I mean, it was really bad [laughs]. And I said, “I know I can do better than that.” So, for the next 60 years, I tried to do better [laughs].

It was fascinating to me, because it’s a different way in to music than playing the piano, and it spiked my curiosity. It really challenged me to try to write something that worked, and that’s what I’ve continued at Bard. We have a requirement in the conservatory at Bard that you have to take composition for at least one semester. And it’s a fantastic idea — it was my idea, actually [laughs] — because it opens up the players to being on the other side of the page, creating the page rather than following the page. So that changed a lot of minds about the page — the Beethoven page, or the Brahms page — and it also made them much more empathetic towards composers, because they immediately realized how hard it was.

How did you find your footing in the world of classical music?

I’ve always been interested in making music rather than talking about it, so I was very active early on as a player. I was playing in New York and I created my own group, the Da Capo Chamber Players, and I learned a lot about other composers that way. I learned a lot about being a player of other composers’ music, and also how you talk to players. It became a very important education for me. I was also getting a Ph.D. at Columbia – which is a total waste of time, sorry to say. I wasn’t an academic, I never have been – that’s just not where my talents lie. Making music and creating it and producing it was my talent. I got to know a lot of players and play a lot of composers’ music. I was very active in New York at that time, making music, so that’s really how I got a foot in.

But the real fuel in your career as a composer is writing a good piece. If you write a good piece, it will have legs. It will go places. Like, if you write a solo clarinet piece — which I did, it’s called Wings, and that piece took off like wildfire immediately. It took me all over the place, and suddenly I became very well known in the clarinet world. I still am very well known in the clarinet world [laughs], I have six pieces now for the clarinet. But that taught me a very important lesson: It’s not the credentials that sell you, it’s the music that sells you. In other words, your music is what takes you places and what gives you a “career” in music. It’s not the credentials, really.

The credentials help; I won the Grawemeyer prize, which was a lot of money — it paid for my dental work, which was great [laughs] — and I’ve won GRAMMYS and stuff, but those credentials are temporary. They sound great, kind of like, “I went to Harvard” kind of thing. Some of those credentials have a lot of power, especially the GRAMMY, but it’s not what really makes you write music. It’s the music itself. And I’ve learned that over 60 years.

How do you know when you’ve written a good piece?

Well, you don’t. You never know [laughs]. You can’t say, “Ah! This is the good piece!” Usually with me, I say, “This is a disaster area” and I’m always pleasantly surprised that it’s not quite as big of a disaster as I thought it was. I think it’s good to take that approach, because you never get disappointed!

You mentioned before that you don’t consider yourself an academic, but you’ve taught at Bard College since 1972, correct?

Yes, well Bard has allowed me to be who I am and teach what I can, and sometimes that takes time to figure out. We all have different talents and we have to face the fact that some of them are stronger than others, and to live in a reality zone, which is sometimes hard in music. As I got better known, they started letting me do what I want. They actually never told me what to do — I’m very tough that way. I don’t like to be told what to do [laughs], so it’s been a great school for me. It’s near New York, it’s a progressive, forward-looking school, we’ve got some great students, and I love it here. I love teaching.

How is it different working with student musicians as opposed to seasoned musicians?

Well, that’s the difference! I remember a very well-known cellist who was older — he was in his 60s at the time – and there was a real hot-shot cellist who was playing on the same program as him. And I’ll never forget this; he said, “Well, you’re actually a better cellist than I am, but I have experience.” That was a pretty interesting and honest statement. We all have students who are hot-shots, the ones who write orchestra pieces when they’re 12, and you just have to remember that you may not have had those kinds of chops that they had when they were 12, but you have the experience. You’ve been around the block a lot, which I have. There are always going to be people who are better or more sophisticated, but you have to take what you have, and develop what you’ve got.

You’ve been the composer-in-residence with multiple orchestras. Can you explain what the role of a composer-in-residence is?

It differs from orchestra to orchestra; it depends on what the contract is, and what you’re supposed to do with them. When [American composer] John Duffy started the “Meet the Composer” program, a residency with orchestras which lasted 10 years, that was an incredibly important program because they placed composers in residence for a period of two to three years. They actually went and lived there and became an important part of the orchestra in that city, wherever it was. They designed it according to their talents and what the orchestra wanted from them, which was very different from orchestra to orchestra… it really depended on the talent of the composer.

My talent was trying to convert the members of the orchestra into playing more new music. I worked inside the orchestra, and I managed to convert a lot of people who had definite opinions about living composers. After 10 years, the funding stopped, and John Duffy figured that the orchestras would pick up the funding, and most of them didn’t. That was a huge wakeup call, and very disappointing. Now, orchestras are trying — most don’t have the budget, but they’re bringing composers on a lesser scale. Today they invite you to be an advisor to the orchestra, and you’ll fly in a few times a year.

Here in Nashville, we talk a lot about collaboration in the commercial songwriting industry. Can you explain how collaboration works in the classical world, with both composers and performers?

It’s probably quite different than the pop or country world, because you have the page — the page makes a difference. In other words, noted music makes a difference because you have to keep working on this totally detailed page, which gives you all the directions on how to put up the building. It’s sort of like I’m the architect — it’s very specific notation. It tells you exactly what to do, every step of the way. So, your musical soul is going into a very finite blueprint, which is very different from improvising.

So you write this thing the best you can, and you hand it to a player. And usually players ask you for a piece, you don’t just write a piece for somebody without telling them [laughs)]. Usually you’re asked, and sometimes you’re paid [laughs]. I mean, I’m paid now, but starting out, you’re not paid. Usually people ask you because they’ve heard another piece that they like, and of course at that point you’re thrilled. Most young composers are thrilled to be asked. And that’s how I started to get going, but it’s constantly the music that’s driving that need for collaboration, that desire to ask you for a piece — they’ve heard your music somewhere and they like it.

You’ve written music for choirs, percussion ensembles, bands, orchestras, ballets … is there a particular medium or genre that you haven’t approached yet, but that you hope to?

The vocal world is kind of new to me. Writing for voice is very different. You get to know an instrument by writing for it — and I’ve been around most of the instruments — but there are a couple of instruments I don’t know as well as others, and that’s because I’ve never gotten to them. One is the bass and the other is the horn. It’s a little scary writing for bass. It’s such a low, mumbly instrument, and the horn is a very complicated instrument because it has a huge tubing and a huge range, and you have to know the technique. But I’ll get around to it, probably [laughs].

A little over a decade ago, you were the first composer that was chosen for the Made in America project. Can you tell us a little about that experience?

That was amazing. It was basically for community orchestras, and I had not dealt with community orchestras, so I wasn’t sure what that was about, or how that was different. I was in a cab with a friend of mine who is a composer — she plays in a lot of the community orchestras around her area —and I said, “So what’s the difference between playing in a community orchestra and a B- or A-level orchestra?” And she said, “Well, the players are not as good, obviously, but they love to be there. They love playing in their orchestras, so the energy is very welcoming, enthusiastic and caring.” I said, “Really?” I had experienced something slightly different in A- and B-level orchestras. That made the decision for me.

The guy who started it got 22 community orchestras to go in on it, and the American Symphony Orchestra League brought it up to 36 orchestras, and then the Ford Motor Fund Foundation said, “If you can get this into 50 states, we will fund it.” And they did. They got it into 50 states. And I was the composer, and there were 65 orchestras that signed up. I’ve been pressured, but this is a lot of pressure.

So I made two really good choices: I decided to include “America the Beautiful” as the main tune, because it’s a beautiful tune, and I was going around the country, and they all know that tune. And also, I was brought up in South America, and I was very proud of being an American except that I was, and I wasn’t. The second decision that I made was that I checked out every part with my professional player friends, and they really saved my butt. They said, “That’s too high for that group, or that’s too fast for that ensemble,” and they kept telling me what they could play.

And then I went around and I visited 20 orchestras — they double- and triple-booked so I couldn’t get to all of them, but I went around to 20 — and I conducted eight. And I saw some fantastic communities that have these really dedicated orchestras in their communities. It was just amazing! And they treated me like a rock star — they picked me up at the airport in their fanciest car and took me to the fanciest hotel and the fanciest restaurants, and I’d walk into the room and they’d start cheering for me.

What an incredible experience! It’s nice to see all these different pockets of the U.S. show such an appreciation and passion for classical music.

It really was. There’s so much work to be done there — they’re pretty much on their own, but they make it happen. They have conductors who are totally dedicated, football coach types [laughs].

Tell us about a project of yours that spanned over several years, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. What was the inspiration behind these works?

This was after the ‘60s and ‘70s when the consciousness-raising was happening and all these feminists were lashing out about women not having enough power or income, and I was reading a lot of the feminist books. I was really on board with that. And then the Houston Symphony came along and said, “We’d like you to write a fanfare.” And I said, “OK, a fanfare, what the hell is a fanfare? Oh yeah, it has a lot of brass, I think.” [Laughs.]

So then I started thinking about [Aaron] Copland and the only fanfare I knew, Fanfare for the Common Man, and the title really bothered me. For the “common man?” What the hell is that? It’s kind of elitist. So, I had to turn that one around. An “uncommon woman” means a woman who takes risks, who is adventurous. That was the first one, and then along came Absolut Vodka [who commissioned a piece], so I wrote the second one; and then the third one was Carnegie Hall’s 100th anniversary, that was a big deal; the fourth one was Orchestra of Kansas City’s 50th Anniversary; the fifth one was for four trumpets in Aspen; the sixth one started as a piano piece written for the teenaged pianists of the Music Teachers’ Association of California. I wanted to write a piece for teenagers because I hadn’t, and I thought this would be a good chance. And then Baltimore wanted a fanfare, so I orchestrated that, so there’s one for orchestra and one for piano, the sixth one. And they’re all dedicated to Uncommon Women.

I guess the hope is that being adventurous and taking risks won’t be so uncommon for women…

Well, now it’s really starting to happen! It’s unbelievable. I’m so happy.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Beethoven was a major influence, I played a lot of his music and I learned how to create a motivated architecture through him. After that, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Inca music — I grew up in South America, you know — and jazz. I was married to a jazz pianist.

You’ve been a trailblazer and a leader in your industry. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen as a woman working in classical music?

Unfortunately, we came up at a time when the composers were being shoved to the background and the performers were being shoved to the foreground. That started in the early 20th century. At one point, the composers were in the universities, writing their theory books, they had to be academics in order to be in the university. That’s changed now, somewhat — now there are more active composers who are not necessarily academics who now are teaching more.

But the performing classical music world is 90 percent dead composers. The living composers are starting to emerge more, but the classical world has become a museum piece, in a way, and on the fringes of that are living composers. They’re still pretty much on the fringe. How many contemporary composers do you see on orchestral programs, for example? And the women inside that are even smaller. But you have to take the living composers first, before you can evaluate the women’s part of that.

So I’ve been fighting all my life for living composers, and for women composers. You have to move on. You can’t keep it in a museum. We’re not helping Beethoven, for example, by not moving on. It’s like we’re doing him a disservice because our critical faculties get weaker and weaker.

Is there a trend with orchestras being more willing to play living composers? Are you seeing that happen more?

That is such a sore subject, because they have probably been — next to the opera world — the most stubborn people. The problem is, they also have economic problems. They’re running scared all the time because they’re going to lose the audience, or lose the funders — they’re going to lose this, lose that. I don’t think that’s a good reason, actually, but I’ve been around in that world long enough to know that they really believe that. And in some cases it’s true, but you have to have believers, you have to have visionaries running the orchestra, and you have to have conductors who really love the pieces they’re going to conduct.

Here’s an example: Yo-Yo Ma is very famous, and he’s also somebody who is very curious. He doesn’t care that the audience may be a little afraid — he just goes there, because he’s curious. And he takes everybody with them, because everybody loves him. That’s the kind of leadership we need.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a piece for clarinet and piano for the principal clarinetist of the New York Phil, and then I’m writing a string quartet plus viola — a quintet — for the Boston Chamber Music Society, and then I’m writing a piece for the New York Phil that I just heard about. I’ve got a lot going on!

How did you start working with BMI?

I sort of fell into it — I was at ACA, the American Composers Alliance in New York, and I had a friend at BMI so I signed up for BMI! And I’ve loved BMI ever since. I’ve been with them for maybe 55 years. They’ve been an enormous help to me.