Grammy-winning fan fare

Joan Tower makes beautiful music

Author: By Anita Manley
Posted: Friday, September 04, 2009

Amid the papers and books on Joan Tower’s coffee table in her Red Hook home studio sits the grand prize of the music industry – a Grammy Award. It was one of three that the ambitious 70-year-old received in 2008, all for her classical piece, Made in America.

Her journey to her Grammys started when others who have worked a full career would be considering retirement. Instead, the then 65-year-old was teaching at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and making music with Ford’s Made in America, the philanthropic arm of the Ford Motor Company. Ford founded this program where orchestras have access to resources not typically available to them.

The program commissioned Tower to create a new piece, which Ford called ‘a departure point for a unique musical journey that is at once original and familiar.’ Tower was the first composer chosen for this project in collaboration with the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composers.
In 2005, the piece was ultimately performed by 65 orchestras throughout all 50 states. Tower conducted some of the companies, travelling to such cities as Reno, Nevada, and Gulfport, Mississippi.

“It was an amazing journey,” says Tower, who has been hailed as "one of the most successful woman composers of all time" by New Yorker magazine. “I felt like I was on the campaign trail for living composers!” Over the course of the next two concert seasons, Made in America was played at more than 80 performances and heard by more than 75,000 audience members across the nation. The Ford program called this ‘an unprecedented accomplishment for a brand new work.’

Piano lessons in Bolivia
Tower’s creative juices began flowing when she was just a youngster. She took piano lessons and was musically inspired by her father, George Warren Tower, a mining engineer who would sing and play the violin. Tower’s grandmother was also a musician and her mother, Anne, graduated Wheelock Teachers College and raised Joan, her sister Ellen, and her brother George IV.

When she was eight, Tower’s family moved to LaPaz, Bolivia, where she spent the next eight years, a move that disrupted her tranquil suburban life in Larchmont. Soon, however, Tower found that she loved the rousing South American music and participated in many celebrations. Later in her career, her music would be inspired by this memory of intense Latin rhythms and percussions.

She eventually was shipped off to  boarding school in Chile. When she returned to the states in 1954 to attended Walnut Hill, a private school in Massachusetts, the young world traveler now favored colorful South American apparel, but found herself walking the halls among students who were, she describes, ‘dressed in cashmere and pearls.’

Her first composition
The graduate and free spirit then found her musical home at Vermont’s Bennington College. It was here that she was given her first assignment to compose, but it wasn’t quite so easy. “Composing became a new way into the music,” she says, “but a difficult and challenging one. I wrote the piece for 13 instruments. It was a disaster! But I learned so much from hearing my music that I kept writing more.”

After graduation, she moved to New York City where she taught piano and earned a masters degree, all while composing new works. In 1969, she organized the De Capo Chamber Players, an ensemble widely acclaimed for its virtuosity, stimulating programs, and openness to a wide spectrum of styles
in new music. The group won several awards playing Tower’s compositions.

Four years later, Tower was offered a one-day teaching position at Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson that turned into two and then into a chair position, which is a prestigious professorship at the college. “I’ve been offered many jobs, but I love this area,” says Tower. “It’s close enough to New York and I love to teach.”

She’s still making music
Since she started teaching at Bard, Tower has also accepted a number of honors, including Composer-in-Residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra where she will have four pieces performed during the 2010 season. She encourages her students to start their own chamber groups and to watch what other composers are doing. Currently she directs nine composing tutorials, two composition classes and five ensembles.

“It takes a lot of energy,” she comments, a feat that seems easy for the youthful and energetic 70-year-old, who enjoys a daily workout, and relaxes with a game of pool. Recently, Tower was invited to the Kennedy Center in Washington for a performance of her piece, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, by the National Symphony Orchestra. She stepped up to the stage to introduce Midori, a violinist being honored with other performers, including Judith Jamieson, Annie Leibowiz, Patti LaBelle, Lily Tomlin and Chita Rivera.

She was aware that she was not a recognizable face to many in the audience, so she asked, “You have no idea who I am, do you?” and then deadpanned, “I am a classical composer who hung out with mostly dead composers – dead, white, European males.” Tower doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. “Music makes me feel like I’m doing something important,” she says. “I believe that with music I can help change the world around me – if just a little bit.”

Anita Manley is a freelance writer living in Newburgh.

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