Frank J. Oteri: Your music is so much about individuals and personalities, yet you’ve insisted on never writing vocal music.
Joan Tower: I’ve really thought about this a lot, because the resistance is so high with me and a lot of singers have asked me. So every time they ask me, I think about it. I finally did accept a youth chorus, for Transient Glory. That’s going to be my entrée, but writing for young voices in a group is sort of like dealing with instruments. I can do just anything. I don’t even know what text. I probably won’t even use a text. But I started thinking that composers are pretty much split in history down one side or the other—I think somebody should do a dissertation on this. There are a few—like Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, even Bolcom in this century, and Rorem to a certain extent—that have done both, and some very easily on both sides, but very few. The majority of composers are on one side of the fence or the other.
FJO: But they’ll have maybe one work or a handful of works in the other.
JT: Right. Beethoven really struggled with the voice.
FJO: Yet he brought the voice to the symphony.
JT: Yeah. Anyway, it’s not like I’m particularly special in that respect.
FJO: But is there an aesthetic decision involved as well?
JT: Yeah, I think that composers express themselves through “meaning” of different kinds, and the vocal meaning has a verbal connection to it, so they can’t get going without the verbal inspiration. That’s one kind of meaning. The others don’t want to have anything to do with verbal meaning; this is pure, abstract, musical, instrumental, whatever you want to call it. You can make whatever you want of it.
FJO: Sonata No. 12.
JT: Yeah. And I think there’s a very clear distinction between those two types of composers.
FJO: But that’s funny because I was listening to the new Naxos CD of your music and I was really taken with the solo piano pieces. They were all based on phrases from John Ashbury poems, and I thought, wow, she’s responding to literature here.
JT: No! What happened was I wrote a piece and found the phrase that I needed for the piece. [laughs] That’s really what happened. Some of the phrases were actually beautiful. I just loved “vast antique cubes.” Whoa, that’s a great phrase. So in that one I tried to emulate that idea somehow. But the others: “Holding a Daisy,” “Throbbing Still” is pretty clear; and “Or like a…an engine” was attached to a motoric piece.
FJO: But there’s definitely a language-music connection. Just by giving something a title, you’ve given a piece a very specific meaning it might not otherwise have had, and you’ve done this many times with everything from Silver Ladders to the Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman.
JT: Do you know Debussy’s piano preludes? They’re beautiful titles—”Sunken Cathedral,” “Footsteps in the Snow.” And if you’ve played those pieces, those images are just perfect for those pieces. Well, it turns out he wrote those images after the pieces, not before. He found the right image to fit the piece, and that’s basically what I do. I guess it’s just a way of creating a little window into the piece that isn’t too heavy. You know what I mean? Like Wings for clarinet. Well, that just evokes flying, right? And that’s one of my best titles. And then I have some that are too confining, like Amazon. I’ve had people come up to me after and say, I heard the jungles there, and I heard the monkeys,” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?”!
FJO: It’s interesting, though, because except for maybe the concertos, you don’t tend to use boilerplate titles for things. You don’t call something String Quartet No. 2, and in a way that’s sort of distancing yourself from the classical music canon of the past. So you clearly see the need for having the titles.
JT: Yeah, I want to have an action and an image that’s not too overwhelming. And I work hard on the titles. I really do. I spend a lot of time. The last one I have is Purple Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra. I love that.
FJO: Bringing it back to Made in America, that’s an odd title.
JT: I gave up on that one. No, actually I went around and around and around the block. The project is called Made in America and I featured “America the Beautiful” as the main tune, so I thought, why not just call it that, Made in America? So, it’s not bad. It was a little bit of a cop-out though.