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Written in a Key All Her Own

After a girlhood in South America, classical training and a 12-tone period, composer Joan Tower made a radical discovery: her voice.

October 01, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

Contrary to some expectations, the media/technology explosion has not created cultural hegemony for any particular musical style. Music from just about any time and any place is available anywhere--anywhere, that is, with Internet access and CDs.

And therein lies a rub: Diversity poses at least as many problems as monoculture for young composers. The more the choices, the tougher the decisions.

"Composers need to find their own way," says Joan Tower. "Students today have so many choices, and every style has its own qualities. It is so hard to find your own voice."

Tower knows what she is talking about. Her childhood musical experiences mixed classical piano study with Inca celebrations. Her college years--culminating in a doctorate from Columbia University in New York--taught her the serial orthodoxy of the late '50s and '60s. It took another decade to find her own voice, beginning with "Black Topaz" in 1976.

"For 10 years, I was seriously involved in a 12-tone period. I played Babbitt, Wuorinen, Wolpe, and I was hanging out with those guys, though more as a dutiful, good student. I woke up to being myself with 'Black Topaz.' Although it was Wuorinen who conducted the premiere, I felt really alone for the first time in my life.

"It was like I was saying, 'I'm not going your way anymore, I'm going my own way.' "

Tower's way was quickly decorated with an impressive series of commissions and awards, including the 1990 Grawemeyer Award for "Silver Ladders," a much-performed piece that has been recorded by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin and choreographed by Helgi Tomasson for the San Francisco Ballet. An accomplished performer herself--from 1969 to 1984 Tower was the pianist for the Da Capo Chamber Players, winning the Naumburg Award for chamber music in 1973--she has always attracted the attention and affection of players.

"Tower has carved out a distinctive niche for herself in the American musical landscape. [Her music] is idiomatic, practical and ingratiating for the performer," wrote critic Richard Buell in the Boston Globe. "Tower's music, brimming with commitment, always seems to invite performer and listener."

Tower also shares her music on another level. Since 1972, she has taught at Bard College, and in countless residencies and master classes. This week, she comes to USC's Thornton School of Music, working with composition students individually and in classes and a composer's forum. Some of her music will be presented Tuesday by the Contemporary Music Ensemble and Friday by the Thornton Symphony.

"I go in with open eyes and ears, to talk about my music and to learn something about them and their school," Tower says. "I know USC is a very good school and I am looking forward to it very much. I am pretty down-to-earth, not very scholarly at all. I present my music and they present theirs."

"We have an ongoing residency program, where we can invite a major composer to come spend a week here," says Erica Muhl, the USC faculty member who organized the residency. "In the past we have had composers such as Chinary Ung, Lutoslawski and Christopher Rouse. Joan is a rare commodity--a great composer and teacher, an artist who can really communicate; I just want our students to have that experience."

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Tower was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1938. Her father, a mining engineer, took the family to South America when Tower was 9 years old. For the next eight years, they lived mostly in Bolivia, but also in Chile and Peru.

"This definitely had an impact on my music," Tower says. "One area is percussion. I went to a lot of Inca festivals. My nurse was Indian and wanted to party. At the festivals she would give me percussion instruments to keep me busy. Another area is rhythm and dance--I was a good dancer.

"On the other hand, I was also being trained as a classical pianist. I had lessons since I was 6, and my father found teachers wherever we were. One, in La Paz, was an ex-wife of [film director] Erich von Stroheim. We moved around a lot, so that this training was blissfully chaotic."

She still plays, though it has been 16 years since she left the Da Capo Players and a regular performance schedule. On Tuesday, she'll play the piano part in her "Tres Lent," a duo with cello that she has recorded.

"That is one piece I continue to play. It is slow enough I can think of the next note," Tower laughs. "I love playing pieces like this because it gives me a way to meet the players."

Also on the program is the West Coast premiere of her 1997 trio "Rain Waves," "Noon Dance" and a piece for percussion ensemble, "Village Burial With Fire." This sort of chamber music is especially dear to Tower, as both a performer and as a composer.

"I think having that inside track about how players think and react to the page is an advantage. It bridges a gap for me. I absolutely work better when I know the players I am writing for. With an orchestra, it is less personal."

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