Photo (facing page): Bernie Mindich.
2020 MUSICAL AMERICA DIRECTORY 13
Composer of the Year
By William Robin
For many composers, getting a piece played by a
single American orchestra is a major coup. A repeat in
another city is a rare victory; a third outing is a miracle.
So it’s not clear what one should call the run that Joan
Tower’s Made in America had in the early 2000s, when it
was performed by more than 65 orchestras in all 50 states.
Made in America, a powerful gloss on the song “America
the Beautiful,” was co-commissioned by a massive consortium of regional symphonies, and toured across the
country between 2005 and 2007.
“As life goes on, the rewards come in,” Tower told me
in 2018, for a New York Times piece in advance of her 80th
birthday. “The credentials, like winning certain prizes, are
very nice, but the important rewards are that your music
gets picked up and played a lot. That’s what makes your
life in music.” Trained in an era when academic modernism
reigned, Tower developed from a composer of intensely
wrought chamber works into a creator of dramatic orchestral
music that can only be described as, well, towering.
Born in New Rochelle, New York, Tower had an unusual
childhood. Her father was a mining engineer, and the family
moved to Bolivia when she was nine. A babysitter there would
take her to outdoor festivals, where the preteen Tower found
an innate sense of rhythm from hearing indigenous music,
just as she was beginning to master the works of Chopin
and Beethoven as a pianist. Later in life, she frequented
downtown clubs with her first husband, a jazz musician, to
hear legends like Thelonious Monk. These three streams of
influence—the percussive energy of South American music,
the architecture of Beethovenian narrative, and the outré
harmony of modern jazz—drew together into an immediate
and propulsive syntax.
But first came the academy. Tower saw herself exclusively
as a pianist in college, and started composing only because
it was a requirement for students at Bennington. Her first
piece did not turn out as she had hoped. “I said, ‘I know
I can do better than that,’” she told me. “So I did that
for the next 40 years, trying to create a piece that wasn’t a
disaster.” Amid a generation of egotistical peers, Tower is
surprisingly modest, always frank, and singularly driven. In
subsequent studies at Columbia, she gravitated toward the
cerebral atonality that was in vogue in the ’70s, preached