TOWER: Chamber and Solo Music
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Joan Tower (b. 1938)
Joan Tower's pieces often start slowly, with soft, longnotes, as if they needed to establish something simplebefore they can assert themselves more strongly. Theselong notes are often written off the beat, though there'sno way you can hear that, because nobody is playing onthe beat. There's no way to tell that one note fallsexactly on the unspoken pulse, while another note mighthesitate, falling just a hair behind it.
But these little hesitations--and little surges, whena note comes just before the beat--have an emotionaleffect. They make the music unpredictable, and supple.
The notes shape themselves into melodic lines, andthese sound fresh and new, because they unfold sofreely.
And this is only how the pieces start. Later on,they'll often gather energy, growing forceful anddecisive. These are two sides of Tower's music. It canbe quiet and emotional, and also strong.
Tower was born in 1938 just north of New YorkCity. But she grew up in South America, where herfather worked as a mining engineer, and there shedeveloped a love for rhythm. She went to BenningtonCollege in Vermont, and then to Columbia University,where she got a doctorate in composition in 1978.
Columbia, back then, was a center for atonal musicin America, and like many other composers, Tower fellinto the serial/atonal orbit. This helped her build subtlemusical constructions, but wasn't much good for herlove of driving rhythm. She had to find her own voice,and when she did this, Messiaen was a big influence,especially his Quartet for the End of Time, a piece thatunfolds with perfect freedom, not tied to any orthodoxy.
Tower's music soon became completely individual, fullof sharp and lively dissonance, but also using gentlerchords, along with pulsing rhythms and yearning bits ofmelody that could have come from tonal works.
In 1969, she founded what became a prize-winningchamber ensemble, the Da Capo Chamber Players, andhere we have another key fact about her career. She's aperforming musician -- a pianist -- and she writesmusic for other musicians. Thus her music is closelymarried to whatever instruments (and instrumentalists)she writes it for. On this recording, the four piano worksare wedded to the piano; the solo oboe part in IslandPrelude would thrill any oboist; and Wild Purple, a soloviola piece, bitingly brings out the untamed sound of theviola's lowest string.
So it was hardly surprising that her music--with itsfreedom, its lyricism, and its lively rhythms--had sucha great success. Tower became one of the firstcomposers to serve as composer in residence with anAmerican orchestra (the very fine St Louis Symphony),and went on to get performances with countlessorchestras, commissions from such notable chambergroups as the Emerson, Tokyo and Muir Quartets, theChamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, theKalichstein-Laredo-Robison Trio, and many otherdistinctions, including the international GrawemeyerAward, perhaps the most prestigious honour anycomposer can win. She's a member of the Academy ofArts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Artsand Letters, and since 1972 has been Asher EdelmanProfessor of Music at Bard College. Recently she waschosen as the first composer to participate in \Made inAmerica," an unprecedented programme thatcommissions pieces for performance by orchestras in all50 American states.
Though these biographical facts can't capture howmuch fun Tower can be, and how outspoken she is. Shesays that when new music is neglected, even the greatdead composers suffer, because people don't listen totheir music with the critical ears they'd bring to newwork. When she gives pre-concert talks about hermusic, she often talks about parts of her pieces that sheherself doesn't like, to encourage her audience to formits own opinion.About the works on this recording:
The string quartet In Memory began as a tribute toMargaret Shafer, a close friend who had passed away.
But, as Tower says, "9/11 hit about a month later andthe intensity of the piece got higher. It veers betweenpain and love and anger." The pain and anger get quitewild, but still each section of the piece grows naturallyout of whatever came before. At the end, the piecesubsides into a single note, pulsing softly with a gentlebreath of grief.
Big Sky, for piano trio--piano, violin, and cello--"has an image of a big landscape," Tower says, "aMontana-like sky and maybe a lone wild stallionroaming freely within that. Sometimes he is staring atthe peaceful gigantic blue sky, other times runningwildly and freely over the green mountains." The musiccan be rapt and intimate, with the piano wanderingthrough yearning high notes in the violin. But then thehorse begins to run, and the music rushes upward,finding its release in shining, rocky, rhythmic chords.
"I think of the viola sound as being purple," Towersays, and that accounts for half the title of Wild Purple,her solo viola piece. And the other half? "I wanted to tryand write a fairly virtuosic piece for viola," Tower says,"and there is an 'inside' viola story here because theviola is never thought of as particularly 'wild.'" Theviola usually sounds veiled and reticent -- but not here!Things begin very quietly, but soon there's a jaggedinterruption. Next we start hearing two notes at once,and then the piece moves higher, conquering new space,exploding with ferocity.
Next come the four piano pieces, written separatelybut published as a group, all with titles taken from linesin a John Ashbery poem, No Longer Very Clear. Thefirst piece, Holding a Daisy, is about Georgia O'Keefe'sflower paintings, Tower says, "which are so powerfuland almost scary in their strength." Simple chords growinto something big and strong; the ending, calm again,sounds more like a pause than a conclusion.
The next piece, Or Like a...an Engine never stopsmoving. As you listen, try to guess what's going tohappen next; it won't be easy. Vast Antique Cubes softlyand slowly explores what Tower calls "widespreadpiano spaces.". It especially likes to wander upward,though it reaches firmer destinations than you mightexpect. The final piano piece, Throbbing Still, is, asTower says, "another motoric piece that brings in someof my Stravinsky and Bach-like memories." It's full ofsurprises, and in many places seems to throb, witharousing rhythms, while the piano texture and theharmonies remain the same, thus creating an impression(as the title might suggest) that the music somehowmoves forward, and at the same time stands still.
The recording ends with Island Prelude, for oboeand string quartet, though there's also a version for oboeand string orchestra, and another for oboe andwoodwinds. Here the oboe, Tower says, should sound"like a big solo bird." She wrote the music for herhusband Jeff Litfin, and tried, as she says, "forsomething with love and sensuousness. I thought of thesetting as a tropical island somewhere in the Bahamas."The oboe plays aching, longing melodies, but also flieswith vivid, passionate arousal. At the finish, the musicdoesn't seem to end; it simply stops.Greg Sandow