By Chris A. Trotman, WPA’s Director of Music Publications. Thank you to composer Dosia McKay (@dosiamckay) for sharing her photo of the event (Tower, left, and Léon)

During the 2019 League of American Orchestras Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, I had the privilege of attending a discussion and Q/A session with composer-conductor-pianist-educators Joan Tower and Tania Léon.  Tower was the recipient of the LAO Gold Baton Award, and the Nashville Symphony performed her Sixth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (a title deliberately referencing Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man)!  Léon is also a well-known, very successful composer, conductor, performer and educator, but during this discussion, she functioned mainly as the interviewer for Joan, especially during the first portion.

A Little about Childhood and Influences

Joan Tower began by recollecting her childhood beginning around the age of nine when she and her family moved to Bolivia, and she explained how Peruvian and Incan music, particularly percussion styles, influenced her early musical development.  She began piano at age 5 while still in New York and was later involved with Latin American drums and dance (she loves to dance) while in South America. She married a jazz pianist who also greatly contributed to her already very eclectic musical style and taste.

Compositional Method

When asked about her early compositions and their method, Dr. Tower explained how she had always “wanted to make music, not talk about it!”  Her first composition was self-described as a “disaster,” and this instilled in her the desire of “making it better since then” and “composing better,” which she has held onto throughout her entire career.  Like most, if not all, young composers, she dealt with the influence of others’ music she already knew, and continued to strive to find her own voice.  Joan specifically said she implored Beethoven to “leave the room,” but she could not get him to leave her alone.  Ultimately, she concluded this was a futile effort, and rather than “learn around Beethoven and others, she would learn through them.”  Therefore, excerpts from three Beethoven sonatas were quoted in her early work and then pushed aside, which then enabled her to find her own voice: “Beethoven had finally left the room!”

While discussing the way in which she found her own voice, Dr. Tower recalled the effort being a “long, important road” for herself and all composers (referring specifically to her many private composition students), and that the challenge would be “found in risks.”  The latter comment is referring to expanding one’s ideas perhaps to the extreme after contemplating the internal debate of “what a composer thinks it is versus what it really is.”  In other words, what is the composer trying to say or express? And how is the composer accomplishing this?  An example mentioned by Joan involved one of her compositions in which she ultimately decided “it worked” to have 10 beats of the same material — it did not become monotonous.

Another inevitable part of finishing a composition involves deciding on an appropriate title.  Dr. Tower has many clever titles with personal significance or external references.  However, in some cases, particularly early on in her career, she had difficulty coming up or deciding on a title for her works.  She recollected one such example concerning her piece, Breakfast Rhythms, which she had completed shortly before it was to be performed; it had already been programmed.  However, she had yet to give the work a title, and a distressed publicity person contacted her while she was having breakfast with a friend.  So, on the spur of the moment she decided the title was Breakfast Rhythms, but she thought she could simply change it later.  However, that title remained and ultimately became the official title!

Advice for Young Composers

Joan had very practical advice for those young or new composers wishing to have their music performed more and to become better known.  Essentially all she mentioned stemmed from her initial statement, which was encouraging composers to “make your own ensemble to make your own music and vision.”  By following this course of action, one is not limited by or dependent on existing ensembles to get music played.

Furthermore (and this is related to her own compositional method and experience) she greatly encouraged being directly involved with one’s own music by performing or conducting.  She specifically referred to this as being on the “other side of the page,” and consequently being more “empathetic to the players.”  Dr. Tower believes this experiencing of both sides is the greatest teacher, and in fact, she said that in her experience, “forming her own ensemble was a better teacher than doing her Doctorate at Columbia!”  She immediately regretted saying this and stated she must remind herself to “use a filter once in a while!”  Also, in terms of writing well for each instrument or voice, she encouraged consulting professional players when deciding the best playability for specific parts.  Doing so may seem terribly obvious, but it is often invaluable to get a second  opinion.

Finally, the last bit of advice given by Joan for young composers involves a composition’s quality versus its initial popularity.  In her experience, she found it most important to work diligently on composing music that is what she considers “good work with legs” that will continue longer than during the initial press period.  In the same way, “popular music” and other “hits” throughout the last few decades follow this same pattern where a piece of music is often popular because it is new, but the popularly of many songs quickly wanes.  She believes a “good musical work with legs” will continue to hold its own in the future.

Mixed Views on the Academy

Dr. Tower was particularly passionate, both positively and not, when discussing her experience in academia.  She began by stating how much she loves teaching, and she explained how her legacy was even more significant, due to never having children of her own.  Naturally, she referred to herself as having a maternal quality when teaching and counseling her students.  Furthermore, her long pedagogical career is a remarkable achievement, and the great strength of her dedication was clearly illustrated by her comment of never wanting to stop teaching and that her colleagues would have to “take me out in a box!”

On the flipside, as a composer, her views of the academic world were more mixed – she stated that she feels the academy is “dangerous for composers.”  According to Dr. Tower, if a composer is to feel fulfilled in academia, one must have leverage to “get things done,” implying she must have such leverage. Furthermore, she believes it is “condescending” to an advanced composer to have to “teach crap,” and she went as far as to say she is “anti-theory,” although unfortunately she was unwilling to elaborate!  However, Joan concluded by explaining how the “umbrella with tenure” and the benefit of having well-trained colleagues or “players,” with whom she would also consult about her own musical writing, provided her with the stability and resources to also “get things done.”

Experiences for Women in Music over the Last Few Decades

Both Joan and Tania discussed the compositional climate during the 60s and 70s.  According to both women, there were essentially three choices at that time in the professional realm: (1) Uptown, involving the esoteric serialists like Babbitt, (2) Midtown, including such accessible composers as Copland and Barber and (3) Downtown, consisting of more abstract composers like Cage and Feldman.  However, both Joan and Tania were in complete agreement that women had a hard time in all the groups, and they were forced on the “sidelines” regardless of the choices.  Dr. Tower said it wasn’t until the 80s when it began to be slightly less difficult for female composers, and she said this was due to the production and inclusion in the canon of extensive biographies of female composers, including Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Ruth Crawford Seeger.  Consequently, by having more scholarship and interest in women composers, the academic world was slowly beginning to change and become more inclusive.  Of course, this is still a prevalent problem today with our textbooks, and the canon is still vastly dominated by the “dead, white guys.”

Advocate and Fighter for the Arts

Both Joan and Tania have been and continue to be tremendous advocates and fighters for the arts in New York.  Dr. Tower recollected being on the New York State Council of the Arts, and how she was in many ways responsible for securing and maintaining funding for the arts.  One such instance involved a very “dignified and impassioned” Joan “yelling a lot” and persuading the Council, who was planning to cut funding entirely, to actually increase the existing funding for the arts! Brava, Joan!

Mixed Views on Concert Programming

The discussion of concert programming was particularly interesting, and both Joan and Tania offered great insight into the pros and cons of various artistic choices and provided vivid examples of some such occurrences.  The primary focus of this portion of the conversation revolved around basing concert programming on similar types, such as gender, race, geographic location, etc.  Both women immediately recognized the inherent issues of programming solely based on such characteristics, but also agreed it can provide opportunities.

One example provided by Tania Léon that I found to be quite significant illustrated how a composer of an entirely different nationality may write music based on folk tunes, rhythmic devices or harmonic structures of another country or region, which of course happens all the time.  So the obvious problem would be to program an entire concert revolving around a specific country or region and including composers from other places writing in that style.  Consequently, the program may be misleading to the audience who is attending what they believe to be a nationalistic concert.  Of course, this can easily happen in the reverse where the program consists of all composers from a specific place, but they are writing in greatly varying styles and influences from other places.  The take-home message is that (ideally) it should not matter and the music should speak for itself.

Tania, along with Joan, went on to discuss all-female programming, which is a wonderful concept!  However, according to both women, this may have a long-term negative effect, because music by women is never “normalized.”  Joan believes it is best to have a mixed program consisting of both women and men, so the audiences are not inclined to make such a distinction, but rather accept all the pieces as equal.  As stated in the Advice for Young Composers section, Joan believes a work’s ultimate success is based on its quality as a “good work with legs.”  She also went on to discuss how a good artistic director can make use of programming strategies to create a successful overall program.  Using a specific strategy may only work in a specific context or time.  One such example she provided involved a piece of her own (she did not recall which one) being programmed after a Beethoven Symphony and before Tchaikovsky Symphony.  She was terrified of the program order and contacted the music director to discuss the decision, but the director assured her this was the best programming strategy, which did ultimately pay off and worked quite well.  Joan specifically recollected how during their discussion of the programming order, she described her work as “a piece of dead lettuce” sandwiched between the two dead, white guys’ well-known Symphonies!

Thank you to the League of American Orchestras for organizing this exciting and informative conversation.