Frank J. Oteri: You hadn’t written for orchestra in a number of years and actually swore it off. Have you written differently having to write for people who might not be the top-level players?
Joan Tower: Oh, yeah. I had several player advisors and we went over it with a fine tooth comb. What happened was I found myself getting more and more confined. Can they handle that height? Can they handle that speed? Not too fast. No, no, no. Not that high. Not quite that high. And oh, you can only feature certain people. You’ve got to be careful who you feature.
FJO: So who can’t you feature?
JT: Well, [laughs] I don’t want to do damage to those poor instruments, but you can imagine. I can tell you who you can feature because there are reasons for it. The flute, because flutists are trained, and clarinetists and trumpets, they come up in the band world, and they’re trained to follow conductors. And they’re trained to count and play in tune, and they’ve got a lot of chops going for them at an earlier time. And then the first violinist, because the first violinist should be the best player in the orchestra…
FJO: Strangely enough the lessons learned writing for these community orchestra do translate back into writing for the “A” level orchestras. You might be working with the best possible players, but maybe they’re not going to give it the rehearsal time that it needs to be the piece that you want people to hear.
JT: Well, the top-level [American] orchestras can read like nobody in the world, including the European orchestras and every other orchestra. The players in the major orchestras are the most unbelievable sight-readers I have ever encountered in my life. The Chicago Symphony sight read my Silver Ladders, they literally sight read. The percussionist took the part home, I think, to get the choreography, but the others didn’t. It’s a matter of pride sometimes, not to take it home.
So they have “X” amount of time to learn this piece and, boy, they just learn how to connect. But it’s not an architectural blueprint. It’s not like the nails have to be that size for every house, you know what I mean? So the burden for the composer on the page is extraordinary when it comes to the major orchestras, because you get exactly what you put down.
FJO: No interpretation?
JT: Well, maybe in the solos and maybe the conductor understands more about the piece, which is great if they do, then you get more interpretation, especially with a second and third performance.
FJO: Now, is this because the orchestra’s repertoire and way of doing things is completely fixed with doing standard repertoire works that everybody knows and everybody’s heard a zillion times?
JT: It’s very complicated and I’m still trying to figure it out. You’re dealing with a large entity of people. It’s not like you’re dealing with a string quartet. So you cannot say, “Oh, excuse me conductor, I think it’d be great if you did this or that.” Why? Because there’s no time for that. It creates a discussion because the person next to you says, “I don’t agree with that. I think we should do it this way.” My first conducting gig was at the Scotia Festival and I did Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which is one of my favorite pieces. They were all first chair players from different orchestras in Canada and the United States, and I said, “I’m new to this and I’m not sure about the tempo of the Adagio.” I got six different ideas of what that tempo could be. There was a 20-minute argument/discussion, and I just stood there like this [crosses arms] waiting for them to finish and finally I said to myself, this is not a good idea. We are now 20 minutes into this. I said, “Thank you so much for your input.” And that was the last time I asked them anything! I saw what the problem was.
FJO: So sometimes a non-democratic model is more efficient.
JT: [Sighs] Yeah. The creativity has to continue but it has to be there on another level. Like St. Luke’s does, for example. You create a new music series, an old music series, you back up a singer or you back up Metallica, which they’ve done at Madison Square Garden, and so what you’re getting are these floating choices that these people have which keeps them more creative. They have a lot of input in everything, and I get the feeling that it’s a much happier band of people.
FJO: You began writing for orchestra long after being a composer of exclusively chamber music and being a chamber musician yourself as the pianist with Da Capo which you founded. So the orchestral way of making music, where one person says what to do and you only have a certain amount of time to work on something, was very different from the world you knew where, ideally, everyone in a chamber group makes decisions together. It’s a very different way of thinking.
JT: Oh, very different. It basically puts the burden on the page for you, and if you don’t have that absolutely in order, you’re going to suffer. Composers don’t always understand how to get that in order because they are not allowed to be heard very much, so there’s not a lot of advanced training for hearing what works and what doesn’t. It’s a difficult situation for a young composer, because it’s like being a young conductor. They have to have an orchestra to try things out. They can’t do it in front of a mirror forever.
But in some chamber music settings like the string quartet world, the page is flexible and they have to carve it out, because in order to be competitive with other string quartets they need to really have a creative voice.—No, I think we should do it off the string a little more. No, absolutely not. What are you talking about? No, look, let’s just try it.—And the dialogue is very tough in the string quartet. They have to learn how to fight and interact and balance, but a composer comes into this and it’s like old home week because they’re thinking the same way. You’re walking into an actually creative setting, so it’s just great because it’s natural. But there’s more time and there’s less people: there aren’t 16 first violins and it’s a very different setting.
FJO: So why write for orchestra if it doesn’t have this creative edge?
JT: Well, it’s just such an incredible palette of color and there are so many exciting things you can do with it. But the human situation for me is very difficult, and I unfortunately go into all musical situations as a human being, not just as a person on paper.
FJO: What’s so interesting to me is that in a lot of your orchestral pieces, you have specific players in mind. When you were the composer-in-residence in St. Louis, you got to know the musicians you were writing for and you wrote to their specific strengths. You gave up writing for orchestra because of how anonymous it can be, yet Made in America is even more anonymous because there are 65 different orchestras involved. There’s no way you can know all those people and, as you said yourself, you’re not even going to be at all the performances.
JT: But those people are there not because they’re making a lot of money. They’re in those orchestras because they want to play and they want to be there. That’s what I’m curious about. How does that effect what they do with my piece? And I’m going to hear that right away. And I’m going to hear that the chops are not as good, the intonation is going to be not as good, everything is going to be “not as good,” but I can hear the effort coming through. I mean, I face clarinetists playing my Wings at all kinds of levels, and I can hear within three measures what the level is, how long they worked on the piece, what their commitment is to this piece, and how much they’re willing to go against the page. I can hear that within three measures because I’ve done this so much. And I’m just very curious to see how my piece is going to come off of the page to them and how enthusiastic they’re going to be about making it work the best way they can. That’s what I’m really interested in.
FJO: In a way, this is the ultimate piece to write knowing it’s going to get so many performances.
JT: [laughs] It’s a huge burden.
FJO: Well, I’m thinking about it in terms of the future, because you have a lot more pieces in you. Where do you go from here?
JT: I just finished a brass quintet for Juilliard’s 100th, and I’m just about to finish a piece for Orpheus which is going to the other end of the earth from the community orchestra. They’re really a large chamber group and very different from a major orchestra type setting. They don’t have a conductor. It’s a very personal ensemble. So that’s why I accepted that. And I just finished a viola concerto which is going to be done this year, too. The concertos I never opted out of for the simple reason that I’m going through one person who’s up front and that becomes the musical connection to the orchestra.