This collection of new interviews with twenty-five accomplished female composers substantially advances our knowledge of the work, experiences, compositional approaches, and musical intentions of a diverse group of creative individuals. With personal anecdotes and sometimes surprising intimacy and humor, these wide-ranging conversations represent the diversity of women composing music in the United States from the mid-twentieth century into the twenty-first. The composers work in a variety of genres including classical, jazz, multimedia, or collaborative forms for the stage, film, and video games. Their interviews illuminate questions about the status of women composers in America, the role of women in musical performance and education, the creative process and inspiration, the experiences and qualities that contemporary composers bring to their craft, and balancing creative and personal lives. Candidly sharing their experiences, advice, and views, these vibrant, thoughtful, and creative women open new perspectives on the prospects and possibilities of making music in a changing world.
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In Her Own Words
Conversations with Composers in the United States
By JENNIFER KELLY
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Numerous composers, including Jennifer Higdon, credit Joan Tower with helping to eradicate the glass ceiling for contemporary women composers. Born in New York in 1938 and spending most of her youth in South America, Tower has become a respected composer, performer, conductor, and educator. With degrees from Bennington College and Columbia University, her earliest works in the mid-twentieth century incorporated serial techniques. Thereafter, Tower developed an approach based in lyricism, colorful orchestration, and a rhythmic energy derived in part from her years in South America. With a productive career spanning over fifty years and with abundant recordings of her music, Tower has been studied and interviewed for decades.
Our conversation begins with the acknowledgment of her place in American music history as she discusses a composer's continued need for nourishment. She finds much of her nourishment through teaching as the Asher B. Edelman Professor of Music at the Bard College Conservatory of Music. She explains her love for her students, referring to them as her children, and discusses why she divides her time equally between teaching and composing.
Tower's interview reminds readers of the intensely personal job of a composer when she uses her characteristic humor to describe the anxiety she still feels delivering a composition to a performer. An accomplished pianist with a great respect for musicians, Tower believes strongly in the composer-performer connection; she explains why she encourages all musicians to compose and all composers to perform. She learned the benefits of this balance when she cofounded the New York–based Da Capo Chamber Players as a pianist in 1969 and composed several works for that ensemble. After decades composing for major ensembles, soloists, and orchestras, Tower continues to challenge herself. During our conversation, she recounts her process composing for the Ford Made in America consortium commission and the unique demands of composing for sixty-five community orchestras throughout all fifty states. Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony recorded Made in America along with the additional Tower works Tambor and Concerto for Orchestra in 2008. That album received three Grammy awards: Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance.
Like many of the composers in this book, Tower thinks about the future of her art and the compositional art form. She invests in her students, providing tiered listening experiences for their compositional development. Beyond discussing the skill of composition, she explains the need for performers and composers to humanize classical music for modern audiences. She encourages audience members likewise to feel empowered to form their own opinions of living composers and contemporary music. Acknowledging that she is called a "woman composer," she uses her professional positions to advocate for women and living composers. A recent example is her three-concert 2007 series "Unsung," "Unbound," and "Unleashed," supported by the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble.
Tower's numerous awards include the Alfred I. Dupont Award for Distinguished Composers and Conductors, and she was the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Silver Ladders in 1999. Tower was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998. Over five hundred different ensembles have played her popular Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman, and she continues to be an actively commissioned and performed composer while also devoting her time to teaching. Her music is published by Associated Music Publishers.
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April 2010, at her home in Red Hook, New York
JOAN TOWER: We, as living composers, need to be fed some kind of nourishment for the work that we do, which is difficult work. It's not for the faint of heart because of the challenge involved. I tell my students who are struggling to be composers that it is a tough business for young composers (and older composers, too). I say, "Find something that gives you nourishment while you're composing. Is it playing soccer, cooking, teaching kids? Find that, and make sure you do that every day along with composing, because composing is not designed, at least initially, to give you much nourishment. Especially when you're young, because no one knows your music, and it's not getting played. As your music gets picked up, that could become the nourishment if it's working for you. That's what happened for me. That's how I got away from playing the piano and started composing more: my music started to get picked up. People were saying, "I want to play your clarinet piece, your flute piece, your string quartet." I was like, "Really?" It happened more and more and more over time. Soon I was getting invited to places, and it became a fantastically nourishing thing for me. Players actually liked to play my music, and audiences really were drawn to some of the pieces—not all. So that's become hugely important to me in my life.
JENNIFER KELLY: Given all that, is there some kind of expectation, or even a feeling of responsibility, that comes with being Joan Tower?
JT: It gets ... it's hard. For example, the Made in America project was a huge challenge because I knew that that piece was going to be played by sixty-five orchestras all over the United States in hugely different communities. That was a big challenge. Writing for the Chicago Symphony, and New York, and now Pittsburgh—these are huge challenges. Or writing for soloists or the Tokyo Quartet or Emerson Quartet. But you take it one step at a time, and what you fundamentally realize is that you just have to write the best piece you can.
JK: Everything else be damned.
JT: Everything else be damned. You just hope the piece has life, and that's the real burden.
JK: In your mind's ear, when you're composing and the ideas start flowing, what do you hear first? Is it the piece in its entirety or the rhythm and tempo?
JT: It's like writing a novel. The idea might be a person who walks into the room who is funny and lively and outgoing but unhappy because of negative circumstances in their life. And then this person meets another person with a contrasting personality, and the interaction starts. And there's a tension between the two, or maybe a connection. It's like two ideas now are starting to work together. And to me, it's like a whole organic narrative story that has to take a realistic shape—a motivating shape, a shape that has a musical logic to it. That's the way I compose. And I listen a lot. I listen and listen and listen, because it has to tell me what to do rather than the other way around. You're in charge in a way, but you're actually not. This thing is starting to tell you what to do, but you have to listen carefully to let it tell you what to do. So there's that shift of creative authority, which takes a long time to give in to.
JK: Do you have to separate yourself out of it so you can listen?
JK: What kind of parameters do you give yourself at the very beginning?
JT: I have two given parameters: medium and length. For example, an orchestra piece of approximately twenty minutes.
JK: And then do you always start at the beginning?
JT: Always. I could never start in the middle or the end. Some composers can do that—not me. There's no way I could start in the middle, because I view the process as an organic one.
JK: How can you tell if a piece is making an impact?
JT: I can't tell. I have no control over that. I just try to do the best job I can. And if it has a life, fantastic. I'm thrilled. And if it doesn't, I feel the piece has somehow failed.
JK: Do you compose with the audience in mind?
JT: I am the first listener, and it's me and the music and my perception. Is this working or not? That's all I have. It's not anybody else's perspective but mine. I have to say, "Is this working? Change that." So it's a lonely activity, because you're stuck really with your own perceptions. No one can tell you how this is really working. Not really. You have to do it yourself. That's why composition can't be taught. So this thing goes on the page into this highly defined notation. It's like an architectural blueprint. It is, "Eighth note equals this, and crescendo to the B-flat in that register on that instrument." It is very precise. The second listeners are the performers, and you've put this soul of yours in the architectural blueprint, and it comes out the other side, and there are these players, and they start reading it. Does it come to life for them? Does it engage them? Does it make them want to do something a certain way? Is the rhythm really important here, or is the color right? Being a member of the Da Capo Chamber Players for fifteen years, I learned a lot about that process from the point of view of being the player—the triangle relation between the creator, the page, and the performer/conductor. That's a very tricky pathway, and some pages are very clear about their intentions and may be wrong but still are clear. The composers would come into Da Capo and talk about their pieces, and sometimes there was a huge discrepancy between what we were doing and what they were talking about, and other times we didn't even need them there because the piece would just come alive off the page. The third listener is the audience.
JK: Being a player must enlighten your experience as a composer because you also have such experience as the second listener.
JT: Playing with Da Capo was a hugely important education for me because I got on the other side of the fence, and I saw the problems with notation. For me the composer, the second listener—the performer—is incredibly anxiety-provoking. I hand a piece to the players, and then I wait. They have no idea yet whether they like it or not, because they have to really learn the piece. That whole waiting time is very scary. I have a story about that.... I wrote this violin concerto for Elmar Oliveira. He's a very good violinist who has played all the traditional repertoire. So when he asked me for a piece, I was honored because he had heard several of my pieces and liked my music. (That's the best way to be asked by a performer: because they like what they're hearing.) So I started this violin concerto, and I sweated bullets over it. He's a virtuosic player, so I had to make it challenging and lyrical at the same time. I wrote this piece with sweat, blood, and tears. I sent it to him, and there was no answer. No answer. And in my paranoia, I read that as he thinks this is unplayable or he didn't like it. Another two months later, I go to rehearse with him [on the piano]. He says nothing about my concerto. All I could think of was the piece was unplayable. He hates it. So we start playing. We get finished, and he turns to me, and he says, "So, how did I do?" I thought, "How did you do?" I asked if there was anything awkward in the piece that he wanted to tell me about, and he told me about one double stop. I said, "Anything else?" And he said, "No, as a matter of fact it's beautifully written for the violin. It really is beautiful, and it's a great piece, Joan" [laughs].
JK: You've been vetted by musicians, audiences, and critics, and yet you are still quite critical of your own music.
JT: The most talented players I know are the ones that are the most vulnerable, because they still care about what the audience thinks. There are some very slick performers who can do anything at any time and impress you with their experience and their image and their facility ... chops. But it's the ones who are really vulnerable that make the difference, because they care deeply about communicating. It's like they reach out to you and pull you in.
JK: While you're composing, do you think about the second and third listener, or are you really engrossed in the first listener?
JT: What I try and do is have giant ears. The whole thing about composing is you cannot assume anything. We try to create the biggest perceptual grid we can to make it really work. It's very complicated, but, sure, I care about the third and fourth and fifth listeners very much.
JK: Does it affect the way you write when you're in the process of writing? Or does it happen later?
JT: It happens during. I'm writing and creating a character, and I want that character to speak to a lot of people. I want them to speak to everybody: to older people, Latinos, bankers, dancers, whatever. I want them to be heard, so I work hard on making this character be heard. It has to do with communication. I think there are three types of composers. The first type is the one that wants to communicate in a big way to you the listener. They want you totally engaged, and they will go out and wrap around you and bring you in: examples are Tchaikovsky and John Corigliano. The second type is the one that sort of wants to communicate, but it's okay if you don't like it. They would like you to like it, but it's sort of live and let live. In this category I would put Schubert, because he is a beautiful composer who cares very much about what he's doing, but he's not going to grab you by the collar. Also John Harbison. The third type is, they don't care whether you like it or not, they're not interested in that at all. And those types are usually the ones who want to tell you what they know. They're usually smart, and they usually lecture: examples are middle and late Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt.
JK: So where do you put you?
JK: Do you allow yourself the kind of freedom to go back after a piece is completed and mess with it?
JT: Oh, sure. Anything to make it better. I mean, you can't change everything. Because once you change one thing, that changes another. It's like a mobile. You have to be careful how much you change.
JK: With regard to notation, when a conductor looks at a Tower score, is everything we need to know in the score?
JT: The notation is only a blueprint for the sound. Some are very notation-specific, and some are not, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the music is less strong or stronger. I learned that from playing in Da Capo. I think the strongest music will suggest all kinds of things no matter how it's notated. It jumps off of the page to you immediately and says, "This is what I need. This is what I need you to think about." Other music is much subtler. You need to pull it out to really get it. So I don't think it's a question of notation so much. It's a question of, "What is the notation yielding? What is this thing trying to be?" The notation is very tough for composers.
JK: What about you? What about when your music is played a hundred years from now?
JT: My music is not that abstract. My music is pretty instrumentally based and fairly visceral, so the tempos are important, but there is a leeway. The dynamics are important, but again, there is a leeway. But my notation is pretty specific, and some players go against it. If it works, I'm thrilled.
JK: Earlier, you brought up Made in America. That was truly a wonderful project.
JT: It was amazing, and it just kept multiplying. It started with Robert Rosoff, executive director of the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra. He said, "I want to commission a major composer, but I don't have the money. So I'm going to get twenty-two of my colleagues in community orchestras." He was a go-getter type, and everybody knew who he was in the community-orchestra world, and he got twenty-two colleagues immediately. So the American Symphony Orchestra League [ASOL] saw this project and said, "This is fantastic. We're going to help you get more orchestras." They were each willing to pay one thousand dollars, because that's all they could afford. So the ASOL brought it up to thirty-six orchestras, and then the Ford Motor Company Fund said, "This is fantastic. If you can get this into fifty states, we'll pay for most of it." So the ASOL went to work, and they got it into fifty states with sixty-five orchestras.
JK: Within what time period was this played?
JT: 2005 to 2007.
JK: So within two years it was played by sixty-five orchestras in all fifty states? That's amazing. What did you learn as a composer? Even though you were a successful composer, that was a new experience, right?
JT: Well, I had never written for a community orchestra. I had been writing for major orchestras, and I didn't know the community-orchestra scene. I knew I was representing living composers, so I had to do something really good, and I wanted to make sure it worked for everybody. So I made two really good choices. What would appeal to all these people? I incorporated the tune "America the Beautiful" into this piece. That was my first good choice. My second good choice had to do with knowing that amateur orchestras were playing this piece, so I had to make sure they could play it. Because if they couldn't play it, I was on losing ground. So I went around to all my player friends with my score and asked if it was playable by a community orchestra. And they totally saved my butt.
JK: What kind of relationship would you ideally like to have with a performer? Can you give up a piece of work and say, "Thank you very much," or do you want to have a close relationship with them throughout the process?
JT: I care very much about who I'm writing for. All my friends are performers. I have a very close relationship with many of them, and it's very important to me that they like the piece, because then they feel empowered. So it's really a joint venture. It's them and me working together, and if they have suggestions, I respect their instincts enormously. If they say, "I think this should be a whole note instead of a dotted half," I am all ears. Or, "It doesn't quite go over the hump there." That's a deep kind of change they're suggesting, but I'm very respectful of that, and I would welcome it, actually. But most performers are intimidated and will not make that kind of change because they treat the page as if it's the Bible. "I can't change that. I just have to make it work somehow." If a player says to me, "I'd like to change the dotted half to a whole note," that is big-time. I really love the idea that they even suggested it.
Excerpted from In Her Own Words by JENNIFER KELLY. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chronological List of Birthdates ix
1 Joan Tower 9
2 Shulamit Ran 27
3 Jennifer Higdon 42
4 Gabriela Lena Frank 61
5 Alice Parker 78
6 Chen Yi 101
7 Tania León 121
8 Hasu Patel 137
9 Pauline Oliveros 152
10 Meredith Monk 175
11 Svjetlana Bukvich 195
12 Pamela Z 211
13 Toshiko Akiyoshi 228
14 Maria Schneider 247
15 Augusta Read Thomas 265
16 Hilary Tann 281
17 Libby Larsen 298
18 Laura Karpman 322
19 Winifred Phillips 342
20 Deborah Lurie 355
21 Jeanine Tesori 371
22 Beth Anderson 385
23 Janika Vandervelde 402
24 Mary Jane Leach 420
25 Emma Lou Diemer 436
Selected Resources 463