Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Joan Tower: ‘The voice is in the risks’


I love Joan Tower’s music. It’s right there in the Goldilocks zone: serious but not stodgy, zealous but not brash, subtle but not understated, big and bold but also immediate and intimate, fun and exciting and weird but also somber, emotive, complex, heartfelt. It’s expansive, stimulating stuff, neither overly planned nor chaotically aleatoric but organically developed from simple generative ideas, grown from seed to plant to harvest with a minimum of fuss and fluff.

It’s rich music that fills your soul like a hearty meal. When I’m done with a typical 13-to-15-minute Tower composition (say, 1976’s Black Topaz, or the Grammy-winning Made in America), I don’t want more, at least not right away; I want to savor. No obsessive munching on hours of Glass opera, no blissing out in Oliveros trances, no Kahane singalongs.

Tower is, above all, a narrative composer. Not in the sense that there is a poem or story dictating each detail like in a tone-poem by Strauss or Berlioz, but in the more abstract isomorphic sense that led Debussy to affix descriptive titles to the ends—not the beginnings—of his preludes. The music comes first, and has its own peculiar narrative language; titles and subheadings come later, as a description of music that has already been written.

American composer Joan Tower.

Tower will be in Oregon for the opening weekend of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, whose founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi are among what seems like an endless river of Tower friends (David Ludwig is another name in that river, and when I mentioned him she said she had just been texting him). As this year’s composer-in-residence, Tower will attend open forums to discuss her work, and the first weekend’s concerts feature her fifth string quartet (“White Water”, which I remember quite fondly from Calidore’s performance at last year’s CMNW) and Rising for string quartet and flute, sandwiched between Haydn’s Joke and Beethoven’s second Rasumovsky quartet. Portland area superstars Amelia Lukas, Marilyn de Oliveira, Greg Ewer, Charles Noble, and Megumi Stohs Lewis join Callahan, Eguchi, and former composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, whose String Circle for String Quartet features in the second weekend.

I spoke with Tower by phone while she waited to board a plane to Oregon and drink wine in the country with classical musicians.

On composing

“It’s totally organic. It’s like writing a novel. You start with a character and an environment with a particular profile and then you try and figure what that character is going to do.”


Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

“What is technique? I don’t know. You see, I’m not a pitch person. The world’s all pitch pitch pitch, and that’s not what my music is about. It’s about everything else. The register, the texture, the rhythm, the action, is it going up, is it going down, all that other stuff is what I’m concerned about. Pitches are not that important to me. I can say that now. Pitches to me are like, okay, I’m going to use bricks, I’m going to use marble, but they mean nothing to me until I start shaping. They don’t drive the music, the music drives them. It took me a long time to figure that out, after all the schooling.”

“If you look at Beethoven, who is one of my biggest influences, he is very much about the texture, the rhythm, where is it going, where is it coming back to; those kinds of issues are very significant to Beethoven. If you just did just a pitch analysis of Beethoven, it’s not that interesting.”

On teaching

“I still teach, I love to teach, and they’ll probably have to take me out in a body bag. Students are always exciting: some are very talented, some are very hard working, once in awhile you get both.”

“They have so much access now, stuff that we never had when I was growing up. You had to go out and buy the long-playing disc, and that’s now defunct. They’re on youtube listening all the time. There’s a lot of available styles to them immediately, if they pursue it. It’s a very different world now.”

On finding a voice

“So then you have to have find your own voice amongst all of that, and that’s the real challenge and the biggest goal that every composer should have. Because if you don’t have some kind of voice, the music may sound good, well made, but it’s not gonna have a big life.”


Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

“How do you get that? Big question mark!”

“One thing is to take risks. The voice is in the risks. But you have to know what a risk is in the first place, so you have to have a context that’s stable enough that it can create a risk. Because if you’re in an incoherent environment the risk doesn’t mean anything.”

“I think that’s become a problem with a lot of composers: they get so involved with the pitch that they forget what’s making the pitch. They don’t make it come alive, so it gets kind of dead.”

“It’s a personality thing, and it’s also a talent thing. If you’re super independent and super survival-oriented in terms of your own idea of what music is, you’re going to write your own music, without anybody’s help.”

“Sometimes what happens with young composers is they get involved in a group of composers that they admire, or like, or fall into because of school or whatever, and it’s not the right place for them, and it takes them awhile to get out of that. It’s like family. And that happened with me: I was involved with the serial crowd for ten years, and it was not my cup of tea, and it took me ten years to figure that out.”

“So you can get waylaid by people and influences, but you have to find your own musical talents, which is sometimes outside that particular group you’re with. And that’s the hard part, because people don’t want to be alone, they want to have people around—musicians, teachers—and they want to feel comfortable, personally. So it’s hard to leave those environments sometimes.”

Composers Joan Tower and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest’s Composer Panel last summer. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

“It comes back to acknowledging what it is you actually like about music. I didn’t like that music at all, the serial music, but I thought that’s where it was at: ‘oh, this is the place where people make music’, and I just didn’t know better. They were all very smart people, extremely brainy people. I felt like the dumb one in the crowd.”


Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

“It can be confusing and complicated for young people, but I think the independent ones and the talented ones will find their way eventually. You can’t go on making music you don’t feel so comfortable with.”

On the future of classical music

“Oh god. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow! I would ask the musicologists that question. They’ll give you an answer.”

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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