Joan Tower is a, well, towering figure in American music, and she has the awards to prove it. In 2019 alone, the eminent composer was named Composer of the Year by Musical America, was recognized for her lifetime of work by Chamber Music of America, received the League of American Orchestras’ Gold Baton, and became one of the first women composers to have her collected works archived in the Library of Congress.
Tower, 81, grew up in New Rochelle, and at 9 years old moved to Bolivia with her father, a geologist and mining engineer. Though she plays many instruments, her “first and last” is piano, which she started learning at 6, performing “dead white European males” like Chopin and Beethoven. Playing with the bands in South America, she says, gave her an appreciation for percussion and rhythm. “I got a lot of different perspectives.”
She remained primarily a performer until she attended Bennington College in the 1950s, when she was asked to compose a piece for class. “It was a total disaster! But I knew I could do better,” she laughs. “And I spent the next 60 years trying to do that.”
That included a significant stint at Columbia University, where she studied under serialist composers like Otto Luening, Chou Wenchung, and Jack Beeson and earned her doctorate in 1968. But Tower could not stay in one place for long, musically or geographically. She says that she repeatedly traveled to Midtown, where musicians like Copland were making big, popular American symphonies, as well as down to the Village, where she took in both avant-garde composers like John Cage and jazz greats like Miles Davis.
All of this — as well as the “consciousness-raising” of feminism and a greater awareness of the role of women in music — transformed the music she was writing, including for performances with the Da Capo Players, a modern classical group which she co-founded in 1969 and describes as her “laboratory.” “It was a fantastic education,” she says, to be able to adjust her compositions on the fly, and according to the needs of individual players, an approach she still prefers today. In the early 1970s, Tower lit out for unknown parts, breaking with the academic style of serialism in favor of different, more interesting textures. Many of these works, including 1981’s “Sequoia” and her ever-developing “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” have brought her significant fame, as well as commissions from many of the nation’s most prominent symphony orchestras.
Being a composer, she says, is a delicate balance, like connecting “a fuel line” between “writing for people and having it work for you on some level.” She describes the “DNA” of her music as having “a physical base” with a strong emphasis on rhythm. “I think of my music as being very visceral,” she says. “I move rhythm around with the heat of the moment,” a tactic she learned from Beethoven.
Tower’s long career has brought her into many of the world’s most eminent concert halls, from Carnegie Hall in New York City to Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall, where her “Black Topaz” was performed last year by the Tianjin Julliard Ensemble. In 1993 she conducted a performance of “Celebration Fanfare,” a movement from her longer “Stepping Stones” piece, at the White House as part of the International Women’s Forum.
She recalls Hillary Clinton — to whom the piece was dedicated — and various other women leaders walking by, applauding. “By the end,” she recalls, “they had all stopped to cheer us on.” Nowadays, that applause has an official stamp of approval, as her entire body of work, from small sketches to full-orchestra pieces like 2004’s “Made in America,” will be preserved in perpetuity within the Library of Congress’ august walls. “It’s like I’ll have a life after my life,” she says. “It’s a very significant invitation for a woman composer.”
In 1972, at the age of 33, Tower took a position at Bard College, which expanded to her role today as Asher B. Edelman Professor in the Arts. The position brought her into contact with colleagues like Nancy B. Reich, a musicologist whose course on the history of women in music “changed my life,” says Tower. “I had to know that history. I wanted to learn about everything. It showed me where I was coming from, and what edge I was on.” She currently teaches a variety of composition courses, coaches players, and puts on concerts of contemporary composers. “I always learn something every day,” she says. “I always learn from my students.”
Her presence at Bard, and in Red Hook, has not gone unnoticed. The college held a blow-out 80th birthday celebration in 2018, during which some of America’s greatest classical musicians performed pieces from throughout her career. Red Hook Town Supervisor Robert McKeon punctuated the show by declaring that her birthday, September 16, would henceforth be celebrated in the town as Joan Tower Music Appreciation Day.
Today, Tower is wry, spry, and forever at work: When we spoke, she had recently completed a commission from the New York Philharmonic, which will premiere in September, and was in the process of learning the stand-up bass. “It’s a constant effort to write better pieces,” she says. “And over the years I keep getting closer and closer to my voice.”