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Q&A with Joan Tower : 'I Do Believe It Is Torture'

January 25, 1995

\o7 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?

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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?

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