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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Joan Tower -- Chamber Dance

Joan Tower (born 1938) is one of America's most widely performed living composers of orchestral and instrumental music. She began her active musical career as pianist, serving as a member of the Da Capo Chamber Players from 1969 through 1984. In 1985, her composing career took off dramatically after she became composer-in-residence for the St Louis Symphony. Since that time, she has fulfilled commissions for major orchestras and instrumental ensembles throughout the United States. She won the Grawemeyer Award in 1990 for her work Silver Ladders and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998. Her work has been released on countless recordings and many of her instrumental works have entered the standard repertory of their instruments.

Tower has been a faculty member at Bard College since 1972, where she is currently the Asher Edelman Professor of Music. She is composer-in-residence with the Orchestra of St Luke's and has held numerous residencies with festivals, universities, and other American ensembles.

Most recently, Joan Tower was the first composer chosen for the ambitious new 'Ford Made in America' commissioning program, a collaboration of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer. In October 2005, the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra presented the world première of Tower's Made in America, a fifteen minute orchestral piece. The work went on for performances by orchestras in every state in the Union during the 2005-06 season. This is the first project of its kind to involve smaller budget orchestras as commissioning agents of a new work by a major composer.

Joan Tower. Photo © Noah Sheldon
Joan Tower. Photo © Noah Sheldon

On 6 May 2006, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of New York City premières her newly commissioned work Chamber Dance at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, USA. The concert also includes Bach's Orchestral Suite No 1, BWV 1066 and pianist Leon Fleischer playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat, Emperor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a 'conductor-less' and entirely self-governing ensemble. It is one of the largest ensembles of its kind in the world.

OneCarson Cooman: Orpheus is a rather large conductor-less ensemble -- and your music often has a number of of meter changes and textural issues for which a conductor is very useful. How did the aspect of a conductor-less ensemble impact the writing of this work?

Joan Tower: I call it Chamber Dance because I really think of Orpheus as a large chamber group. I was in the world of chamber music for a long time (and really still am), and to me chamber music is a totally different animal from the orchestra -- in terms of how the music is learned, how much time is spent, and what the interaction between the players is. In chamber music you have to listen to each other in a way that you don't in an orchestra. In the orchestra you certainly do have to listen, but you don't have to 'talk about it' in the same way or even 'agree' about it. You have to agree on intonation and the basics of playing together, but it's not like you decide how much time you're going to spend on each part or what the repertoire is going to be. Those are discussions and decisions which an individual orchestra player wouldn't make.

With chamber music the whole group collectively and each individual player thinks about everything from the ground up -- the burden is on the players.

So since I was in chamber music for so long and had my own group, DeCapo Chamber Players, I'm very aware of the distinction between chamber and orchestra.

TwoCC: On the subject of conducting, you've recently been doing more conducting yourself. Is this a growing interest of yours? Do you conduct primarily your own work?

JT: I'm sort of a 'curious musician.' Sort of like Yo-Yo [Ma], though not quite as flexible as he is! I like the idea of going into music from all sides. Just being a performer and a composer, as I was, is already on two sides which, in our society today, is a challenge because most performers will not compose, and a lot of composers don't actually perform. That is a big problem in our century that these things got split up so much!

Because I had followed a lot of conductors around and watched them conduct my music, I was curious why certain orchestras responded in certain ways whereas other ones did not. It was a mystifying thing in terms of the 'chemistry' between orchestra and conductor and I could notice how much it changed when either conductor or orchestra changed.

I thought that if I tried conducting myself, maybe I'd understand that relationship more. So, somebody offered an orchestra to me and I thought I'd give it a shot. I learned so much in that process.

I originally started an orchestra at Bard (where I teach) and I thought I'd learn the repertoire that way with the group, but in the end it proved to be too difficult to keep together, and the players weren't always good enough to handle the music. So, I went on to bigger and better orchestras and originally I did think I would try conducting other music as well.

I was invited to Alaska to conduct one of their large orchestras and they said I could pick my own entire program. I must have been insane. I did pick all pieces that I loved. Because there was a soloist, I had to choose a concerto from a list of options and so I picked Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 3 which was a big mistake. I love the piece but I learned the orchestra part really well and I didn't really learn the piano part. The soloist was 'rubato-ing' all over the place and he knew this place like the back of his hand having just recorded it and such. But, I couldn't follow him at all. That proved to be a disaster.

The other pieces I did -- the Hary Janos Suite of Kodály, Barber's Adagio for Strings, my own piece Tambor and Bartók's Romanian Dances went much better. But the Prokofiev was way over my head. So, from that point, I said to myself 'You're not experienced enough to do other repertoire. You should just focus on your own music.'

So, I've conducted many of my own pieces (whenever asked) in the following years -- with the exception of my hardest ones, which are beyond me in that regard.

ThreeCC: Some of your recent and upcoming projects have been pieces in genres which are new for you -- such as a recent brass quintet for the American Brass Quintet or a choral work (your first time writing for voices) for the Young People's Chorus of New York City. What has this process been like, agreeing to work in some of these genres in which you never have before? I know, in particularly, that for years you said you'd never write for voice.

JT: Well, when Francisco Núñez of the Children's Chorus of New York asked me for a children's choir piece I thought I could do something for that combination without being 'typical vocal'. I figured I could use percussion and get imaginative and have them making sounds and things that don't come from the 'typical vocal world'. So I got excited about that.

I've always had these issues with combinations and things. Years ago, guitarist Sharon Isbin called me up. I'd never heard of her. She asked me to write a piece for her and flutist Carol Wincenc (who at that time I also didn't know) and I firmly said 'No'. And she asked 'Why??'

I said that I didn't like the combination and flute or guitar and I didn't know anything about the guitar. She told me that was no problem since 'no composers' really know about the guitar before writing for it. She told me to come over to her house and she'd show things. So, I felt guilty and thought I should at least do that. Well, when she played me Carol's flute playing, I said 'This person can really, really play' and then Sharon herself played and I decided -- 'You know what, I should just do this'. The resulting piece is a study in 'avoidance', however, of the two instruments. It starts out with a long guitar solo and then a long flute solo and then four minutes into the eight minute piece I said to myself 'Joan, you are going to have to put them together, you know.' And so what do I have them do? Unisons!

Copyright © 6 April 2006 Carson P Cooman, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA







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