Frank J. Oteri: What you are writing is clearly part of the classical music tradition but contemporary music is usually not on the radar of the people who listen to classical music. Many times you’ll hear listeners say that they “don’t get” the new piece on a program. You talked about creating windows into pieces with titles, so you’re clearly thinking about the audience. But who exactly is that audience?
Joan Tower: Wow, that’s a loaded question. That’s a heavy question. If somebody is sitting in an audience and listening to a piece of mine and they “don’t get it,” I don’t care who they are, I don’t care how old they are or how much new music they’ve heard, where they’re from, how much education they’ve had, if they’re not musical, let’s say they’re just not musical, then that’s a problem. But let’s say they’re basically musical people and they don’t get my piece, then I haven’t done my job. I really believe that.
We go to this gym and there’s this fireman. His name is Bill. He’s retired from the New York Fire Department, and he’s this big burly guy, and he’s always talking about how uneducated he is. He’s embarrassed by it, but I keep telling him to shut up. But he’s just a wonderful guy so I invited him to one of my concerts. I think the only thing he ever heard was rock, pop, folk maybe. But never classical. I said to him, “Look, you’re probably going to hate this stuff,” but he says, “I’ll try.” He comes to the concert and I gave a little talk ahead of time and I said there’s a guy in this audience who is going to be really challenged by this and I’m just hoping I’ll get to him somehow. So the music was played and he came up to me, this big burly guy, and he threw his arms around me and he says, “You know, I really liked it! I really liked the music.” And that meant a lot to me, because I had crossed a lot of barriers there. This is totally new stuff to him. Somehow I just wanted to get him, for the connection to be made. I think there’s a power of music that goes beyond style that is very, very important. I think these distinctions between classical, folk, rock, jazz, electronic, are a little bit strong. I say to somebody I’m a classical composer. They feel it’s too elitist for them; it’s a category that’s a little too prejudicial. I think for somebody that’s musical, some pieces will just get to them no matter what.
FJO: It’s that word “classical.” Everybody hears classical music and they think Mozart. That’s not living music. And then for the people within the community, you say modern classical music, and that conjures up another.
JT: Oh, right, exactly, I’m outta here, right? [laughs] That’s way too smart for me. That’s like me with art. I get totally scared when somebody takes me to a museum. Ohmigod, I won’t be able to know what that’s about. I’ve tried, I really have tried, but I’m just not basically too visual. I just have to accept that. And I think that’s where the delineation comes. There are people who are “musical” that go to all kinds of things, and then there are people who are just non-musical. They just don’t make musical connections. That’s the delineation that one has to be careful of.
FJO: We both kind of joked around and said, “Oh, that’s too smart for me,” but there was definitely a sound world that composers had that was distancing in the recent past. It spawned some great music and there are some composers who are still actively pursuing this style, but it had a distancing effect with the mainstream audience for classical music and never really reached a large public beyond that.
JT: You mean the Schoenberg school? Yeah, right.
FJO: You came up in the heat of this as a composer. That’s how you were trained. But at some point you made a break with it. Was it being active performing music—dealing with other musicians and with audiences on a regular basis—that led you away from writing that kind of music?
JT: I think when you’re young you tend to be swept up in your locale, whatever is nourishing you in one way or another, and that could be many different things. I was swept up in the whole serial group which was led by Charles Wuorinen at the time. He and I were very close friends. I watched him create all these concerts uptown, and conduct them and play, so I said that’s what I want to do. So I created some concerts downtown at Greenwich House so that I wouldn’t compete with him uptown. And I played the piano. I couldn’t conduct because at that time a woman conducting was…forget it! This was in the ’60s.
I was impressed with his brightness, and also Babbitt, Wolpe, and Boretz—all extremely bright people. And caring, too. But there was a stylistic bent in all of this which was very “bright” [laughs] and I always felt like I was in the wrong place. I would try to read their articles and I spent months trying to understand them. It wasn’t actually until I heard some other music like Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a piece by Crumb; I remember those two pieces. I heard them for the first time and I was struck by the simplicity and the power behind these pieces. I was just blown away. But, of course, I couldn’t say anything, because at that time that kind of music was way too simple and too direct. The music was supposed to be very complex and very layered and very pointillistic. That’s the music we were involved with. That’s what we thought was the world, or that’s what I thought because that was my world. And then I heard those two pieces and I was jarred out of that world. It took me quite a while to get out, but I finally pulled away.
FJO: It’s interesting that you say Charles was doing this stuff uptown and you were doing this stuff downtown.
JT: I wasn’t stylistically doing Downtown.
FJO: I know. But since you just said that, the so-called Uptown/Downtown war is another thing that really divided our community. Some people say it’s over and we’re now in a more tolerant era of polystylism; others say it’s still going on. Kyle Gann says it’s still going on. Where do you see the current compositional landscape?
JT: Kyle Gann is a colleague of mine, and he’s a writer and a thinker. Part of his talent is thinking about these things and articulating them, so he’s interested in the path of history very seriously. He’s an incredibly informed guy, about American music in particular. I’m not that type at all. I’m not a historian, I’m not a scholar. I know a lot of music, but I couldn’t tell you how it fits into the cultural path of this or that. I couldn’t. I just don’t have that kind of talent. So I think you have to be careful who’s talking about what. I think we live in an incredibly interesting age in the sense that we have a lot of freedom of choice for the first time in history, really big choices. Maybe a little too big, but there’s something there for everybody. If you want to just do DJ music, you can go over here. If you want to do just strict straight pure improvisation, you go over here. If you want to do controlled improvisation, music with dance, jazz, notated music—I’m in the notated crowd—you’ve got all these choices. And I think the competition in some people’s minds has to do with money, awards, visibility, those kind of outside factors, which can play a role in jealousy. Like, why is Yo-Yo Ma only playing Chris Rouse or Richard Danielpour? Why isn’t he playing Terry Riley? You can get jealous with that kind of visibility level, which is natural. But I’m not so sure that the Uptown/Downtown thing has the same competitiveness that it used to have. There were actually two groups, Uptown and Downtown, Cage and Babbitt, basically, and then a few Midtown people like Copland. But it was pretty small. It was a small group of people. Now it’s a huge group of people. There are ten new music groups Uptown and there are twenty Downtown groups, it’s just proliferated like that.
FJO: But, of course, the ironic corollary to that is with 500 channels to choose from, how many people are watching? Day in and day out you hear all these reports about some orchestra dying or that they’ve made the very last big cast opera recording on a major label. There’s been a Cassandra death knell for big “C” classical music, and for notated music. It’s less than 3 percent of the market, but 3 percent is an awful lot of people if you do the math.
JT: Yeah, and also I think you have to be careful of the statistics, like you have to be careful of polls and stuff like that. I’m an old “classical,” “notated,” whatever you want to call it. I see lots more string quartets playing new music. I see lots of flute players commissioning right and left. They have 5,000 flutists at the flute convention. Clarinetists up the wazoo who can play rings around everybody. Saxophone players are coming up now. There are a few laggards among players, but I won’t mention who they are.
FJO: But certainly a project like Made in America has the potential for gigantic outreach. So might this ultimately be the way to enlarging the audience for this kind of music?
JT: It depends entirely on how my music goes over. That’s the burden. If my piece has some impact, and draws the players in a little bit, or a lot, and draws the audience in a little bit or a lot, then it has some reverberation. I’m putting the entire burden of this thing on me, because the music is the center of everything no matter what anybody’s telling you. Whatever the PR, marketing, historical value, blah, blah, blah, that’s going on around it, you still have this living entity in front of you that has to do its work, whatever that is. I’ve believed that ever since the ’60s. I tell young composers that. They always ask: What competition should I apply to? Will you write a recommendation? How do I get to this group? All this career stuff, and I’m like, wait a minute. Who’s in your backyard? Who are the players in your town? Who are the players in your school? Go to their concerts, get to know them, get interested in what they’re doing and maybe you’ll hook up something musical with them. And then write the best piece you can write for trombone or whatever it is, and then he will bring his trombone friends to the concert and they’ll say, “Wow, I want to play that piece!” So then they play it at their concert and there are six other trombonists there, and then suddenly it’s going places. This piece has legs without any advertising, without any PR, without any “connections,” any awards, nothing. This one little piece has legs. And I really believe that, that that’s your PR—this piece. The piece, not anything around it.