Phenomenal Women – Composer Spotlight: Joan Tower

American Composers Orchestra (ACO) performs Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance, led by Music Director George Manahan, as part of its program Phenomenal Women on Friday, November 2, 2018, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. More information here

Joan Tower is widely regarded as one of the most important American composers living today. During a career spanning more than fifty years, she has made lasting contributions to musical life in the United States as composer, performer, conductor, and educator. Her works have been commissioned by many of the world’s celebrated ensembles, soloists, and orchestras.

In 1990, Tower became the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Silver Ladders. Tower’s 2008 album Made in America, featuring three works recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony, collected three Grammy awards: Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance. Nashville’s latest all-Tower recording includes Stroke, which received a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

We spoke to Tower about her first orchestral work, Sequoia, as well as Chamber Dance, written in 2006, which is featured on ACO’s upcoming program Phenomenal Women on Friday, November 2, 2018, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. More information here

Composer Joan Tower. Photo by Bernard Mindich

American Composers Orchestra: Your first orchestral work, Sequoia, was commissioned by the Jerome Foundation and ACO and premiered with conductor Dennis Russell Davies at Carnegie Hall in 1981. We’d love to hear any memories that stand out from that experience. How did it affect the trajectory of your career? 
Joan Tower: It changed my entire life! Francis Thorne [ACO’s co-founder] kept bugging me to write a piece for ACO. I kept saying “no” because I felt wasn’t ready, but he was very persistent. He said, “Joan, you are ready! Just go for it!” So I wrote Sequoia kicking and screaming and not knowing what I was doing.

I remember Keith Jarrett was on the program, the famous jazz pianist, and the place was sold out basically because of him. Dennis decided to reorder the program so that I was right before intermission, following Keith Jarrett playing Alan Hovhaness. I was a total wreck. I thought, “Why did you change the order of the program? You can’t do this to me!” So, of course, Keith Jarrett finished playing this piece by Hovhaness and the place went bananas, because it was Keith Jarrett, and I thought, “Ok, that’s it, I’m finished.” Then my piece was played and they went nuts again! I thought, “It must be the energy of Keith Jarrett or something that’s carrying over.” I had all these explanations.

But then Zubin Mehta picked it up with the New York Philharmonic. [Sequoia] just launched this completely, incredibly crazy life. Then Leonard Slatkin picked it up with the St. Louis Symphony. He said it was a really unusual piece and asked me to be Composer-in-Residence in St. Louis. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I was from the chamber music world, not the orchestral world. All I had was that piece [Sequoia], an orchestration of another piece, and that was it. I told him [Slatkin] that. I said, “You’re taking a big risk with me.” He said he was willing to take the risk. He wanted to help me write some more music for orchestra.

So Slatkin took me all over the place, recorded the piece, made me Composer-in-Residence … I wrote a Concerto for Orchestra for them and several other pieces. [Sequoia] did literally change my life.

Listen to Sequoia, performed by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic:
ACO: Chamber Dance, which ACO performs on November 2 at Carnegie Hall, was commissioned by Orpheus in 2006. Can you talk about your experience writing this piece and working with Orpheus? How did you come up with the title?
JT: I think Chamber Dance is a really good title. It’s one of my better titles actually, because it is, to me, a dance between the musicians. It’s a real chamber music piece, and it requires a lot of listening to each other, which is what Orpheus did. Writing for them was such an honor because they had figured out how to do that with fairly complicated music. I decided this definitely had to be a larger sounding chamber piece. It has duets and solos and groups and it covers a lot of different textures in the piece, where people are brought forward out of the group. They took it to Korea and they took it to Europe. I couldn’t go to Korea because I fell on the platform at Penn Station and broke my knee, so I couldn’t go to Korea, but I went to Europe with them, which was such a pleasure. It was like traveling with a large chamber group of terrific players, and I was even able to make changes to the piece here and there. So that was a fun piece to write.

ACO: The Boston Globe recently wrote that in the early 2000s you thought you were finished writing for orchestra, quoting you as saying, “I thought I’d spend my time in welcoming worlds.” What made you change your mind?

JT: I did think that was it and I was not going to write for orchestra any more. It was because I didn’t think the world was as welcoming as some chamber music worlds, the band world, the choral world … At that time I really felt I wanted to spend time writing for players who were more welcoming.

But then, along came the Made in America project. It was a commission for community orchestras, which I had not dealt with before. I wasn’t sure about that world, I didn’t know what it was about, so I asked a violist who actually played in community orchestras. She said they don’t play as well as the professionals, but they actually love to do what they’re doing. That’s what they look forward to, coming to the orchestra rehearsal at night, which is more interesting, sometimes, than their day jobs. I thought that was really interesting. In fact, it made the decision for me and I decided to accept the Made in America commission.

What she [the violist] described was true. I went to 20 orchestras out of 65. I traveled around the United States to these smaller communities and I had a ball with these people, because they really did love what they were doing. It was mostly volunteers and they were there because they wanted to be there. They loved playing in the orchestra. There was a deep kind of care about not only their playing in the orchestra but also their community. They were very proud to do a good job as best they could. It was just a very different kind of world.

The first performance was by one of the most amateur orchestras [in the commission consortium]. He [the conductor] called me and said, “Look, my orchestra is probably going to struggle with this piece. Can I have the score a year early?” And I said, “No, because I haven’t even written it yet.” He said, “Well, can I be the first? You can use me as a guinea pig.” I said, “Absolutely. That I’m up for.” So I would send the work-in-progress to him from time to time. Then I checked out the parts I had written with some professional musician friends. They said, “This is too high for the first violins, this is too fast for the trumpet, blah, blah, …” They really helped me. They saved me actually, because I wanted all these orchestras to be able to play the piece, of course.

The conductor who was my guinea pig was one of first to perform the piece with his orchestra. I went out there, Illinois I think, and I’ll never forget it. They treated me like a rock star. They picked me up at the airport and they took me to the best hotel and they took me to the best restaurant. I walked into the hall and the orchestra cheered me like I was some kind of rock star! This never happens in a major orchestra situation, never. They were so nervous because they had worked for six months, every week, twice a week on the piece and they wanted to do a good job. And they really pulled every bit of weight they could come up with to make this happen. It was just such a joy to watch the effort and the care of that kind of energy. So, I passed the test with one of the most amateur orchestras in the commission consortium, with the conductor’s help too. From there the Made in America tour went on like that in all these communities, and it was a joy actually. The whole trip was wonderful.

Then Orpheus came along and said they wanted a piece from me. I thought Orpheus is this wonderful, wonderful chamber group. I couldn’t turn them down. So that kind of broke the ice for me to get back into more welcoming situations. Then Pittsburgh [Symphony Orchestra] came along a few years later and wanted a piece from me. So by that time I thought, “Ok, you don’t have to be so hardcore about this.” So I did two pieces for them, actually: Tambor and Stroke. And now New York has asked me, so I’m writing a piece for them.

ACO: A big part of ACO’s seasonal activities are our programs for emerging composers, such as the Underwood New Music Readings, EarShot New Music Readings, and our Composer Yourself! program for high schoolers. What is some advice you think is important to give emerging composers?

JT: The musical advice I can give is to make sure you know what you have. You need to have musical control over the piece, and the only way you can have musical control over anything is to know what you have. You might not always have control over the orchestration, because that’s often new to emerging composers, but you should always know what the music is supposed to do. For me, that’s very important for writing an orchestra piece. That’s what I did with my first piece Sequoia. I knew I had control over the music. I didn’t have control over the orchestration as much as I wanted to, but I figured if I had control over the music itself, the orchestration would follow even if it was a little awkward. Orchestration doesn’t make the music, it’s the music that makes the orchestration.

Chamber Dance is featured on ACO’s upcoming program, Phenomenal Women, on Friday, November 2, 2018, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. More information here

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