Q&A; with Joan Tower : ‘I Do Believe It Is Torture’


Joan Tower is a member of an exceptionally small number of female composers whose works get played--and played a lot--by major orchestras. Comparatively speaking, that is. The compositional world is still dominated by men, alive and dead. But Tower is helping to widen the field.

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1938, Tower grew up in Bolivia, Chile and Peru, as her father, a geologist and mining engineer, worked for eight years in these countries.

A piano student, Tower composed her first work at age 18, and then only because it was required of all incoming music freshmen at Bennington College in Vermont.


She founded the Da Capo Chamber Players in New York in 1969 to play contemporary music. She stayed with the group for 15 years, writing small-scaled pieces for it.

She wrote her first orchestral work, “Sequoia,” in 1981, on a commission from the Jerome Foundation, for the American Composers Orchestra.

Commissions, performances, awards and recognition followed steadily. “Silver Ladders,” composed in 1987 in the middle of a three-year residency with the St. Louis Symphony, won the $150,000 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1990.

Her latest work is “Duets,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which will give the world premiere performance Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, with performances to follow Friday in West Los Angeles and Saturday in Pasadena.

Tower spoke to Chris Pasles about her work and her life in a recent phone interview from Maui, where she was working on a clarinet quintet that David Shifrin and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will premiere April 21 in New York. Question: Do you like to talk about your music?


Answer: No. I like to talk around it. I’m very hesitant to talk about “Duets.” I haven’t heard it, and I don’t always know what’s going to happen. Writing program notes is very difficult for me, too, particularly for a new piece. It’s like you’re trying to decide something that hasn’t been made a reality yet, and the reality I always find is different from your perceptions of it. At least mine are.

Maybe I shouldn’t confess this, but writing music--if you’re a composer who notates--is a little bit like being an architect. You’re here at home struggling with this incredibly finite blueprint, then you go out and at the first rehearsal, this building goes up suddenly and . . . there it is. There’s the building. Everything you worked on for six months or a year is just there. It hits you over the head like a ton of bricks. That’s my experience. Others’ may not be as dramatic as mine.


Q: Does your background as a performing artist help you at such a time?

A: Yes, because the players are at the other end of the spectrum. They want to know little, finite things: ‘Is that a dot or a dash?’ They’re very serious about it. From their point of view, they need it because they have to play it. From your point of view, you’re in an earthquake. “Why are you asking me about the size of a nail? That column is falling over! That wall is completely out of balance!” But as you go through this again and again, after many years, you start to get a handle on that. . . .

Unless the composer is a performer and has been around a lot of performers, often they don’t always understand the problems of the performer. And vice versa. The performer is so much a what-the-page-tells-him-to-do type of person that, because they haven’t been composing, they often don’t understand how those decisions got there and they don’t understand that maybe they could be changed--by them!--because it would be better.

Of course, they do that with Brahms and Beethoven and all those people. They’ll make some changes in the dynamic or the tempo because they’ve been involved with the process creatively enough that maybe they can push the notation a bit. That’s a subtle, complex issue. My feeling is that as long as composers don’t play and performers don’t compose, you’re going to have a gap in the experience of making music.

Q: Why did you call new work “Duets”?

A: It’s a mini-concerto-grosso type of thing. There are tiers of instruments that are featured: two cellos, which are the most prominently featured, two flutes, two horns and two trumpets. Then there are subsidiary parings. Sometimes they’re alone, sometimes they’re with the orchestra. It’s 19 minutes long, a continuous one movement work, sort of slow, fast, slow, fast format.

In my concertos, I had explored the idea of pairing the soloist with a first-chair player. I got that from Schumann--actually, Schumann’s Cello Concerto. I decided to explore that inside this piece, without the soloists.

Q: How do you work on your pieces?

A: I work at the piano because, being a pianist and also having been through a lot of difficult contemporary music, I’m pretty facile at the piano, especially rhythmically. To me, it’s an improvisational performing process, not like a real-time improvisation where you improvise for five minutes, but more like you keep adding to it.


Q: Do you rely a lot on inspiration?

A: I don’t know where the first notes come from, except that for “Duets” I wanted some kind of lyrical opening. That’s all I knew: Something that arched, something that reached up, had a curved arched lyricism idea. I started with that: A cello solo, then a duet, then the piece started to get dictated from there. It takes on a personality of its own. My job is to listen to what that piece is trying to be. It’s a very slow process, like sculpting. I wait for the right notes, the right gestures, the right rhythms, dynamics, textures, the whole package.

It’s an intuitive process, but it’s a sharply etched discovery process. You have to be very alert to what this music is or is trying to be. It takes a lot of patience. Your mind says, “Well, I know how this goes,” but you have to hear it and do it musically speaking. You have to live it each time. Sometimes I know exactly what the instrumentation is going to be, sometimes I don’t have the foggiest idea.

Q: With all that hard work, why did you stick with being a composer?

A: I like torture. I used to say to my students, “Welcome to ‘Drowning 101.’ ” I do believe it is torture. There are rewards, but they come in the form of the pieces being played and meeting a lot of good players who love the music and then the audience who likes the music--but in that order. Those are big rewards.

Q: How did you develop your voice as a composer?

A: By listening to the piece. You start writing a piece, then you start listening to it very carefully. The more carefully I listen to what I’m doing, the more my voice comes out. It’s not by saying, “I’m going to be different or write in this style or push history ahead,” like Schoenberg did: “I’m going to make a theatrical impact on music by doing this.” That’s probably more the way a male would talk. I think there’s a gender issue there.

Q: In what other ways does the issue of gender impact on you?

A: I don’t think music itself is gender-specific, unless there are words, like in the pop world. I don’t think there is a “feminist music.” But classical music is behind the other arts--way behind the other arts--in terms of gender. Women are becoming more active in the field, not only in the terms of musicology, but in theory and composition. . . .

Still, the composing world is pretty awful. It’s better now than it was 15 years ago, but I read tons and tons of listings of radio programs or Carnegie Hall events and events at other halls--scanning to see how many women composers are on. It’s amazing how few there are. At Carnegie Hall, there were two one year, and at Lincoln Center, one. I’m taking about a whole year of concerts. When you start looking at those of numbers, it’s pretty dismal.


Q: Do you regard your work primarily as an expression of emotion?

A: Yes, definitely. I learned this through teaching young composers actually. Unless they get into the piece enough and care about it enough, the chances of it having an identity are going to be pretty low. If it doesn’t communicate, there’s something wrong with the piece.

I played a lot of that music in the ‘60s, and to me it’s an acrobatic experience, both from the point of the player, who has to learn these fancy rhythms, jumping and counting, and then the audience has to be kind of acrobatic. It’s not designed to make you feel something. It’s designed to make you think about something, to be impressed about something. It took me 10 years to get out of that.

Q: What caused the change?

A: Messiaen and George Crumb got me out of it. I was playing music by Stefan Wolpe and (Milton) Babbitt--hard-core abstract music, really hard music to play--and I heard (Messiaen’s) “Quartet for the End of Time.” I was absolutely astounded. I remember sitting there saying to myself, “This was the most gutsy piece I had heard in a long time.” Then another piece by George Crumb, “11 Echoes of Autumn,” had that same simplicity and same voice. That’s when I started to change.

I remember writing “Black Topaz” (in 1981); it was my statement: “This is it, I don’t care what these people think, I’m going to write this glory and gutsy piece.” I still like that piece. It’s ungainly, kind of like an awkward elephant. But it has a real character to it. (At the first performance) these people were sitting there, with their wired-rimmed glasses. They said I had totally slipped out. “Joan has gone off the deep end.” It was hard. But I had to go my own way.

* Christof Perick will lead the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the premiere of Joan Tower’s “Duets” on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. The Philharmonic Society-sponsored program also will include Haydn’s “Drum Roll” Symphony and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. $22 to $35. (714) 854-4646.

The same program will be played Friday at 8 p.m. at the Wadsworth Theater, Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards, West Los Angeles and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena. $29 to $36. (213) 622-7001, Ext. 215.