Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts
By Henry C. Mayer

A Composer Talks About Music and Her Work

It is a special treat to share with you some thoughts from a recent conversation with accomplished American composer Joan Tower. She was in town for the local premiere for her widely acclaimed Clarinet Concerto. This is but the latest performance of her music by our orchestra. In 1990, she won the Grawemeyer award in her field.

Asked about what is involved in musical composition, she admits, "I find it very difficult to explain how one composes music. Music has its own language. Each piece is unique. A composer is like a sculptor; both work with their ideas and raw material. Some time in this process the composer is in charge, sometimes not. The creative act defies explanation; it is almost like creating from nothing. I have a love-hate relationship with composing."

She then said something startling, at least to this writer: "The title of a piece, especially the music I write, is decided only after it is completed. The title does not say anything necessarily about what I write. Take a piece I wrote called 'Amazon.' I just gave it that title without any ulterior motive. It certainly does not refer to the river of that name. I had been reading some feminist literature around that time and some of our readers may recall that in Homer's Iliad and Vergil's Aeneid, the Amazons were female warriors in the Trojan War."

Who has influenced her work? "First, Beethoven for structure and content; Stravinsky for rhythm and color; and our recently deceased contemporary Olivier Messiaen, the art of slow music."

What about the Clarinet Concerto? "I fell in love with this instrument. For me, it is one of the most extraordinarily flexible of instruments, capable of an incredibly wide range of dynamics of expression. It is one of five pieces I have composed for this instrument." It was premiered on April 10, 1988, for the highly talented clarinetist Charles Neidich. The American Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Jorge Mester, whom many local music lovers will remember.

Those who find program notes to be esoteric are not alone. Ms. Tower said that "writing program notes can be very difficult. I am not comfortable with notes which try to dissect my work."

Ms. Tower began playing the piano at age six, for, as she says, "My father had already spotted my affinity for music. I began composing during my years at Bennington College."