Composer of the Year:
Joan Tower

By William Robin

Trained in an era when academic modernism reigned, she developed from a composer of intensely wrought chamber works into a creator of dramatic orchestral music that can only be described as, well, towering.

2020 Muscial America Composer of the Year:<br>Joan Tower
@Bernie Mindich.

For many composers, getting a piece played by a single American orchestra is a major coup. A repeat in another city is a rare victory; a third outing is a miracle. So it’s not clear what one should call the run that Joan Tower’s Made in America had in the early 2000s, when it was performed by more than 65 orchestras in all 50 states. Made in America, a powerful gloss on the song “America the Beautiful,” was co-commissioned by a massive consortium of regional symphonies, and toured across the country between 2005 and 2007.

“As life goes on, the rewards come in,” Tower told me in 2018, for a New York Times piece in advance of her 80th birthday. “The credentials, like winning certain prizes, are very nice, but the important rewards are that your music gets picked up and played a lot. That’s what makes your life in music.” Trained in an era when academic modernism reigned, Tower developed from a composer of  intensely wrought chamber works into a creator of dramatic orchestral music that can only be described as, well, towering.

An unusual childhood
Born in New Rochelle, New York, Tower had an unusual childhood. Her father was a mining engineer, and the family moved to Bolivia when she was nine. A babysitter there would take her to outdoor festivals, where the preteen Tower found an innate sense of rhythm from hearing indigenous music, just as she was beginning to master the works of Chopin and Beethoven as a pianist. Later in life, she frequented downtown clubs with her first husband, a jazz musician, to hear legends like Thelonious Monk. These three streams of influence—the percussive energy of South American music, the architecture of Beethovenian narrative, and the outré harmony of modern jazz—drew together into an immediate and propulsive syntax.

But first came the academy. Tower saw herself exclusively as a pianist in college, and started composing only because it was a requirement for students at Bennington. Her first piece did not turn out as she had hoped. “I said, ‘I know I can do better than that,’” she told me. “So I did that for the next 40 years, trying to create a piece that wasn’t a disaster.” Amid a generation of egotistical peers, Tower is surprisingly modest, always frank, and singularly driven. In subsequent studies at Columbia, she gravitated toward the cerebral atonality that was in vogue in the ’70s, preached by composers like Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen. Early works like the Breakfast Rhythms series were intensely worked out with pre-compositional maps, and tend towards the austere and pointillistic, but with an unusually strong rhythmic profile. Tower soon became dissatisfied with the academy: She didn’t want to spend her career focused on the kind of abstruse analyses that her fellow doctoral students were writing.

Hearing the work of Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb provoked a revelation: Tower wanted her music to be simple and direct, and she broke away from serialism to find a more intuitive process and visceral language. Crucial to the aesthetic shift was that she never stopped playing piano: In 1969 she founded the Da Capo Chamber Players, a groundbreaking group for the performance of contemporary music, and subsequently wrote some of her finest works for them, such as the bustling, Stravinsky-inflected Petroushskates. Working as part of a virtuosic chamber ensemble, she developed a deep understanding of individual instruments, and solos such as the clarinet piece Wings have entered the canon.

Forging her own path
Neither a neo-Romantic nor a minimalist—the two main trajectories for composers who turned against serialism—Tower forged her own path. When the American Composers Orchestra asked her to write a piece in the early ’80s, she at first turned them down: Despite being more than 40 years old, she felt she still wasn’t ready to tackle the orchestral medium. But Tower relented, and her first large-ensemble work, the seething Sequoia, became a hit, picked up by the New York Philharmonic and played across the globe. Suddenly, the composer-pianist was a symphonic star, shepherded by a residency at the St. Louis Symphony, where she wrote collaboratively for the individual players of the orchestra in works like the muscular Silver Ladders, which made her the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award. And she has pursued that path ever since, regularly issuing forceful new orchestral scores alongside intricately expressive chamber music. Made in America—partly inspired by an early memory of seeing the Statue of Liberty when returning to the States from South America—was a natural next step.

Tower lives in Red Hook, New York, and teaches nearby at Bard College, where she has been a beloved professor for many years. She continues to write at the piano, and has always thought of herself as both composer and performer: She emphasizes to her students that music, by necessity, must be deeply attuned to how it is realized by real-life musicians.

Well after she had achieved fame, Tower began to realize that it was not a coincidence that most of her peers in the composition world were male. In the late 1980s, she audited a class on women and music taught by the feminist musicologist Nancy Reich, and found herself constantly raising her hand, shocked by a history that had never been taught to her before. A lifelong champion of living composers, Tower became an advocate for women composers specifically, taking stands on granting panels and fighting for compatriots like Tania León and Jennifer Higdon. She concluded that her own doubts about composition—her tendency to say no to big opportunities—might have been shaped by her gender. “For women, in a field like composition, which has been male dominated for years and years and years, it’s a hard thing to walk into and feel that you are as empowered as your male colleagues are,” she told me. She wrote a series of Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman, a self-explanatory twist on the Copland classic, which have been performed hundreds of times.

Today, as more and more large classical-music institutions understand the necessity of programming work by underrepresented composers, Tower’s efforts seem prophetic. “There are more visible women being performed by orchestras now, but it’s still small,” she said. Her next big project will participate in such essential change: She is writing a new piece for the New York Philharmonic as part of the orchestra’s “Project 19,” which has commissioned 19 women composers in honor of the centennial of the 19th amendment.

And she has never given up that relentless drive, devoting several hours to composing each day. Six decades after she struggled to write her first piece, composition still doesn’t come easy. When we spoke, she was trying to improve her writing for the double bass, piccolo, and French horn. “Those are weak areas for me,” she said. As Tower continually pushes her work to new levels of mastery, we as audience benefit. •

William Robin is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He writes about contemporary music for the New York Times, and is currently writing a book on the history of Bang on a Can.