A Conversation with Joan Tower

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Hailed as one of the most successful female composers of all time, 3-time Grammy winner, Joan Tower, will be at our very own Miller Theatre tonight. The living legend spared some time to talk to Bwog’s ivory tickling enthusiast Carolyn Ruvkun about “DWEMs” and dead lettuce.

Bwog: How would you describe your music?

Joan Tower: That’s always a hard question. It’s like describing your personality to somebody. It’s visceral, organic, and accessible.

Bwog: So you studied composition at Columbia in the heyday of serialism.

JT: You got that right, I was in the thick of serialism at that time! [laughs] There was a lot of strange music that I didn’t understand. I was too young. I actually left that music after a while because I didn’t get it. I was there for 14 years because I was very slow at getting a doctorate. I wasn’t your stellar academic student, shall we say.

Bwog: To what extent can you really teach composition?

JT: I don’t think you can teach composing, actually. I do teach, and I love to teach, and I’ve had a lot of exciting students, but I don’t think you can teach it. I think what you can do is kind of be a traffic cop, or a therapist.

Bwog: When did you gain confidence as a composer and decide you wanted to share your music?

JT: Oh, never. I think confidence as a composer is illogical. Any composer who says, “I am confident about what I’m doing,” is not actually doing very well. There is a humbleness to composing that is very severe, like any art. It takes a lot of investment, patience and perseverance.

Bwog: What’s it like when you’re on a program with these composing giants like Tchaikovsky?

JT: Terrifying! Especially Tchaikovsky. You happened to mention one of my favorite composers. Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Those are very strong composers, so I would be the dead lettuce if I’m in between them. [laughs] In fact next week, I’m facing something like that. The Pittsburgh Symphony is premiering my new piece called “Stroke” and I’m on with Mozart and Schumann. It’s the DWEM culture: Dead White European Male.

Bwog: So as a living female composer, how do you think you contribute to this “DWEM culture?”

JT: Once I was on a National Endowment of the Arts panel, and they were being attacked because they weren’t giving enough grants to women composers. So we decided to see if the panel could tell the gender of the composer by just listening to their music and we couldn’t. We failed miserably. So music is in a way wonderfully genderless. Having said that, then there’s the issue that if they know that you’re a women composer, does that affect the way they’re going to hear your music?

If they know you’re a living composer, that affects the way they hear the piece. I gave a talk once—I’ll never forget this— it was the Westchester Symphony Orchestra. They asked me to talk right before my piece, and there were 2000 people sitting there. And I said to them: “Now I want you to be very honest with me. How many of you expect to dislike my piece?” 98% of the hands went up. So I said, “How many of you think that is an unfair assumption?” The same 98% of the hands went back up. And I got a standing ovation— I think mostly out of guilt. [laughs]

Bwog: It seems people are ready to criticize contemporary works, but with these “DWEM composers,” it’s a more passive experience. They know what they’re getting into, and they’re ready to sit back and love the music.

JT: Music is probably one of the more stubborn of the arts. I’m not sure where that comes from, but there’s too much PR mythology around music. This is true of our culture. This person is famous, therefore we must bow down, when in fact this person could actually not be playing too well. Even Beethoven wrote a lot of pieces that were very problematic. Of course you don’t hear them very often, but it would do him a service for [the audience] to listen to him and be critical, and say “I don’t like that particular theme. That transition wasn’t so great.” In a way, I feel empowered. I feel the audience listens more closely to my music because they’re more ciritical of me. And they’re empowered to criticize me. I don’t like that very much, I mean I’m vulnerable too… [laughs]

Bwog: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

JT: The music itself. I start with an idea. Duh duh duh duunnnnn [opening of Beethoven’s Fifth]. Pretty stupid idea. [laughs] And then I go from there. It’s like a novel, and requires a lot of close attention and listening as it goes, cause you have to make sure everything is being motivated in a clear, natural and forceful way.

Bwog: How do you know when you’ve composed a piece worth listening to?

JT: You don’t. [laughs] You never can assume anything about a piece. The best composers are the ones who assume the least.

Bwog: So what’s the purpose of music?

JT: I have no idea. You know the radio broadcast, This I Belieive? They asked me to do one of those. I remember one thing I said was music is my drug of choice. I had met a conductor who said that music kept him off the streets. Literally. He would have been in jail if not for music.

Bwog: How did you get into music?

JT: I started with piano. I loved playing piano at an early age. At 18, I was asked to write a piece in college. I heard this piece and it was so bad that I had to fix it, and I’ve been fixing it ever since. That was more than 52 years ago.

Bwog: It seems like the composer, performer and audience were so much more connected in the 19th century classical music world. Why the rupture?

JT: Absolutely, that’s one of my flags! The composer and the performer have separated so much, and I’m trying constantly to put them back together again in my own little ways. Like creating a requirement at the conservatory where I teach that all performers take composition. They take it kicking and screaming cause it’s hard work. But you start looking at the page very differently cause you’re creating it, like anything in life. If you make a chair, you look at chairs very differently. Also the reverse: composers should play an instrument. That’s what I think has done a lot of damage. The classical music world has become a performing world. You have Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming… Composers have been taking a back seat to the big stars. And if their piece is too weak and complex, the audience gets phased out. I fight very hard for living composers. I also try to train my students to be committed to music in a deeper way with the above-ground composers. I call my composition class is called Drowning 101.

Bwog: How can classical music adapt to the present, abandon its staid reputation, and become more accessible?

JT: I think there are a lot of people trying to do that today. There are a lot of “cross-over ensembles,” whatever that means. This is the first time in history we’ve had so many styles going on simultaneously. And there are quite a few young groups involving technology, computers, synthesizers, and electronics in their expressions of their music. There’s more of a beat, you could say, which is a little closer to pop music. The tie-ins are happening and I think they’re going to grow as time goes on.

Bwog: So is music heading in the right direction, then? Are you optimistic?

JT: Anything can be great if it’s done well. If you’re writing a purely acoustic piece for solo violin, which I have for my concert tonight, or you’re writing a fully electro piece for synthesizers, I think it all depends on how it’s done.

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  1. such a badass  

    i wish i could go to her concert. what an inspiring lady!

  2. Hah  

    Joan Tower is a BAMF. Incredible concert, and she's hilarious.

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