Joan Tower (born 1938) was an American composer whose use of percussion was reminiscent of Stravinsky and whose music frequently drew its titles from the natural world. Her composition Sequoia for orchestra received many performances and won her national acclaim.
Joan Tower was a composer who combined performance with composition; she was a founder of the DaCapo Chamber Players, a chamber group which performed music of many periods. Her belief in the importance of performance to a composer is best summed up in her own words: "Today we live in a performance world, primarily. People are out of touch with composers, and tend to forget that we're flesh-and-blood human beings. As a performer and composer, I have been in both those worlds, for twenty years, and I see this lack of contact as a big problem….Composing and performing do go hand-in-hand—that's the nature of the musical beast!" Even though she decided in 1984, after 20 years of both performing and composing, to devote herself solely to composition, her commitment to a close relationship between composer and performer was still very strong.
Tower was born in New Rochelle, NY, but grew up in South America where her father was an engineer. Wherever they were living in South America, he always made sure that his daughter had a piano and a teacher. She returned to the United States and attended Bennington College where she received her BA, and later she studied at Columbia University where she received her MA and DMA degrees. Her compositional teachers included Riegger, Shapey, Milhaud, Brant, and Calabro at Bennington and Luening, Ussachevsky, and Chou Wen-Chung at Columbia. She taught at Bard College beginning in 1972 and organized the DaCapo Chamber Players.
She received commissions, awards, and grants from such organizations as the Guggenheim Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Massachusetts State Arts Council, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition, she received commissions from Richard Stoltzman and Maurice Andre and from the Walter M. Naumburg Foundation for a clarinet concerto. She was chosen composer in residence for 1985-1986 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under the Meet the Composer program. She was also asked to be a member of several boards, including those for the American Composers Orchestra, Chamber Music America, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
The best known orchestral work by Joan Tower is Sequoia, whose title comes from the giant redwood trees of California. She wrote of the piece, "the achievement of such great heights by the giant majestic sequoias seems to me an incredible feat of balance. My piece … is about simple lines and textures that are at times big, at times very small; and these are held together—'balanced'—by factors such as slowly shifting pedal points and the interaction of the different musical events, objects, and energies at any given moment." The piece begins on a held note—G—which is gradually expanded. Musical sections "branch" off from the main note and balance each other through varying dynamics and textures. One of the most interesting features of Sequoia is its use of percussion. There are 54 percussion instruments used in the piece, which produce an excitement and energy that is arresting. Her exposure to the complex rhythms of South American music may have awakened in her an interest in rhythmic effects. Sequoia was performed not only by the American Composers Orchestra, which commissioned the piece, but also by the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, among others.
Although most of her compositions were written for chamber groups, she rewrote her quintet, Amazon, for orchestra. It was given its first performance by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic under the title of Amazon II in 1979. As with Sequoia, a natural phenomena provided the inspiration for the composition. Her piece Music for Cello and Orchestra (1984) was given its debut performance by Andre Emelianoff, cellist, and Gerard Schwarz, conducting the "Y" Chamber Symphony. Bernard Holland in a review of the work for the New York Times wrote, "Joan Tower's 'Music for Cello and Orchestra' … [has an] angular sense of drama, bright primary colors and edge-of-the-chair intensity…. Miss Tower's piece, to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, does not repeat, but insists. Repetitive figures in shifting instrumental colors begin it, but the movement is constantly altered by subtle changes of rhythm and phrase length." Tower increasingly directed her attention to orchestral writing and accepted commissions for four concertos as well as an orchestral work.
Tower's chamber music is written for a variety of instruments, including three solo pieces for flute, violin, and clarinet. The first of these solos, Hexachords (1972), was written for flute. In this piece, as in her other early works, she used "maps, " meaning a predetermined series of notes. In this case, it was a "six-note unordered chromatic collection of pitches." Around 1974 her style changed, becoming more fluid and using descriptive titles and through-composed techniques. Platinum Spirals (1976) for solo violin was written in memory of her father. Tower looked through his books on the atomic structure of elements for inspiration for the work and found that platinum with its property of plasticity conveyed the quality she was seeking. Red Garnet Waltz (1977), a piece for piano, is a modern response to a romantic idea, and Wings (1981) for clarinet was written for Laura Flax (clarinetist for the DaCapo Players) and evokes the flight of the falcon, a bird that can glide slowly on thermal currents, but can also fly at 180 miles per hour when necessary.
She wrote two duets: Snow Dreams (1983) for flute and guitar and Fantasy (1983) for clarinet and piano. Breakfast Rhythms I & II (1974-1975) for clarinet, flute, piccolo, violin, violoncello, piano, and percussion is a transitional piece in Tower's mind. Her goal of simplifying her musical expression dated from this period. The piece is based on central tones surrounded by other supporting tones—in Breakfast Rhythms I the central tone is B, and in Breakfast Rhythms II it is G sharp. Black Topaz (1976) for piano and six instruments followed, but it was Petroushskates (1980) for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and violoncello that was performed most frequently. As its name indicates, it is humorous and lively in addition to being a tribute to Stravinsky and to the Olympic skaters who were the inspiration for the title and the music. Noon Dance (1982) for flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano, and percussion combines various solo sections with dialogues between instruments creating various shades of musical color. She released her Tower Violin Concerto in 1992. In 1995, Tower was featured in a dance performance by the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, Celebrations in Collaboration, along with Gary Schall.
Joan Tower wrote music of excellent quality. Her musical style was forged out of her own experiences with the music of Latin America and the music of Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Messiaen. She retained those qualities she admired from her mentors and added her own particular sound with the result that her music is modern in its tonality and straightforward in its compositional structure.
Further Reading on Joan Tower
No books are published at the moment that deal with Tower's music analytically. In 1992, she was profiled in an article by William S. Goodfellow for American Record Guide. Several recordings of her works are available and have been released by Advance; Composers Recordings, Inc.; Nonesuch; and Pro Viva. She was published by G. Schirmer.