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80 Years of Music: An Interview with Joan Tower, Trailblazing Composer

Joan Tower
Joan Tower is a Grammy-award winning contemporary classical composer and one of the most successful woman composers of all time. This year she turns 80 years old, and to celebrate her incredible lifetime achievements, the New England Conservatory will be featuring her music in a series of concerts this February. In this interview, Tower speaks candidly and humorously about life, composing, and the classical music world.

THC: What’s your composing process like? What inspires you?

JT: Coffee and lots of sleep. “Inspire” is a kind of weird, complex word. What inspires you… hm. It’s more than an idea, it’s a whole confluence of: “Did you get a good night’s sleep? Is your life going ok?” All that always plays a role. Sometimes a player you really love and admire asks you to write a piece—that’s really inspiring. But once you start writing a piece it’s the piece that has to inspire you.

THC: Is composing difficult?

JT: For me, it’s torture! For some people it’s a piece of cake. I’m one of the tortured composers. I write very slowly, and I really get into it as deeply as I can, because I want to be as close to the piece as possible to see if I can create a strong narrative and an interesting set of profiles. The work commitment is large. It’s gotten easier since I was 18. I don’t run away as much. “Oh, I just have to change the sheets! I just have to make this phone call. I really have to dust this place, right this very minute!” I do that now a lot less.

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THC: How did you start composing?

JT: By accident. A lot of things in music, or I guess in life, happens by accident or coincidence. When you ask a clarinetist, for example, they often say “How did you choose to play the clarinet?” “Oh it was handed to me at band practice when I was 8 years old because they didn’t have enough clarinets in the band.”

I went to Bennington College, which was a really wonderful place for me because it allowed me to open up and do what I needed to do with music. The first assignment was to write a piece. I was a pianist. I had never written a piece before. So I said, “Oh my God.” So I wrote a piece and it was played, and it was horrible, really horrible. So I thought to myself, “Well, you could do better than that.” So I wrote another piece, and it was still really horrible. And I’ve just been trying to fix it ever since.

It was another way into music and that was fascinating to me. When you’re a performer it’s one way, when you’re a composer it’s another way. I kept the two activities going for a long time and it gave me a lot of insights into music I never had before. Are you a musician?

THC: I play viola. It was also sort of handed to me. I started on violin because my mom wanted me to. I had this really intense violin teacher who said, “You don't practice enough! Switch to viola!” So I did, and I loved it so much more!

JT: Oh that’s great. I love that instrument. I love it.

THC: The first time I actually heard your music was when my friend who played your piece, “Wild Purple,” in a studio class.

JT: That’s a hard piece! That’s the hardest of my viola pieces. It changed my relationship to violists and the viola.

THC: Do you play the viola?

JT: No. I took it up once, bought a cheap viola, got to first position non vibrato.

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