Joan Tower | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Joan Tower

The Great Ascender



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As encouraging as Bennington was, Tower didn't remain there for long. She next attended Columbia University, earning her doctorate under the operatically inclined Jack Beeson and electronic pioneers Otto Leuning and Vladimir Ussachevsky, and supporting herself by giving piano lessons. In 1969, she cofounded the Da Capo Chamber Players, which evolved into one of the nation's leading chamber ensembles. The group became the vehicle for several of Tower's most acclaimed early works, such as Platinum Spirals, for violin (1976); Amazon I, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (1977); and Wings, for clarinet or alto saxophone (1981); as well as offerings by Phillip Glass, John Harbison, and Tower's fellow Bard faculty member Kyle Gann. (Tower continued to play with the ensemble until 1984.)

During her Columbia years she immersed herself in the serialism movement. A stylistic revolution then being popularized in New York by Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, the modern serialist technique expands Schoenburg's notion of the defined 12-tone chromatic scale into other elements of music, such as rhythm, timbre, pitch, and dynamics, all of which can be grouped into fixed sequences (series), which are then themselves manipulated at intervals (often irregular) throughout a piece. Despite serialism's insurgent reputation, its method of disregarding "traditional" tonality grew wearying for its detractors—one of which Tower herself eventually became. "I grew to hate serialism," she groans. "I didn't really understand it. I just kind of fell into it when I was at Columbia, following Babbitt and all these other people around like a puppy dog. It took me 10 years to figure out I needed to get out of it." The transition that inspired her later works came in 1973, a year after she'd taken her position at Bard, when she witnessed a performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (1941). Serial in nature yet richly melodic, the piece draws on birdsong and Messiaen's deep liturgical leanings and remains a landmark of modern chamber music. "[The performance] was, like, 'Whoah!'" Tower remembers. "It was just so straight ahead and powerful. Hearing George Crumb's Eleven Echoes of Autumn [1965] back then was also really influential."

The directness of Messiaen and Crumb that increasingly shaped Tower's own work is a quality mirrored in other aspects of her life. "Her music and her personality are incredibly similar," says Max McKee, a four-year student under the composer. "Which is to say no bullshit, totally straightforward. She knows who and what she is and what she wants. Studying with her is like getting inside her head; there's so much I've learned that's practically been by osmosis. But she's more than just a teacher. She has a really full relationship with all her students. It feels like she really cares and invests in us."

One of Tower's most talked-about compositions is Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1987–92), a five-part orchestral work commissioned by the Houston Symphony in 1986. Though intended purely as "an homage to Copland and an homage to women," there were those who nevertheless took its title as a parody of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man or a political statement or both. "Naturally, I'm a feminist," maintains Tower. "I never thought [the piece] would become this big political thing, though. But people made such a big deal about it." Ironically, it would be her concerto Made in America (2004), which was bankrolled by the Ford Motor Company in the middle of the George W. Bush years and appropriates "America the Beautiful," that would make Tower an even bigger musical heroine.

A sweeping, panoramic epic that evokes the entirety of the nation's diverse landscape, from its colorful deserts, to its rocky peaks, its bustling urban centers, and, yes, its fruited plains and amber waves of grain, Made in America was commissioned via Ford's Made in America arts program for 65 small-community orchestras and performed in all 50 states. Peppered with pounding passages that might be interpreted as the iron fists of a power-hungry authority, the 2006 performance of Made in America by the Nashville Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin was released on Naxos Records, and in 2008 won Grammys in the categories of Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

Tower's 75th-birthday concert takes place at Bard's newly built, sonically stunning Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Conservatory Building (which she herself helped design) and doubles as a benefit for the college's Conservatory of Music composers scholarship fund. A hand-picked program of Tower's chamber works, the evening includes Très lent (Hommage à Messiaen), for cello and piano (1994); Up High, for soprano and piano (2011); Dumbarton Quintet, for piano quintet (2008); White Water, for string quartet (2013); and Simply Purple, for solo viola (2008), and will feature performances by soprano Dawn Upshaw, cellist Peter Wiley, the Horzowski Trio, the acclaimed Daedalus Quartet, and Blair McMillen, Kayo Iwama, and the maestro herself on piano. "I had always been intrigued by Joan's music, and I had actually wondered why she hadn't written much vocal music," says Upshaw, who was profiled in the April 2010 issue of Chronogram. "So I asked if she would please consider taking the leap and using me as her guinea pig. How tickled I was that she said yes!"

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