Throughout this season CMS has been celebrating various composers' 80 years of experience, craft, and skill. CMS Director of Artistic Planning and Administration Beth Helgeson recently sat down with American composer Joan Tower to learn more about her illustrious career, influences, and thoughts on composition. Her quintet Red Maple for Basson, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello will be performed in the May 16 New Music programs, and livestreamed at 9:00 PM ET.
Tell us about your work, Red Maple for Bassoon, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello.
I have written for about every instruments but some instruments take longer to get to because they aren’t as known. Flutists, clarinetists- they’re always coming up to me but not bassoonists. But I say “you have to ask.” In the last few years, there has been a great increase in bassoonists and they’re asking! And a couple years ago I heard Peter Kolkay play in San Francisco and he asked me for a concerto and I said "well, maybe a piece for bassoon and strings" and he got together a consortium and that’s how this piece happened. So the piece now has three versions: bassoon and strings, bassoon and quartet, and bassoon and piano. These terrific players need a conduit to show what they can do! I’m very pleased to be contributing to the bassoon literature.
Are there any pieces that had a lasting impact on you?
When I was younger, I spent time with the Columbia uptown music crowd- that’s who I was hanging out with- I liked them. They were brilliant, really smart; but I always felt like a fish out of water. But there were two pieces that pulled me out of that: Quartet for the End of Time [Messiaen] and George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. They were consonant and I loved them.
Would you say your work could be divided into periods?
Yes- two. Twelve tone and then everything else.
Do you have a ritual when you compose?
Composing is like a job. I compose 1-5 PM every day. Nothing interferes unless I’m traveling or teaching. I have to compose in a very quiet place, which is my studio. It’s too distracting on planes or trains. I always compose in manuscript- my publisher engraves it.
What do you think is important for composers today to think about?
I think it’s important to pay attention to the composer-performer relationship. I feel that performers need to get on the other side of the page and composers need to get on the other side of the page. We’ve lost some of that connection because composers have gone into the European tradition. But Beethoven and other such composers were always on the other side of the page- performing, conducting...so they were visible and they were upfront. If you don’t perform, you aren’t visible- you aren’t there. I think in a way that’s why pop music is a little more successful than classical music today; they often engage in both composing and performing. That’s why for my major birthdays, I always have performers write something for me. And I teach a class in the conservatory- composition for performers- which opens performers’ minds to what composers are doing and going through.
With my students, I focus on what happens when your music comes to life- and I help them develop a voice- and that’s not easy. I love to teach.
I’m very blessed because I’ve been working with such great players- that’s where the nourishment comes in. If they like the music, they will play it and that’s how the music gets a life.
Joan Tower curates a playlist with some of her landmark works.
See Joan Tower's Red Maple for Bassoon, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello performed live May 16 at 9:00 PM ET.