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Composer Joan Tower is finally going easy on herself

American composer Joan Tower, about to turn 85, is still busy fielding commissions and writing music.
Lauren Lancaster
American composer Joan Tower, about to turn 85, is still busy fielding commissions and writing music.

Joan Tower's first major orchestral work, Sequoia, from 1981, opens with the boom of a massive gong and a fusillade of deafening cowbells. Like the statuesque redwoods of the title, the music looms majestically large — so much so that hearing it performed can sometimes startle the composer herself. "That's about the loudest thing you can create," Tower explains, "and every time I hear that, I go, 'No! Can we tone that down a little bit?'"

That playful apology is typical Tower. For a composer with a rack of honorary doctorates, three Grammys, the Grawemeyer Award for music (she was the first woman to receive it, in 1990) and a host of other accolades, Tower is surprisingly self-doubting when it comes to her music — and yet quite forthcoming about her inspirations. The rhythmic drive at the core of her work comes from her idols,Beethoven andStravinsky, while other, deeper impulses stem from her years in Bolivia, where her family moved from Larchmont, N.Y., when she was 9. She kept up her piano studies there with a strict German teacher, but let loose with local Incan musicians, playing percussion and learning to dance.

Tower possesses a long view of the classical field. The 84-year-old composer — quick with quips and laughter — has been writing music for over six decades and remains industrious. She's currently in the middle of a piece for violin and percussionists, with a commission for a saxophone concerto up next. Meanwhile, her music is slated to be played across the U.S. and in Switzerland and the Netherlands in the upcoming season. And, since 1972, Tower has taught at Bard College in Upstate New York. That's where she joined a video call recently to talk about her far-reaching career, including why she left the modernist school of composers, her path to self-confidence and mysterious visitations from dead composers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: The last time we spoke, three years ago, was for a story about how the classical world was recognizing the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. You mentioned then that you keep an image of Beethoven above your composing desk. Why him?

Joan Tower: Beethoven is probably my favorite dead composer. I grew up playing him at the piano — a lot of his sonatas, even a couple of concertos. He had a profound effect on me later in life, and he definitely was a huge influence on me compositionally.

Though your music isn't anything like Beethoven's.

It's in what I call a "motivated architecture," where you can shift in a meaningful, structured way and still create risks along that track, which Beethoven does all the time. He's always stepping into risk zones. So even though I don't sound like Beethoven, I'm trying to emulate his type of structure.

And it seems that borrowing from Beethoven can land you in a particular state of mind. I understand that you've had a kind of "visitation" with the spirit of Beethoven, a composer-to-composer encounter.

With myfirst piano concerto, he walked into the room, and I said to him, "You know, you're going to have to leave because I need to do this myself, without you." And he said, "No, I'm just going to stick around." He wouldn't leave. So I decided to accept into my concerto three of his pieces I had been involved with as a pianist. They're sort of framed in a dream — two of them come in the cadenzas and the other one is more subtle in the first movement. So I welcomed him instead of rejecting him, and I learned that could be an important thing to do with other pieces too.

Have you been visited by any other dead composers?

Yes, Stravinsky. He's all through my music in many ways — very sharp profiles and a strong sense of rhythmic energy, architecturally. Not just how do you make a rhythm, but how you juxtapose it against other rhythms to make it really exciting.

When these composers from the past are visiting you, do they really feel present, or is their music just swirling around in your head?

I wrote a piece calledBlack Topaz, at the piano, and I played this chord. It was Stravinsky's, from The Rite of Spring. And my hands flew off the piano and I said, "OK, can't use that chord." But the monkey on my back said, "Yeah, you can use it, but don't repeat it." And the other side said, "Repeat it and use it." So I did repeat it, but it was in a totally different context. And that became a huge learning point for me, that if you put something into a context, it's different.

We composers come from music, and if we play it, that's another way we live within it. That's definitely going to come out in our music in some way. Finding your own voice is important, because you don't want to keep sounding like Stravinsky or Beethoven or whatever. But you can use them as role models.

You mentioned finding your own voice. How would you describe the Joan Tower sound?

I think it's hard to know. It's sort of like describing yourself: You'll say, "Well, I'm funny, I'm intelligent, I'm empathetic." You pick all these positive things, right? You don't say, "I'm a depressive and I drink too much." It's the same thing with music. But I can describe what I care about. My music is about rhythm, predominantly, the rhythm of ideas. And it's also organic, and it has a large-scale narrative. Usually, I only write in one movement, so I try to create an overall architecture for that one moment. It's also very important for me to be clear: I don't think my music ever gets complicated enough that you don't hear everything.

Tower beside a poster at Lincoln Center announcing the performance of her orchestral work <em>Sequoia</em> with the New York Philharmonic.
/ G. Schirmer Archives
G. Schirmer Archives
Tower beside a poster at Lincoln Center announcing the performance of her orchestral work Sequoia with the New York Philharmonic.

Tell me about your early days as a composer and what the music scene was like for you. I understand you began writing in the challenging, atonal style of the day.

I wound up in the uptown New York scene in the '60s and '70s when the Uptown School was 12-tone people, influenced bySchoenberg,Berg andWebern. And then there was the Midtown School, which wasCopeland,Barber and those people, and the Downtown School, which wasCage,Feldman and those guys. It was a very distinct separation, like you were in different countries. I happened to be at Columbia University studying for a master's degree. I felt a little bit out of place in the uptown crowd, actually, but I didn't know that at the time. I played all that music, a lot of Schoenberg, Berg andBabbitt. But at some point I said, "I can't. I don't understand this music."

Then I heardOlivier Messiaen'sQuartet for the End of Time, and I was just blown away. It was so powerful and so simple on certain textural levels, unlike the dense, complicated music I was playing. And I heard a piece by George Crumb calledVoice of the Whale. These pieces were outliers — in another world. And I said, "I think I'm in the wrong world." So I left. It took a lot out of me, because that was my world and my family.

One thing that must have helped you discover your voice as a composer was the fact that you co-founded an ensemble — the Da Capo Chamber Players — and performed in it for many years.

Yes, absolutely, because I was on the other side of the page, playing music by contemporary composers. I learned how players thought by being a player myself. We would invite composers in and rehearse with them. I learned so much more from that than I did from the Latin texts I was trying to read at Columbia, or the Gregorian chants I was trying to transcribe.

When did you really start to think of yourself as a composer?

When I was coming up in the '70s and '80s, there weren't many women composers around. The women's movement had just come in through the '60s, and I started reading lots of books on women in music. There was Nancy Reich, a pioneer feminist musicologist and the author of the biography of Clara Schumann. I took her class [at Bard] and everything she said was so fascinating. I had my hand up in the air the whole time; I was a real pain in the butt. Gradually I realized that I was on some kind of cutting edge, because I looked around and there were no women — no women in the books, no women in the classes. I said, "Wait, what's going on here?" And so I went to every women's festival I got invited to and kept learning about the history of instruments, the history of teaching and playing. I was just waking up to the whole history, which was fascinating.

This reminds me of something composerJulia Wolfe told me. She said, "People like Joan Tower,Tania León andMeredith Monk, they really had to get the machete out and carve a path. Nobody was really, truly recognizing women composers in that generation." Can you talk a little about what "carving that path" was like for you?

All my male colleagues were getting prizes and big commissions, and at first, I accepted that. I just thought they were better composers than I was. I had to keep writing my little pieces, mostly for solo or for my group. I didn't see the whole picture. Later on, I started getting more recognition — and it's good to have a life that's going up rather than down — so looking back on that, I was actually kind of grateful that I didn't recognize the problem at that time.

You didn't wonder why the men's pieces were getting performed and yours weren't?

No, because I thought that that's the way it was. By the '80s, I was getting more informed, and then I became an advocate. I fought hard for living composers, but also for women. I started doing festivals. Later, significant biographies started to come out by women, about women and the whole landscape. There were also people in the musicology world who started to come forward for feminist musicology.

Now, the whole landscape has changed. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of women being played by the major orchestras, which never happened before. All of a sudden, it's like all those CEOs and managers are saying, "We need to get a woman." Even the traditional orchestras, like the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have changed their whole M.O.

In your early years, could you look up to any women as role models?

No, there weren't any. I had it out with Claude Palisca, who co-wrote an edition of A History of Western Music. When the new edition came out, there were only two more women mentioned in that edition. So I called him on it. The only women that came up in my education, and they were only mentioned, were Ruth Crawford Seeger,Clara Schumann — as a pianist, not as a composer —Fanny Mendelssohn somewhat, Lili Boulanger andHildegard von Bingen.

Let's talk about your first major orchestral piece, Sequoia, in 1981. That must have felt like a big turning point for you.

Oh, my God, yes. Francis Thorne — he founded the American Composers Orchestra — came to me and he said, "Joan, it's time you wrote an orchestra piece." I was in my 30s already, and I turned him down because I didn't feel ready. I only knew a certain number of instruments; I didn't understand brass too well. He pushed me and pushed me, and finally I said OK. It was a really tough piece to write.

Tower backstage at the Nashville Symphony in 2006 with conductor Leonard Slatkin, who became a champion of her music.
/ G. Schirmer Archives
G. Schirmer Archives
Tower backstage at the Nashville Symphony in 2006 with conductor Leonard Slatkin, who became a champion of her music.

It's funny — you have a reputation for being a little doubting about your work, but your music, to me, always sounds dynamically confident. It's so well-built with what I think of as a distinctive Joan Tower "muscle."

Thank you, but it's just completely deceptive. I remember conductorLeonard Slatkin once told a bunch of people, "Joan Tower is one of the least secure composers I've ever worked with." [Laughs]

And he turned out to be one of your biggest champions. Speaking of confidence, I'm not sure any other living American composer can boast that a single piece of theirs has been performed in all 50 states. Made in America, a work you wrote in 2004, was designed to tour across the nation. Sixty-five different orchestras performed it. How many of those performances did you get to hear?

I went to 20 of them. I conducted eight of them.

What was it like hearing your music played by such a wide variety of orchestras, with widely varying abilities?

It was an amazing experience. I got to know this country on another level. I went to smaller towns, not big cities, and the people in those orchestras were totally dedicated. It was like the home team for that city. It was such a joy, because my piece was a challenge for them. One orchestra took eight months to learn it because they had amateur players, but this [conductor] was determined to give the best performance, and he had them working every day. When I heard them play, I was in tears because I knew the effort they had put into it was so big, compared to the more professional orchestras, which kind of sight-read through it.

Was the piece harder to compose, knowing that both professional and community orchestras would be playing it?

Absolutely, but I went to my musician friends for advice on all the parts. They immediately said, "Oh, just give that to the first violin, not the whole section." "Take that away from them and give it to those." "That's too high. That's too fast." They actually saved me.

I made "America the Beautiful" the theme of the piece because I figured that would be something that everybody would know, and here's an interesting challenge in the music with this theme — sometimes it gets challenged, even squelched, and sometimes it gets promoted. This is the background idea of how I was trying to deal with this country when I came back from South America. I was a very proud American, yet I found out that America was not quite what I thought it was.

You are about to celebrate your 85th birthday. You've been composing music for over 60 years now. What's changed for you?

I've been gaining more confidence as I go, in terms of clarity. I just wrote a cello concerto called A New Day, written for my [late] husband. I really like that piece, and I don't say that very often. I also wrote a little piano piece for him, which I love. I guess I'm getting a little easier on myself.

Do you still wake up every morning energized to write music?

Oh, no, no! [Laughs] I'm energized to go for a walk, or have some coffee or something. Writing music is tough.

Tower conducts her piece <em>Duets</em> at Bard College in 2013.
Bard College / G.Schirmer archives
G.Schirmer archives
Tower conducts her piece Duets at Bard College in 2013.

Another major branch of your career is education. You've taught at Bard College in Upstate New York for over 50 years. I'm wondering how you've seen music education in America change?

There have been some curricular changes, especially in the last eight years or so. The music programs across universities have become much more multicultural, and they're hiring more people from different countries, different genres. It's becoming less European-dominated and I'm so happy to see that, because that's flooding in air that we need let in.

Are you seeing more women in your composition classes?

Some, but the number of applicants is still smaller than the males. But we're bringingMissy Mazzoli on board this coming year, so I think we're going to see a real uptick there. AndJessie Montgomery may be joining us too.

I've been thinking about the short-term future of the classical music field. In the past three years or so, orchestras, opera companies and presenters have made a noticeable shift to include more music by composers of color and more women composers. Do you think this new paradigm will hold?

We've been through several of these paradigms already. They do shift for a while, and then they balance out to something else. It's going to change, and how that's going to happen I have no idea. But I am so glad the shift happened, because people of color were hidden. Many of them were hidden for many years.

But will the pendulum shift back to the old bad habits — fewer composers of color and women composers, and extra helpings of Beethoven and Brahms?

The orchestras still have a long way to go. You know, 90% dead composers — that's not a good balance. I've gotten to know the orchestra world pretty well, and you have to bring in new music. You can't keep living in the past. It actually hurts Beethoven. Beethoven will die too if you just keep him in the museum.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.