Joan Tower (born September 6, 1938) is a Grammy-winning contemporary American composer, concert pianist,. and conductor. Born at New Rochelle, NY, in 1938, Tower moved to the South American nation of Bolivia when she was nine years old, an experience which she credits for making rhythm an integral part of her work. For the next decade Tower’s talent in music, particularly on the piano, grew rapidly due to her father’s insistence that she benefit from consistent musical training. Tower’s relationship with her mineralogist father is visible in many aspects of her work, most specifically her “mineral works” (including Black Topaz (1976) and Silver Ladders (1986). She returned to the United States as a young woman to study music, first at Bennington College, in Vermont, and then at Columbia University where she studied under Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Vladimir Ussachevsky and was awarded her doctorate in composition in 1968.
In 1969 Tower, along with violinist Joel Lester and flautist Patricia Spencer, founded the New York based Da Capo Chamber Players where she served as the group’s pianist. In 1972 Tower accepted a faculty position at Bard College in composition, a post she continues to hold today. She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1976. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s Tower wrote a number of successful works for the Da Capo Players, including Platinum Spirals(1976), Amazon I (1977) and Wings (1981). Though the group won several awards in its early years, including the Naumburg Award in 1973, Tower left the group in 1984, buoyed by the immediate success of her first orchestral composition, Sequoia (1981), a tone poem which structurally depicts a giant tree from trunk to needles. In 1985, a year after leaving the Da Capo Players, Tower accepted a position at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1988-1991 where she was a composer-in-residence.
Tower became the first woman recipient of the Grawemeyer Award (Music Composition), awarded by the University of Louisville for her composition “Silver Ladders” in 1990, a piece she wrote for the St. Louis Symphony. In 1993, under commission from the Milwaukee Ballet, Tower composed Stepping Stones, a selection from which she would go on to conduct at the White House. Other compositions from the 1990s include the third Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, several piano concertos–notably 1996’s Rapids (Piano Concerto no. 2) and Tambor (1998) written for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In 1998 Tower won the Delaware Symphony’s prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer, and in 1999 she accepted a position as composer-in-residence with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
In 2002 Tower won the Annual Composer’s Award from the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Symphony. During the 2003-2004 season two new works were debuted, DNA, a percussion quintet commissioned for Frank Epstein, and Incandescent. In 2004 the Pittsburgh Symphony’s recording of Tambor, Made in America, and Concerto for Orchestra earned a Grammy nomination. In 2004 Carnegie Hall’s “Making Music” series featured a retrospective of Tower’s body of work, performed by artists including the Tokyo String Quartet and pianists Melvin Chen and Ursula Oppens.
In 2005 Tower became the first composer commissioned for the “Ford Made in America” program, the only project of its kind to involve smaller-budget orchestras as commissioning agents of new work by major composers, in which her 15 minute Made in America was performed in every state of the union during the 2005-2007 season. In 2008, Tower’s Made in America and the recording of it by the Nashville Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin won three Grammy Awards: in the categories Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. She is currently the Asher B. Edelman Professor of Music at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and serves on the Artistic Advisory panel of the BMI Foundation. Another orchestra residency was with the Pittsburgh Symphony (2010-2011). She was the Albany Symphony’s Mentor Composer partner in the 2013-14 season.
Tower’s early music seems to reflect the influences of her mentors at Columbia University and is rooted in the serialist tradition, whose sparse texture complimented her interest in chamber music. As she developed as a composer Tower began to gravitate towards the work of Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb and broke away from the strict serialist model. Her work became more colorful and has often been described as impressionistic. She often composes with specific ensembles or soloists in mind, and aims to exploit the strengths of these performers in her composition. Lauded by the New Yorker as “one of the most successful woman composers of all time,” Tower is widely regarded as one of the most important American composers living today, and her bold and energetic compositions have been performed in concert halls around the world.
My collection includes the following work by Joan Tower:
Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources