Joan Tower: Made in America

Frank J. Oteri: The first thing that strikes me about the Made in America project is how much sense it makes, artistically and economically. So why is this the first time it has ever happened?

Joan Tower: Every classical music world has its own culture, its own DNA, its own view toward what living composers are, and it also has its own activity of repetition. For example, in the quartet world: if you get hooked into a quartet that loves a piece that they commissioned or whatever, they will play it all over the place. They’ll play it in Europe and the United States, if they have that kind of touring capability. In the orchestra world, it tends to get slightly frozen. I think if someone did a study on it, you’d see that most pieces are played in one place, one time. Then there are certain pieces that make such a big musical impact for whatever reason that they get repeated just by the natural fuel of the strength of the piece. But I think you’d find that those pieces are in the minority.

FJO: It seems like such an incredible waste.

JT: I know. It’s unlike the band world, for example. I know the band world a little bit now because I wrote a band piece and I have another piece that was arranged for band. First of all, it’s an eager world. They do lots of consortium commissions—they get together 34 bands and then they commission a composer. They don’t have money enough to commission one composer [on their own], so they get together. And they do this constantly. And they share conductors, they share soloists. You could say the orchestra world shares soloists, too, but the band world, I don’t know, it seems to be a lot more generous and a lot more interested in composers.

FJO: But orchestras were once all very interested in composers. Why do you think the orchestra world wound up where it is right now?

JT: You know, I’ve traveled around the major orchestra world for 20 years now, but I’ve never been in the community orchestra world—hardly, once—and in the youth orchestra world three times. These are different levels of worlds and we just had a symposium on this in Aspen. [American Symphony Orchestra League CEO] Henry Fogel was on the panel and he said, “You know there’s a whole culture of orchestras out there that we’re not actually talking about. We’re talking about a certain level of orchestra.” And that was a very interesting statement to me because I think there’s some truth in that. I don’t know this world yet—I’m about to get to know it in spades!—but I’m very curious as to the way they view me as a living composer, because I’m a litmus test. I’m very curious as to how they’ll negotiate my piece. Now, I know some of them are much better than others; there are all levels. But I’m curious whether the piece is strong enough to make them want to work harder and what the level of passion is that’s going to be in there. Part of that depends on the piece and part of that depends on the nature of their community orchestra and the people in their orchestra. And the conductor. I’m curious to see how they’re going to deal with me. Are they going to call me up? Are they going to ask me questions? Are they going to invite me to talk to the orchestra or not? That’s up to different kinds of conductors.

FJO: So all that stuff hasn’t been worked out with each of the orchestras?

JT: No, because I haven’t started yet! I’ll come back to you in two years and tell you then.

FJO: Now, what kinds of arrangements do you have with these orchestras in terms of how many rehearsals they’re going to do? Are there a fixed set of parameters that they must follow?

JT: It depends on how much time I can spend [with them]. They overloaded the fall because everybody wanted to get in on that first wave. So they double booked and triple booked concerts, and I can only be at one [at a time]. And also I’m conducting three of them this fall and one in the spring.

FJO: But there’s no contract that if they’re signed on to do this piece they have to have four rehearsals, let’s say.

JT: No, that’s up to them because they’re all different. Some of them started rehearsing already; some of them will only be rehearsing that week. They are all [different] levels.

FJO: Now, in terms of interpretive leeway, we had the honor of being at—the new word that’s getting bandied about—the “avant-premiere” of the piece. I was so excited to be able to hear the piece, but I was even more excited to be able to hear it twice because it sounded very different: the first time with the student conductors trading off each other and the second time with you conducting. I was peering over the shoulder at somebody’s score, and it was so much looser when you conducted it than when these students conducted.

JT: Probably because I’m a looser conductor. [laughs] I’m not as “trained” as they are, but I know the piece. They don’t know the piece. They were following their directions and I decided that some of the directions weren’t working too well, so I changed them. I can do that!

FJO: Can they do that in performance? What are the guidelines? Will people in City X be hearing pretty much the same thing as people in City Z?

JT: No, because the hall will be different, the orchestra will be different, the level will be different, the conductor will be different—there are a lot of factors here. I think most conductors will try to honor the tempos until they get to know it better. If there are two or three or four performances, then they might say, “You know, this tempo could be a little faster.” But I think the first time they do it they’re not going to say immediately, “Oh, I think this could be faster.” It takes a little bit of time to get into those kinds of changes.

FJO: So you’re okay with that kind of interpretive leeway?

JT: Oh, sure, whatever works, and if they have suggestions for something to do better, absolutely. I’ve already gotten one suggestion.

FJO: So the piece has changed to some extent, I guess?

JT: Oh, yes, it’s a livable thing. It’s going to change, and I’m going to change it. And it’s great. It’s like what Mahler used to do, though of course he was the conductor, too, so he could do that. But it’s a living entity. It shouldn’t be fixed in cement.

FJO: But that’s so opposite of what the orchestra tradition has become.

JT: I know.

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