Composer  Joan  Tower

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Joan Tower is one of the select group of most notable composers of Classical Music.  Rather than enumerate the details of her career, let me refer you to the updated Schirmer biography which is reproduced at the end of this interview.  Suffice it to say that she has already established herself in the front-rank of those who keep music moving forward.

As usual, names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

This interview was done in Chicago in April of 1987, when one of her new pieces was about to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I had the pleasure of sharing a bit of time with her, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   So, where's music going today?

Joan Tower:   Which music? There's pop music. There's classical music. There's folk music. There's all kinds of music.

BD:   Are we blurring the lines between those kinds of musics?

JT:   Not enough. I'm beginning to think that we have to blur the lines more.

BD:   Why?

JT:   Because I think that classical music is suffering under the weight of being too much in the past as compared to pop music which is very much in the present and is a quite healthy art, at least in that sense. That new stuff is being presented all the time and tossed around and competed with and bought and sold. But classical music is still too much living in the past.

BD:   You think classical is not a healthy art then?

JT:    I don't think it's healthy for the dead composers, actually. I think Beethoven needs someone next to him that reminds you the music is vulnerable rather than it's just a masterpiece and so therefore why should we even bother to think about it. The wonderful thing about new music is the reaction it provokes.  "Do I like this or don't I like it?"  The audience is reacting to the music itself.  With Beethoven, they don't do that.

BD:   They just come to another performance of a ‘great' symphony?

JT:   Yes, and they react to the performer.

BD:   Can the blame for this be laid partly at the feet of the recording companies?

JT:   Well, the recording companies are in a money-making business and the bottom line is a profit line. The whole problem of how to sell records is a very real problem for record companies. They're finding themselves in a corner because of that. The whole business is very insecure, so what do they do? They reissue old masterpieces. They only go with big name recording artists – people that will sell. It's too narrow a line that the record companies are treading, but they have no choice because they're in a money-making operation.

cd BD:   How can we get more of the public to buy more recordings of more different composers?

JT:   You have to deal with a very large problem which is very complex and very subjective. It has to do with education and with kids coming up. What are they interested in? It has to do with the vitality of the music in terms of a larger segment of the population. It's very complicated and the record companies can't deal with that. That's not their job.

BD:   Should the concert music promoters or the record companies go after the audience that's watching MTV?

JT:   I think they try to, but you can't beat a dead horse. They're not interested.

BD:   Then how do we get them interested?

JT:   It's got to come with education at a younger age. The government is very aware of this. The National Endowment's very aware of this and there's a whole front of education that's moving into making arts on a serious level more of a requirement within the schools' and the pre-schools' education. It's got to start at a lower grass roots level because we don't have the younger audience coming up. We just don't have it.

BD:   Should the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders be taken to a symphony concert?  And if so, should they be taken to a Beethoven concert or should they go to a Joan Tower concert?

JT:   They should be doing that, but it's got to be more than that. You can't just take them to a concert. There has to be something that motivates them to react to that concert. Kids are very local and they're very wonderful. They're very unbiased, but there has to be more than just going to a concert. They have to pick up instruments at home and play them at home and in school.  It's got to be, like in the 19th century, more home-making music.

BD:   "Hausmusik?"

JT:   House music, yes. Exactly.

BD:   Is society moving too fast now to take this all in?

JT:   Well, society now has two problems in terms of the classical music business. One is a PR problem. If you sell a name long enough and wide enough, everybody thinks that's the genius factor, which is wrong because it may not be. The real thing is can they evaluate that? Do they actually know that Itzhak Pearlman is a fantastic violinist or are they just sold that quantity?  And that goes for dead composers also. That's number one. Number two, we're in a society that likes blacks and whites – quantities that are very defined. We don't want to take risks too much. We want to know what's happening.

BD:   We want to know before the concert that we'll enjoy it.

JT:   Yes. We want to know where our money's going. We want to know that we're going to hear a famous person and that they're going to play a famous piece. We don't want to go to hear an unknown soloist, we don't want to go to hear an unknown composer. Why? Why??  I think people have lost touch with what it means to evaluate music and performers. They really don't have that ability anymore.

BD:   Even when the public did have the ability to evaluate, was the public always right?

JT:   No, not necessarily, but at least they were in the active, creative process of making choices.  Even our conductors have lost that ability, at least as far as new music goes.

BD:   All conductors or just most conductors?

JT:   Some. Most. There are very few exceptions who can really hear a new piece and say, "That's an interesting piece. I like that piece."

BD:   Or, "That's not an interesting piece"?

JT:   Or "That's not an interesting piece. I don't like that piece." Leonard Slatkin is very unusual in that respect.  He really has very definite opinions about what he likes in new music and what he doesn't like. He may not agree with everybody else, but at least he has an opinion.

BD:   And that's enough to program his opinion.

JT:   Exactly, and take it on his guest conducting tours, etc. But most of the major conductors won't even touch that with a 10 foot pole. Why? It's a very interesting question. They don't know how to evaluate that music, and that's the problem with our major soloists, too. And no one is saying to them, "We want you to do that."  That would help. But in spite of that, they're not willing to say, "I like this piece by John Smith. I really like it and I want you to hear it." They're not willing to say that.

BD:   So above and beyond educating the public, we should educate the musicians also?

JT:   Exactly, because they promote the myth that there's something wrong with contemporary music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let's focus on your music and its creation for a bit.  When you're writing a piece of music, how do you know when you have finished the work? How do you know when it's done?

tower JT:   I like to think that my landscape has a shape. I know pretty much when it's done because I work very hard on the whole sense of a contour and a shape - a beginning, middle and end. My music is very organic and I won't make a move unless I feel that it's going somewhere and has arrived somewhere and is finishing from somewhere. So I do have a sense of endings, beginnings, and middles. At least I work on that.

BD:   Are you creating the music or is the music creating itself and you're just directing it?

JT:   The music is creating itself, and I'm trying to listen to what it's trying to do.

BD:   Are you ever surprised where it takes you?

JT:   Oh, yes. Many times. I had it going some other direction and it said, "No, uh uh. I want to go this other way."  And I say, "No, we're going this way." And the music kept saying, "No, we're going this way." (Both laugh) And that's the struggle.

BD:   Then you're not really fighting it - you're letting it take command.

JT:   Well, sometimes I fight it because, you know, you get stubborn. But I really think if you listen to it, a piece of music starts to have its own personality. You have to listen to it and try to let it guide you. That takes a lot of patience and discipline to be able to respond to that in a sensitive way.

BD:   Are you conscious of the amount of time the piece will take to perform?

JT:   Yes, very conscious. That is the hardest thing to control because that is the large landscape. It's very hard to control the large landscape because time in music is very elusive. Very elusive.

BD:   How do you decide which commissions you will accept and which commissions you will decline?

JT:   I'm getting more interested in writing for people who I think will really want to do the piece and people who are committed to doing newer things, and people who I know. I really have trouble writing for people that I don't know. I like to work with performers. I was a performer for a long time and I know their problems.  A piece of music is a two-way street. It's a performer and a composer, and I think the two have to work together to create this thing.  So I accept commissions from people who have that feeling about it, and who are willing to work together on it, rather than me just writing something and handing it to them and saying, okay, now it's your turn. With orchestras, sometimes you have to do that because it's hard to deal with a hundred musicians. Although in St. Louis, I really felt that I tried to break that whole barrier down because I'm living with them, in a sense, as composer-in-residence. My piece Silver Ladders is really written for them. There are 4 solos that are written for the 4 players in the St. Louis Symphony and a lot of the piece is written for the symphony. It's a personal kind of thing.

BD:   But there's no problem bringing it here to Chicago?

JT:   No, there's no problem of bringing it anywhere. But I really worked with those players and they helped me and I worked on the solos with the soloists, etc. To me, it's a real joint endeavor.

BD:   So if you had been writing it for Chicago, it would have been different?

JT:   You mean if Chicago had just commissioned me and I didn't know them from a hole in a wall?  Well, it's not that I would have written a less interesting piece, it just would have been less personal because I wouldn't have known them. Whereas with St. Louis, I really sat down and I went over the parts with every player.

BD:   Even knowing players by reputation is not enough?

JT:   Well, the Chicago Symphony is one of the best orchestras we have and it would be an honor for anybody to write for them. I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about a human kind of joint effort because I'm more worried about the players than I am about the composers. I tend to not deal with composers too much. Players really don't think like composers at all.

BD:   Should they be taught to think like composers?

JT:   Yes. That's the whole problem with our field - we have forgotten how to do that. In the 19th century, more often than not the composers and the performers were one and the same people, and that made for a very interesting creative relationship on both sides. The performer was more of a composer composing the music, being aware of the inside of the decisions and vice versa.  But today, the performers are over there, and they're miles away. They're dealing with totally separate problems - tone, virtuosity.  I call them olympic skiers, but that's wonderful. We have better performers today than we ever had in our entire history. Nevertheless, they are not always making musical choices. They're making choices that have to do with the instruments. It's no fault of theirs. It's just they've just never been trained anywhere in their careers to think about compositional choices.  Some players who are composers play very differently than the ones who are not.

BD:   And you can probably spot them a mile away.

JT:   Yes. But there are some players who have never composed who have composer-intuitions about music. In other words, they have very good creative intuitions about what's underneath this music that they're playing. But I feel that in the conservatories and the schools, composing should be a requirement for players, and performance or learning an instrument should be a requirement for composers. We've got to get these two back together again. They are, right now, educationally, about 10 miles apart in the schools all over the country.

BD:   On a typical subscription series, either in St. Louis or Chicago or anywhere, what kind of percentage should be new music?

JT:   It depends on the city. It depends on the attitude of the city. There are some cities that are just more conservative in their thinking than others.  Los Angeles is a very adventurous kind of city. Minneapolis is another one. There's just so much going on in those cities that is new - in all shapes and forms - that people tend to be more creative in their thinking. So, that also applies to the symphony, which traditionally is the most conservative place in the arts generally speaking.

BD:   More so than the opera?

JT:   No, probably not, although I'm not too familiar with opera and what goes on there.

BD:   Are you ever going to write an opera?

JT:   Oh never.

BD:   Never?

JT:   No.

BD:   Fifty years from now I can quote you when you've got 3 operas in your catalogue?

JT:   (laughs) I can't deal with the words. I can't deal with the combination of words and music.

BD:   So you'll do nothing with text then?

JT:   I don't think so. I've been asked a lot, but there's something about the voice and the words and the music together that I can not deal with. It's something. I can't place it.

BD:    Do you enjoy listening to it?

JT:   Oh, sure, and I was an accompanist for a long time. I loved the lieder repertoire.

BD:   So it's just the creative side of you that can't come to grips with it?

JT:   Yes. Something about putting words in the same room as music that I can't deal with.

BD:   You just deal purely in sounds.

JT:   Yes. I'd love to write a ballet. That I wouldn't mind. I don't mind mixing. Words add another dimension I don't like.

BD:   Do you ever call for anything in your scores such as a visual or an electronic that is out of the mainstream?

JT:   Not yet. (Both laugh) But I'm working up to choreography – dance choreography.

BD:   So we can look for a ballet from you some time?

cd JT:   I just got a letter from somebody who played my Wings for Clarinet with a dancer. He has a video of it, and I'm just dying to see what happened because, in fact, I describe myself often as a choreographer of sound. I think very much in terms of dance and I react to dance very strongly.

BD:   I really hope this video is something that stimulates you and not something that turns you off.  Coming back to your concert music, would you rather have your pieces played on a concert of standard works or a concert of contemporary works?

JT:   That's a tough question and it's an interesting question because I've been on both a lot. It's very different to be a composer on a concert of all dead masterpieces than to be on a concert of all contemporary music. It's a very different syndrome.

BD:   How so?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Arthur Weisberg.]

JT:   One of the problems in the orchestral world is that orchestral players themselves are resistant to new stuff, and it's taken me a long time to figure out why. They're used to playing masterpieces. Most of the orchestral music programs are strong, solid, well orchestrated, well written pieces. Suddenly, they've got this new piece that probably is not as well orchestrated, not as strong in shape and focus, and is asking them to do new things. So they have to work and they have to practice. But that's another dimension. I've been in between Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and I've been on the same program as Pictures at an Exhibition, Bolero, you name it, I've been there. It's a real challenge to my piece because I suddenly think, "Am I going to survive this?"  (Both laugh)

BD:   Do you?

JT:   Sometimes. Most of the time I do. But on most of the programs, they put the contemporary piece first, so that makes it easier.  It means you don't have to follow Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or whatever, and that makes it easier. Usually it's the new piece, then the soloist because the thinking is, "Well, if they don't like the new piece, at least they have the soloist coming up." Really. It's a real definite programming idea. Then after intermission is the big piece. But on an all contemporary program, you are very much in a different bag. The audience there is not criticizing you because you're new. They're there for other reasons. It's all new. It's a different kind of survival test on an all new music program. I think it's probably harder to be on an all dead composer program.  That's my experience.

BD:   Is it wrong for the public to expect every new work to be a masterpiece?

JT:   I think the public's opinion of new stuff right now is just so, so... off the wall.

BD:   But when I talk to the public, they often say all this new music is so off the wall!

JT:   Well, the thinking is so narrow and so closed and so PC. It all has to do with this myth that we have to sit through this new piece, you know.

BD:   Like eating your vegetables to get to the dessert?

JT:   Yes. Your Milk of Magnesia. You have to take your Milk of Magnesia. There's something very wrong with that because there is so much music being written today that is far to the left or the right of what they're used to. You can't use that argument anymore. I mean, Joe Schwantner, John Corigliano, George Rochberg, George Crumb, John Adams, Steve Reich – endless names of people that you cannot say are too unknown for the ears. These are people who are writing consonant music with chords that are familiar, with gestures that are familiar, with landscapes that are familiar. You can't condemn them for being new. They're too close to what we already know. So that kind of argument doesn't work anymore, and it really shows you that the audience doesn't know what they're doing.

BD:   Talking about masterpieces and everything, should we also encourage the symphony orchestras to program works by lesser composers of the 19th and 18th centuries?

JT:   I think that would help. I think that would probably help Beethoven and Mozart to have people around them that are not quite so masterpiece-oriented. Absolutely. Maybe that might give some perspective to why they're so great. I don't think anybody has the remotest idea why they're so great.

BD:   Beyond the fact that they just simply did it better than other people of their time?

JT:   No, beyond the fact that they've been brought down in history and handed to us on a silver platter! (Both laugh) If I'm next to Beethoven, that helps Beethoven. It really does, because the ears are geared toward evaluating and criticizing my piece. "Do I like this? Do I not like this? Why am I having these kinds of reactions?"  That helps Beethoven because that can be then transposed just by local time connection to Beethoven instead of, "Oh, this is Beethoven so I might as well go asleep.  You know he's such a genius.  I can't possibly criticize this piece on any level."

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you've heard of your works?

tower JT:   I've been real lucky because I've had unbelievable players play my music with such dedication. Just this last weekend, my cello concerto was done by André Emelianoff who I wrote the piece for.  He played in the Da Capo Chamber Players with me for 15 years. He's the first cellist with the Y Chamber Orchestra in New York that Gerry Schwarz conducts. He's also a very good cellist. I wrote it for him, and he played it with the Hudson Philharmonic last week. A friend of mine who's president of Bard College, Leon Botstein conducted. All three of them - Leon, the orchestra and André - really went to bat for this piece, and they did the best job that their talents could handle. To me, that is an exhilarating experience. I take people at the level that they're at, and whatever they do is the best that they can do.  That, to me, is really exciting. I don't say, "Oh well, they did the best they could do but it wasn't very good."  Everybody has different summits that they can reach, and these three reached incredible summits. It was just so exciting for me. I would rather have that than a major orchestra play my piece well and not do much with it and not reach their limits.  To me, that's not very musical.  Then it becomes a kind of olympic ski course that is traversed monotonously.  I'm not interested in that kind of music making.

BD:   Do the conductors generally have the right gestures for your music when they conduct it?

JT:   I don't know about gestures. All I know is what I hear.

BD:   Don't you watch the conductor as he's dancing your piece?

JT:   No. No. I don't watch usually. I listen and see what the results are. I watch when they do other music, but not my own.

BD:   You were talking earlier about the creator and the performer acting in harmony. Have the performers found things in your works that even you didn't know were there?

JT:   Oh, absolutely. That is the biggest compliment I can get from an orchestra player. After they've played the piece, rehearsed it, and worked on it a little so that they know what they're dealing with, they come up to me and they say, "You know, in measure 36, I think you might like the sound of this mute better than the one you suggested."  To me, that is the biggest compliment that any player can give me. It means that they're close enough to the piece that they're willing to go against the notation and actually come up to me, the composer who's alive, and make a suggestion for a change. To me, that is more of a compliment than coming up to me and saying, "Do you have something for trumpet?"  Really.

BD:   Do you accommodate the change they've suggested?

JT:   Absolutely. But I'll say, "Let's try it and then I'll tell you what I think because it may not work." But the fact that they're willing to make the change and suggest the change...  Do you know how hard it is for players to go against the notation?

BD:   It's been drummed into them that they have to follow the score exactly.

JT:   That's right. They forget that the notation is nothing. It's just a bunch of symbols.

BD:   What happens a hundred years from now and they want to make a change to a different mute or a different note?

JT:   That's what's happened, see. They're not allowed to do that because the composers they are dealing with, mostly, are dead.

BD:   Do you want changes in your score after you're dead?

JT:   Sometimes there are editorial mistakes in my scores.  There are some players that come along and say, "You know, I really feel that this passage should be faster."  And I'll say to them, "You're right. They left out the tempo change in the publication."

BD:   Should you attach in a little list of errata for each score and send it around?

JT:   Well, there's one piece that keeps getting played a lot and I have to make that change. There's something that was left out of the score.

BD:   Do you ever go back and revise scores?

JT:   I learned a long time ago that can be very dangerous. To revise cosmetically, yes, in order to focus the orchestration or focus the idea.  But to revise musically, you've got to be very careful because you're not inside the piece like you were when you wrote it. To come from a distance and make note or rhythm changes is dangerous.  Silver Ladders was  just premiered in St. Louis in January, and I felt the third movement wasn't focused and I didn't know why. I didn't know whether it was because the orchestration wasn't focused or whether it was because the music wasn't focused - and those two things are pretty inseparable.  So I decided for Chicago I would try to focus the orchestration, to make cosmetic changes and see if that would help the music.  Then if it didn't, I'd have to make musical changes. So, we'll see. But I'm lucky. It's going to be done again by St. Louis. They're going on tour with it so I can hear this and then make the changes, and then they're going to record it so I can make even further changes. I mean, how lucky can you be?

BD:   That's almost an ideal situation. But suppose someone comes along a hundred years from now and says, "Here's the urtext. Let's play it." Do you hate musicologists for that?

tower JT:   Well, I think that sometimes they can get a little bit mixed up between the pure, historical problems with a piece and just the musical problems with the piece. Bach is a good example of that. I think Bach would just flip if he could hear what we've been doing with his music. I'm sure he's up there doing piano versions of what we're doing. I think it's wonderful, you know, that the piano is tailor-made for Bach. His music is so pitch oriented, so harmonic oriented and the piano defines that because of the attack quality of the piano and this rich color that it has. I think it's just perfect for Bach. But the purists come and say, "Yes, but he didn't have that kind of instrument when he was alive."  That's not the issue. The issue is what is the music about.  Chopin, if you took his piano music and played it on any other instrument, would die immediately because the music is written only for the piano. It does not translate into anything else. But Bach's music does. It translates into a millions things.

BD:   Let's take this one step further then. Should we go back to listening to the Stokowski orchestrations of Bach?

JT:   (Both laugh) No, but there are some people who do it well.

BD:   For years, that was the only way you heard Bach. If you grew up in the '30s, you heard Bach with Stokowski playing these great big massive orchestrations of the preludes and fugues.

JT:   Well, Bach is so translatable into a lot of things. He really is. But I think the piano is perfect for him. It's just perfect.

BD:   Is Joan Tower translatable?

JT:   Not the way Bach is. My music is tied up with color quite a bit. I mentioned that Chopin can't be done except on the piano.  You can't reduce Berlioz's orchestrations to the piano. It just dies immediately because the action is so located in the color of the orchestra. My music is somewhere in between. It's not that extreme.

BD:   What's the real purpose of music?

JT:   That's a hard one. That's too general a question for me. You're asking me to define something I've spent my entire life with. I think it's different for different people, for one thing. I can only answer what I try to do with my music.  I try to choreograph a landscape of sound that reaches people in an emotional, visceral, and formal kind of way. The "formal" being the sense of coherence of this landscape.

BD:   Is composing fun?

JT:   Oh no. It's hard work. Very hard work. What's fun is hearing it played, That's fun.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you also do some teaching?

JT:   Yes, I do. I teach composition one day a week at Bard College which is about 2 hours north of New York.

BD:   Is composition really something that can be taught?

JT:   No, but what I can do is set up an environment that helps the student. At Bard, I had my group [The Da Capo Chamber Players] brought up for a residency there, and I had the students write pieces for them. Then I added some other students and we did orchestrations of works like Pictures at an Exhibition, and piano pieces that other composers had orchestrated. The students orchestrated them in their own way without listening to the other orchestrations.

BD:   But they might already have those in their ears.

cd JT:   No, I'm talking about beginners. Kids who have never been exposed to this kind of music. Or if they have been, not those particular pieces.

BD:   You mentioned Pictures at an Exhibition. I wouldn't think that there was anybody who hasn't heard at least one or several orchestrations of it.

JT:   Today there are a lot of kids who have never heard that piece or a lot of other pieces.

BD:   Are there too many young composers coming along today?

JT:   Well, no. I think there are too many performers coming along. There's an overload of performers coming out in terms of what jobs they can get. Actually, there are fewer composers coming up.

BD:   It seems like there's such a mountain of new composers trying to get their pieces in front of the public.

JT:   I don't see it quite that way. Maybe I'm seeing it rather opaquely, but maybe it's that they don't have enough opportunities. If a clarinet opening occurs at a symphony, 200 clarinetists show up. I don't see that kind of ratio happening in the composing world.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

JT:   I think there's going to have to be more tie in between classical music and pop music to bring the classical music into a more contemporary framework, and to bring pop music into a more sophisticated framework.

BD:   So you want to move both of them?

JT:   Yes. I'd like to move both of them a little bit. That's going to be a long ways down the road, if ever.

BD:   Is "rock" music?

JT:   Well, it's doing very well as a music. So it must be.

BD:   Does that make it music though?

JT:   Oh sure. I think it's a very definite form of music and I think it's a very lively form of music. I'm not up on all the rock that's going on and, in fact, I'm not that familiar with it at all. My only relation to rock is that I like to dance a lot. You see, I grew up in South America and I really like to dance. The minute I start hearing rock, I want to get up and dance because it has a very strong beat to it. So I stop listening and I get up and dance. That's a real problem because then I don't hear anything.

BD:   You just feel it.

JT:   Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We touched on this earlier, but how are publics different from city to city, aside from just being a little more conservative or a little more liberal?

JT:   They're very different. Minneapolis is very different from New York which is very different from St. Louis which is very different from Tucson which is very different from Albany.  It's just amazing just how different they are. That's very healthy, I think. They've got different energy levels, different adventure levels, different conservative levels.

BD:   Is the symphony audience in a city different from the chamber music audience in that same city?

JT:   The symphony audience is traditionally the more conservative element of that city on some level. They get dressed up and they're sort of well-to-do, middle to upper class. It's definitely a certain segment of society of that city. But I'm just talking about a sheer energy and personal response to the music. That's very different.

BD:   If you give the same concert over several nights, is the energy level different from night to night or at the matinee performance thrown in the middle?

JT:   Apparently there is a difference in each city. The symphony will say, "Oh, you'll love the audience on Saturday. They're really high energy. The Friday audience, on the other hand, is dull and passive."  They have definite personalities. I don't always sense it quite that blatantly, but it's there. And there's the blue-haired-ladies audience which exists on a lot of orchestra concerts from city to city.

BD:   Are they harder to get through to?

JT:   No . . .  It depends on the city. I went to Cincinnati. That city has a wonderful orchestra, and this lady had a pre-concert lecture/reception for me. There were about 100 ladies in their 60s sitting there. It was like a sea of snow. There was just one man in the audience. Well, the presenter was a real go-getter. I mean, she would have been a great political rally type person. She started, "I want to introduce our next speaker." She had my whole bio down pat. She didn't make one mistake and she was so excited about having me and she said, "And I think this is the first time..." and I thought she was going to say ‘that we've had a woman composer here.'  But she said, "...that we've had a composer here." (Both laugh) I went, "Augggh!!!"  But they were a wonderful audience. Very high energy and very in tune with what I was saying. They were very musical and well educated in terms of listening. From the samples I was playing, I just knew just how high geared they were. So it differs. There are some places you go and they don't know what in the hell you're talking about.

BD:   Do you want to be known as a woman composer or just simply a composer?

JT:   I think some people are not aware that there are no women composers on their concerts. So for that reason, I do like to be reminded this is a woman composer. "Have you ever heard a woman composer? Oh, yes, come to think of it, no." I think that's an important reminder. Other than that, the music is the music and the fact that I'm a woman doesn't make the difference to the music.

BD:   Has there been any discrimination because you're a woman composer?

JT:   No. I don't think so. There's too much discrimination against composers in general, and the woman issue is at the bottom of that. But it's very tiny at the bottom of that.

BD:   Do you feel any sense of debt or gratitude to woman like Louise Talma or Miriam Gideon who were both born in October of 1906?

cd JT:    Absolutely. I know Louise and Miriam very well and I've done a lot of their music for the simple reason that they're talented composers and that they needed encouragement.  They still do. I have a record that Da Capo did that I'm very proud of. There are 2 commission pieces for our group, one by Louise and the other by Miriam, and then on each side of the LP there are these small little tiny pieces by Copland and Cowell. (Both laugh) I'm very proud of that because I'm a great admirer of Copland. I wrote Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which is a takeoff on his Fanfare for the Common Man.  But nevertheless, Miriam and Louise grew up with him and they're colleagues of his and I don't think they got nearly their fair shake. He's a far more talented composer than either one of them. But there are other composers of their vintage, at their level, who got far more attention than they got. And so I'm proud of that record and the fact that we've done a lot of their music. Those older women had a hard time.

BD:   Well, just as Gideon and Talma blazed the trail for you, are you blazing the trail for women yet to come?

JT:   Well, I think Ellen Zwilich and I are blazing a lot of trails, especially in the symphonic world.

BD:   Are you and Ellen the "Miriam and Louise" of your generation?

JT:   Probably, yes. I would say that.  Ellen and I are forging yet new ground, which is very good because it means it's opening some doors for some women. It's just reminding people that there are women who can compose and here's what they can do and you can buy their records  I think that's real important. I don't mean it to sound egotistical, but I'm very happy to be doing that for other women. I help women as much as I can in my own capacity.

BD:    Are we making enough progress?

JT:   We're getting there, but there are a lot of women out there who are very passive. They say, "Who's going to listen to me. I'm not good enough."  There's a lot of that kind of thing among women composers that I've noticed at conferences and other meetings.

BD:   Men composers don't feel that?

JT:   Well, they certainly don't broadcast it. If they do feel it, they don't talk about it. But there's a problem with women because they don't have a lot of role models certainly, especially among dead composers, and they don't have enough of a support system within their own community saying, "Hey, do this. We want you to do this."  So they have to forge their way very much by themselves and some of them just don't have the strength to do that.

BD:   I assume it takes a lot of tenacity just to be a composer.

JT:   Sure. And then if you don't have anybody saying, "Hey, write me a piece," it gets to be very discouraging.

BD:   You don't have that problem, though?

JT:   Well, with me it was a little different because I worked. I was a performer. I formed my own group. I learned how to deal with players and I've developed a lot of player contacts so that I had a network. It wasn't like I had to go to someone with my score in hand and say, "Would you play my piece?"  It was the other way around. The players were coming to me saying, "Will you write me a piece?"  I pursued playing with a group because I wanted to hear my music and I wanted to play. I wanted to do both activities.

BD:   Was this a group you formed after you finished school or something that came out of the school environment?

JT:   After I left Bennington, I went to New York and taught at a settlement house. I set up a series of contemporary concerts and I got the best players I could find in New York. I raised the money, and out of those players and I formed Da Capo, which became a separate chamber music group.

BD:   I was just wondering how it started because Steve Reich did the same thing, only his group started in school. He just kept the group going.

tower JT:   Exactly. We premiered a piece of his and I said, "Well, I see you're still hanging in there with your group." And he said, "Oh, I'll still be in with that group until I'm in a wheelchair." I gave up my group two years ago, but there's a big difference. My group is virtuosic and they're very good players and they wanted to go on playing bigger and bigger pieces. I, as a pianist, was wanting to play lesser and lesser and lesser pieces. So it got to be a joke. "Well, we can't do that piece because Joan only wants to play whole notes." (Both laugh) I was holding them down, so I said, "This is enough. You better get a pianist."

BD:   So you left the group and they got a new piano player.

JT:   That's right. They got a piano player who had chops, who could play the fast notes. But Steve's thing is different. His chops don't effect the group because it's a different kind of music that doesn't require those kinds of chops. I'm not belittling his playing because there's a different kind of technique that goes into, and a lot of chops that goes into the kind of thing he does. But it's not like he has to practice Hannon for an hour to get those kinds of chops going, you know. (Both laugh)

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

JT:   Well, thank you for your questions. They were very interesting.

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This interview was first published in  New Music Connoisseur  Magazine, Spring, 2001, and revised in February, 2006.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.


Hailed as "one of the most successful woman composers of all time" in The New Yorker magazine, Joan Tower was the first woman to receive the Grawemeyer Award in Composition in 1990. She was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998, and into the Academy of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in the fall of 2004.

She was the first composer chosen for the ambitious new Ford Made in America commissioning program, a collaboration of the League of American Orchestras (at that time, the American Symphony Orchestra League) and Meet the Composer. In October 2005, the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of Tower's 15-minute orchestral piece Made in America. The work went on to performances in every state in the Union during the 2005-07 seasons.

The Nashville Symphony and conductor Leonard Slatkin recorded Made in America, Tambor, and Concerto for Orchestra for the Naxos label. The top selling recording won three 2008 Grammy awards: Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance.

Tower has added conductor to her list of accomplishments, with engagements at the American Symphony, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the Scotia Festival Orchestra, the Anchorage Symphony, Kalisto Chamber Orchestra and another eight of the Made in America orchestras, among others.

Since 1972, Tower has taught at Bard College, where she is Asher Edelman Professor of Music. She recently concluded her ten-year tenure as composer-in-residence with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, a title she hasheld at the Deer Valley Music Festival in Utah since 1998 as well as at the Yale/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for eight years. Other accolades include the 1998 Delaware Symphony's Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer, the 2002 Annual Composer's Award from the Lancaster (PA) Symphony, and an Honorary Degree from the New England Conservatory (2006). "Tower has truly earned a place among the most original and forceful voices in modern American music" (The Detroit News).Among her recent premieres: Angels (2008), her fourth string quartet, commissioned by Music for Angel Fire and premiered by the Miami String Quartet; Dumbarton Quintet (2008), a piano quintet commissioned by the Dumbarton Oaks Estate (their third commission after Stravinsky and Copland) and premiered by Tower and the Enso String Quartet; Chamber Dance(2006), commissioned, premiered, and toured by Orpheus; and Copperwave (2006), written for the American Brass Quintet and commissioned by the Juilliard School of Music. As part of her appointment as Season Composer for 2007-08 by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, A Gift (2007), for winds and piano, was commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest and premiered by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center players Tara O'Connor, David Shifrin, William Purvis, Milan Turkovich, and Anne Marie McDermott in February 2008. Other CMS premieres included Trio Cavany(2007), performed by Cho-Liang Lin, Gary Hoffman, and André Michel Schub, and Simply Purple (2008) for viola, performed by Paul Neubauer.

Her compositions cross many genres: Can I (2007) for youth chorus and two percussionists; Copperwave (2006), written for brass quintet; DNA (2003), a percussion quintet commissioned for Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, Fascinating Ribbons (2001), her foray into the world of band music, premiered at the annual conference of College Band Directors; Vast Antique Cubes/Throbbing Still (2000), a solo piano piece for John Browning; Big Sky (2000), a piano trio premiered by David Finckel, Wu Han, and Chee-Yun; Tambor (1998), for the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of Mariss Jansons; and Wild Purple (1998) for violist Paul Neubauer. Tower's 1990 Grawemeyer Award-winning Silver Ladders was written during her 1985-88 St. Louis Symphony residency, and was subsequently choreographed in 1998 by Helgi Tomassonand the San Francisco Ballet. Her 1993 ballet Stepping Stones was commissioned by choreographer Kathryn Posin for the Milwaukee Ballet.

Joan Tower's bold and energetic music, with its striking imagery and novel structural forms, has won large, enthusiastic audiences. From 1969 to 1984, she was pianist and founding member of the Naumburg Award-winning Da Capo Chamber Players, which commissioned and premiered many of her most popular works. Her first orchestral work, Sequoia, quickly entered the repertory, with performances by orchestras including St. Louis, New York, San Francisco, Minnesota, Tokyo NHK, Toronto, the National Symphony and London Philharmonia. A choreographed version by The Royal Winnipeg Ballet toured throughout Canada, Europe, and Russia. Tower's tremendously popular five Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman have been played by over 500 different ensembles.

In addition to two Naxos recordings, Tower's popular Petroushskates opened the new first recording by the innovative group, eighth blackbird, on the Cedille label. Fanfares Nos. 1-5, Duets, and Concerto for Orchestra with the Colorado Symphony (Marin Alsop) may be heard on Koch; and the disc "Four Concertos" — with Elmar Oliveira, Ursula Oppens, David Shifrin, Carol Wincenc and the Louisville Orchestra — is available on d'Note Records. Turning Points (1995), a clarinet quintet for David Shifrin and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is on Delos. New World Records features her chamber music, including her first string quartet Night Fields. First Edition celebrated her legacies with the St. Louis and Louisville Symphonies with an all-Tower orchestral disc which includes Sequoia, Silver Ladders, Music for Cello and Orchestra, and Island Prelude for oboe and strings featuring soloists Lynn Harrell and Peter Bowman. Joan Tower has been the subject of television documentaries on PBS's WGBH television station in Boston, on the CBS network program, Sunday Morning, and MJW Productions in England.

Her music is published by Associated Music Publishers.

-October 2009