Elizabeth McGuire Interviews Composer Joan Tower

October 27, 2020

Executive Director Elizabeth McGuire recently interviewed the legendary composer Joan Tower about the pandemic’s effect on music, owning the idea of being a “female composer,” Tower’s advice for music students, and much more.

Watch the interview or read the full transcription below.


Elizabeth McGuire: Joan, the COVID-19 pandemic will have repercussions in the music industry, of course, but what is one way that you feel the pandemic will change music itself?

Joan Tower: I’ve been asked that question a lot recently, particularly by young people in colleges. I think they feel very lost in some way, just arriving at college and not being able to be independent and pursue what they want, and have parties and stuff. All of that, they can’t do, and I think the freshmen in college have been particularly affected by this. Also performers, too, because they have no outlets except making solo recordings, maybe, with themselves. Orchestras, of course, they can’t get together. They’re having a really hard time. All my orchestral friends are … Actually, some of them are happy, because they can pursue the things that they want to pursue that they didn’t have the time for last year, but it’s definitely hit the music industry very hard. As a composer, I’m just doing the same thing I always do, which is composing at home, alone. I’m actually enjoying that I have more time to compose, and more energy, because I don’t travel. I don’t travel, and I’m actually happy about that, because the traveling gets tiring, at my age. I’m 82. I don’t look it, but—

Elizabeth: No, you really don’t.

Joan: [laughs] You don’t have to say that.

Elizabeth: No, it’s very true. You don’t.

Joan: Music has kept me young. I’m actually, I’m learning a piano recital, just because I’m a pianist, and I never had the time to do that. I’m actually happy, but I know that a lot of people don’t have the same luxury that I have.

Elizabeth: That’s interesting, because I think composers, you think of your body of work, maybe, more in the sense of your lifetime, and you’re not used to that immediate feedback that those of us who are performers maybe are used to. Maybe we can learn something from your big picture, long-term thinking model.

Joan: I think [the pandemic] has created blessings, actually, on some very interesting levels. It’s made people fall back more into what they really want to do, and what they never had the time to do. I’ve seen that over and over and over again, with my player colleagues, not just my composer colleagues. It’s also, it forced them in a way to be more at home, more relaxed domestically, and thinking about shifting their values. I think that’s been a very important aspect of this whole COVID, that people have to be thinking differently. They just have to think differently, now. Some of it’s very positive, actually.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that’s been the case even with me personally, is really sitting with myself and being more comfortable internally, in a way, because I haven’t had all of the distractions, all the external distractions that come. I look forward to being able to take these lessons that I’ve learned and project them into, back into the musical world again, too, though. I miss the output of performance, and the camaraderie as well, of course… but I do think we’ll be better for it. We get stronger when we go through challenges.

Joan: Sometimes the routine of what we get involved with, especially with orchestras, needs to be thought about. Needs to be thought, how can we change that routine that we’ve accepted all these years into something more …  I don’t know, exciting is not the word. More curious. Letting, let’s say, living composers in. Letting women have more of a platform, and African Americans and Latinos. Yeah, because that’s starting to happen all over the place. I’m just getting tons and tons of emails about, “Oh, I’m doing this Latino composer, and I was doing this Black composer.” Just this morning I got a cellist who said, “I’m doing a piece of Jessie Montgomery‘s,” who’s a young Black composer. I was like, “Yeah, that’s great. Wow, that you’re thinking about that, other than Brahms or Beethoven.”

Elizabeth: Wow. It’s beautiful, thank you. You have said before in interviews that the wonderful thing about new music is the reaction that it provokes. What are a few of the reactions you are most interested in provoking these days?

Joan: Well, I want to be loved [laughs], so I just … That’s the reaction I want, but of course, first from the players and then from the audience. Not all composers have that desire. Some don’t care whether they’re loved or not. I’m unfortunately one of those. That’s why I’d never do well in politics, because you can’t be loved by everybody. What I really like, as traveling around the orchestra world and the chamber music world, is: what is the reaction of the audience? When I was traveling around early on in the orchestra world, there were very few living composers on that. This was years ago. Very few, and they always expected to dislike my piece because I was unknown, living, whatever.

Elizabeth: Alive, yeah. [laughs]

Joan: Yeah, and so I used to say to the audience, I would always give a talk, and I’d say, “How many of you, and I want an honest, honest, honest answer, are expecting to dislike my piece?” 80% of the hands went up. I said, “Okay, so how many of you think that’s unfair?” Same 80% went back up. I had them, I had the guilt level right there. How can they judge me if they don’t know me? I said, “You’re judging me, you don’t know me at all. Why are you judging me so fast?” That was a mantra that I used a lot. The second thing was—

Elizabeth: Brilliant.

Joan: Well, it was just two questions, then I had them, see. Guilt. The second thing was the curiosity level. You would think that they would be curious about a new thing coming into their environment, so I would tell a story. Okay, in your neighborhood, if a woman with pink hair came in and she wanted to share some cookies or something with you, or something, you would be very distrustful of this woman, right? Pink hair? Oh my God. No, she must be crazy. I mean, she must be nuts, but then you start to get to know her and you see that she’s actually a very interesting person and has a lot of sense of humor, and she’s intelligent, and you start to accept her and you forget the pink hair. The pink hair recedes and the personality comes forward. That’s what we need to do with living composers. We have to forget that they are living composers. That’s like a sign that says, “You are Republican,” or, “You are Democrat.” People don’t want these signs. The signs are too scary right now. Yeah, so we have to sort of break through that with curiosity, which is not high on the list, always.

Elizabeth: Okay, and while I don’t want to reduce your work by calling you a female composer, I am personally—

Joan: That’s not a reduction.

Elizabeth: Okay, good!

Joan: See, I don’t mind that title at all. See, this is another difference between me and other composers, women composers. There are some women that do not want to be identified as women, at all. Right? There are others who want to be and they’re out front about it and they’re with the activists and the women composers and stuff like that. I’m that one, because I am a woman! I can’t deny that. I mean, it’s not like I can say, “Well, don’t look at me as a woman, because I don’t want that.” I am a woman. I can’t help that.

Elizabeth: You embrace the female perspective.

Joan: Oh, absolutely.

Elizabeth: In your work.

Joan: Absolutely, and also, the history. The history of women composers, once I learned that history, it became fascinating to me how that line of history worked, and where we are today. See, and when I learned that, I realized that I was on a cutting edge, and before then I had no idea where … I was just doing, writing my music and hoping somebody would notice me. Knowing history is very important, I think, for women composers.

Elizabeth: Thank you. How do you see the landscape changing for women composers, if at all?

Joan: Oh, it’s changed quite dramatically, especially since the @MeToo movement. It’s like the Black Lives Matter changes the Black composers, the @MeToo movement changed the women composers. All of a sudden, we were all being noticed all over the place. I wrote a piece for the New York Philharmonic which was a part of the project that Deborah Borda established for the New York Phil, of the — like you’re doing. Acknowledging the 19th Amendment, and creating 19 composer commissions by women for the orchestra, which was an amazing visionary project of her, for a major orchestra like that. My piece is called 1920/2019.

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s great.

Joan: 1920 was the ratification of the vote for women, and 2019 was the emergence of the @MeToo movement. These were two incredibly important years for women, and I dedicated it to Deborah, because I wanted to acknowledge her vision, actually.

Elizabeth: That’s incredible. That must be a great honor for her, and she of course is someone that women in the industry look up to tremendously as well, so.

Joan: Right, she’s another pioneer woman. Yes.

Elizabeth: Yeah, she’s incredible. Incredible. Is there—

Joan: I have five fanfares— I’m sorry—

Elizabeth: Oh, no, no. Go ahead, please.

Joan: I have five, six, fanfares dedicated to six extraordinary women, and this one, now, is going to be dedicated to her. I’m very honored that I could dedicate this music to these unbelievable women.

Elizabeth: Yes. Are those the Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman? Yeah?

Joan: Yes. Six of them.

Elizabeth: Fantastic. Is there another glass ceiling that needs to be shattered by women composers?

Joan: Another glass ceiling to be shattered? You mean in the music world?

Elizabeth: In the music world.

Joan: Well, there is the conductor problem, which is … I think, I don’t know. You may know better, but I feel that that’s a little … That’s behind the women composers. 

Elizabeth: I think that’s probably true.

Joan: Yeah, you think that’s true. Right. There are two women conductors, Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, who are two of the women I dedicated my fanfares to, so that ceiling is having … It’s hard. That’s a hard one. The brass field is much better. Used to be no women in the brass. Now, they’re getting major positions in orchestras, and the strings are no problem now, and the winds. The brass were the last vestige, I think.

Elizabeth: I was a brass player, so yes.

Joan: Oh, you were? Okay!

Elizabeth: My experience early on was being the only female, and then it really rapidly changed and now I don’t perform anymore, but now I see … Sometimes, majority women in the brass section, and you’re right. A lot of them are winning and have held principal positions. We have a principal horn, principal trombone, women who were absolutely phenomenal musicians and people, and I’ve interviewed them as well for this series, because I think it’s important for us to highlight each others’ accomplishments. It is a different path for us to come up through, and with women conductors, my experience administratively is that very similar to what you’ve experienced as a composer, that there’s an influx of interest to hire women conductors and they’re very busy. They’re hard to hire, because they’re so booked out in advance, which is terrific. I think that just speaks to the fact that there need to be many more of them on the circuit.

Joan: You have to take some risks with the younger ones coming up.

Elizabeth: That’s right, that’s right. Which is great, because they’re probably well qualified to do the work, right, but I think it’s just a matter of time. I do see the early stages of that happening, and maybe even the mid stages in some cases, so some incredible talents in the world right now.

Joan: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: Very, very popular choices to hire, so I’m excited to see … Maybe in the next five years, I think we’ll see a big difference.

Joan: I remember years and years ago, JoAnn Falletta played a piece of mine with the Long Beach Symphony, and I went, and it was a big orchestra. The brass section were all these macho males, and JoAnn Falletta’s small. Do you know her?

Elizabeth: I’ve seen her. I don’t personally know her, but yeah, she’s …

Joan: Oh, she’s amazingly charming, but small.

Elizabeth: Well, I enjoy her radio show tremendously too. She’s great.

Joan: Oh, okay. She gets up and conducts my piece. I can’t, I think it was one of my harder pieces for orchestra. She’s right there going … With everything, and getting the energy and I’m sitting there like … This was years ago. This was in the 1980s, and I’m like, “Oh my God, this little woman can get a lot of power out of this orchestra right now.” [laughs] She’s amazing. She really is.

Elizabeth: Yeah. It’s about channeling energy, right? Any size or shape or gender can do that if they have the right approach.

Joan: That’s right. When you take your little dog for a walk, it can dominate the Great Danes. I had a little dog that dominated the Great Danes.

Elizabeth: I have a Dachshund, so yes. I understand.

Joan: Oh, it was a Dachshund, it was a Dachshund.

Elizabeth: Was it? Oh, I love them. Yeah. They’re the epitome of little dog syndrome. Mine was fierce.

Joan: Yeah, like the little conductor syndrome.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly.

Joan: Major conductors.

Elizabeth: Oh, man. Okay. Well, the Colorado Music Festival has an educational arm. It’s called the Center for Musical Arts, and that’s where our offices are, where I am right now. Is there a lesson that you learned as a young musician that you still remember today?

Joan: Okay. It’s what I tell composers and players, actually. Start your own group. Start your own group, and make it your own vision, like you want to play this kind of music only, or you want to be the composer who writes for this group only, or you want them all to be composers who play, or they’re just players and you want to get some big composers involved writing music for them. I mean, there’s all kinds of visions that you can create with your own group, because nobody’s calling the shots except you. That’s what I tell … It’s not easy work, because you have to have a leader who’s going to be able to get everybody to stay together, and maybe even raise some money down the line. That’s down the line, but even as a youngster, I think it’s a great thing. It’s like having a team, like a neighborhood team and you meet every Saturday night to play for each other, or with each other. It’s like a club. I think it’s a great thing to have as a young, young musician.

Elizabeth: That’s really excellent advice. I wish someone had given that advice to me early on, because I think the interaction with other musicians would have been very special. I had that in the orchestra world, but certainly not as a chamber musician, and I certainly didn’t think of things in terms of my own vision for what I wanted. I always thought about pleasing the section leader or pleasing the conductor, and trying to obtain some sort of a status or something, but not ever really what I wanted to do as a musician, or now as an administrator. Certainly now, I have much more of an ability to craft a vision and to see it through.

Joan: Sure, sure, sure, yeah. What instrument did you play?

Elizabeth: I played the horn, I played the horn.

Joan: As a horn player, you could have established your own group, either as a brass quintet or as a quartet or something, trio, and a wind, a wind, too. Yeah.

Elizabeth: That’s right. Opportunities.

Joan: Yeah, but see, it takes, from a young kid, it takes a lot of resourcefulness to make that come off, and you probably need a leader. That’s the way those groups get started. There’s always a leader.

Elizabeth: There’s a charismatic leader.

Joan: A charismatic leader who will say, “Okay, guys. You have to be over at my house at 6:00 on Saturday.”

Elizabeth: Yeah, they set a standard. A set of agreeable standards, and yeah, then you’re in. I love that advice. Thank you so much. 

Enjoy a brief clip of Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 5 below, performed by the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra as part of the 2020 Virtual Festival.

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