Composer Joan Tower Celebrates a Milestone

Posted in News on March 4, 2024
Composer Joan Tower at the Tenri Cultural Institute for a performance by the Da Capo Chamber Players on February 24, 2024.
Composer Joan Tower at the Tenri Cultural Institute for a performance by the Da Capo Chamber Players on February 24, 2024.

As a contemporary American composer, Joan Tower has amassed a body of work that has established her as both a titan of her craft and a trailblazer for fellow women music creators. She has won multiple GRAMMY Awards, the Gold Baton from the League of Orchestras, the Richard Bogomolny Award from Chamber Music America, Composer of the Year from Musical America, Grawemeyer Award and countless other industry accolades, and continues to push the envelope. In 1969, she founded the Da Capo Chamber Players, an accomplished ensemble that earned the Naumburg Award in 1973. The Da Capo Chamber Players went on to commission and perform over 100 works from composers such as John Harbison, Chinary Ung, Louise Talma, Joe Schwantner,  Shulamit Ran, Philip Glass, Mohammed Firouz, Shirish Korde, Martin Bresnick, George Walker, David Sanford, David Lang and many more.

BMI’s Executive Director, Classical Deirdre Chadwick caught up with Tower on the eve of her 85th birthday performance with the Da Capo Chamber Players. Here’s what she had to say.

I want to ask you about the recent concert with Da Capo Chamber Players because I know that you were a founding member of the ensemble as their pianist. Can you share a little bit about your history with the group and how you evolved as a pianist/composer from that experience?

When I was going to Columbia graduate school, I wanted to make music. I was more of a wanting to make music rather than talk about it type. And so, I decided to form my own group. And that turned out to be the best decision I made ever in my life because by working with the players and playing the music of other composers, I just had a huge education because I got on the other side of the page and learned a lot about how players (and composers) think and how the instruments work and how ensembles work. It was really an important education for me.

It’s so interesting because many composers whose music has real staying power are the ones who are thinking about the performers when they write. They’re writing for their friends, and they want the performers to enjoy the work.

Well, also I think the reverse is true, which I promote all the time, for the performers to get on the other side of the page.

Can you say more about that?

I teach a class here at Bard College that is a requirement in the Conservatory. All the players have to compose at some point.  Their understanding of the page increases exponentially once they make the page themselves. So that’s a big thing I do. In fact, whenever I have a big birthday (60th, 70th etc.), I ask performers I have written for to write a small birthday piece for me. That’s been a whole other wonderful series of gifts I’ve gotten - and they all say “what, you want me to compose a piece of music?” Like this is completely out of their comfort zone. I say “it’s just a little birthday present. It’s not like you’re writing a masterpiece.”

Flutist Carol Wincenc complained at first but then used her wonderful imagination to step outside her own comfort zone. She comes in with two Brazilian drummers, because the one thing she always wanted to do was improvise So, there she was, improvising with these two handsome Brazilian drummers and on top of that, she brings in two dancers in body stockings, like they’re supposed to be kind of nude. And they come slithering up on the stage. I mean, it just brought the house down.

I’ve had many performers write pieces for me- very good players that I have worked with over the years. They always come up with something musical even though it might be a little on the traditional side. But in spite of the style,  they basically make musical decisions with good instincts and the piece is therefore always interesting.

When you’re not making other people write music, could you talk a little bit about what your creative process looks like, like how you start a new work or how you think about it before you get started?

Basically, I’m going into a particular culture because, you know, every instrument has a culture, it has a country, a personality. Writing for the clarinet is one thing, writing for the oboists is another. Writing for brass, percussion, you’re traveling in very different universes, in a way, with different ideas and different capabilities. So that’s what I start with first, what is the capability of this instrument? How does it speak? How does it speak best? Or an ensemble - how does this ensemble speak best? And that’s like just going into a country that you have to get to know and live with a bit.

And I write very organically. I write at the piano because I’m a fairly good pianist and I can play what I write, except when there are layers. And because it’s a living thing for me in time, it’s a visceral process-so playing it at the piano makes it come alive. And I’m engaged in it in time, so the dotted half is not just one, two, three but it’s like how does that length of time feel? Should it be a whole note, or should it be two whole notes or what should it be? Because I’m living it, I’m not just putting it down as a number.  I’m sort of like a performer who composes.

Is there a work that you’ve written that you’re most proud of, and why?

That’s a hard question because there are several of them and they’re quite different. Some are for orchestra; some are for a solo instrument. They are all hard to write because it’s like you’re creating a baby. You’re trying to understand this personality that’s coming alive.  It’s a real collaboration between you and this thing that’s trying to become something. It’s like having a child, probably. I have never had one, but I guess you have to listen to what they’re trying to tell you. You’re sort of in charge but you’re not in charge and that’s why it’s hard because it takes patience to listen carefully.

Yes, it does sound a lot like parenting. You’re not in charge of what comes, you just have to take care of whatever that is and help it flourish.

Exactly. That’s it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring music creators? You’re looked up to by many people and I’m sure they’d love to hear what Joan Tower’s advice would be to them.

Thank you. I always say form your own group.  Because you don’t necessarily have to be a player. You could be a presenter, you could be a coach, you could be an administrator. We have groups that are examples of all of those that have been very successful and have been created by composers. And what it allows you to do is to create your own vision. They form the groups because they’re trying to create their own vision. It takes patience and it takes work and money. You have to become a fundraiser or get somebody who can help you with money. But it’s the best way to go because otherwise you’re always at the mercy of being rejected - you apply to a grant; you apply to that group, and you’re always being rejected because there are just so many composers to go around. I think, yes, the most successful ones are the ones who form their own groups actually.

And what are you working on right now?

I’m writing a saxophone concerto for Steven Banks. He’s a fantastic young player and a really nice person so we’re really going to work together on this, which I love- that kind of cooperation.

Where will it premiere?

The person who originated this, who is one of my advocates, is Peter Oundjian, the conductor/violinist. He has a wonderful festival in Boulder, Colorado. Two years ago, he said he would like to commission me.  He had been conducting other music of mine and is one of my conductor advocates, which is a whole other story.

But he said, what do you want to write? I said, a cello concerto. And he said, good, I’ll get you the cellist and that’s what we’ll do. So, he got me Alisa Wellerstein.

I remember! What a fantastic work that is. Remember we sat and listened to the recording?

Oh, that’s right.

In your living room. Last spring I think it was. And it was basically just the live capture from the concert, it was so beautiful. And she is such an amazing player.

And that was the Cleveland Orchestra, which did a fantastic job. Pittsburgh and National Symphony also played it . It started in Boulder, which was great because Peter is an ex-chamber music player. He used to play violin with the Tokyo Quartet. So, for him, everything is about collaboration. He just has that point of view. So, he called me up four months in advance of the premiere to discuss the new score. “Do you want this on the string, off the string?” Being an ex-string player, I said what do you think? He said I think it’s much better off the string. And then we heard it in Boulder, and I was making changes there right and left. And he went with everything. It’s not like I was challenging him. Because he wanted it to get better too.  Not all conductors, in fact, very few conductors work that way.

What would you say about the role that BMI has played in your career?

When I was starting out in New York, I was with ACA, American Composers Alliance. And you had to join BMI if you were with them. So, it wasn’t a choice, you just did it. At first, I was paid I think it was two hundred dollars a year, I think that’s what it was, and then it kept going up because I was getting played and then getting more well known. And I tell you, it is my social security back up.  I mean I can’t thank BMI enough for helping me balance my life without having to work so hard.

I’m glad that we have played that role for you. That’s what we’re here for.

Oh, it’s been a really significant role. Yes.

Great, thank you.

Thank YOU.



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