In the early 2000s, American composer Joan Tower thought she was done writing for orchestra. Her orchestral oeuvre was sizable, including the tone poem “Sequoia,” the percussion concerto “Strike Zones,” and “Silver Ladders,” which in 1990 made Tower the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. But frustrated with what she perceived as an unwelcoming environment in the orchestra world, she had decided to shift her attention.
“I thought I’d spend my time in welcoming worlds — chamber music, soloists, whatever,” Tower said over the phone from upstate New York.
Then she received an intriguing offer. A consortium of 65 American smaller-budget professional and community orchestras, including at least one from every state, had banded together and secured support to commission a nationally renowned composer to write a piece. She had never considered writing for community orchestras, she said, but a cab ride with a violist who had performed with such orchestras proved crucial.
“She said, ‘The players are not as good, but they love being there. And so it’s a joy to play with them. The highlight of their day is to play in this orchestra,’” said Tower. “She made the decision for me.”
Tower took the commission. The result was “Made in America,” a 15-minute symphonic tapestry woven through with fragments of “America the Beautiful.” It will close out Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Jordan Hall evening-length “Joan Tower Celebration” on Feb. 9, just one in a cluster of upcoming local performances of Tower’s music hailing her 80th birthday. The Muir Quartet includes a piece of hers on its Feb. 6 program at Boston University, and from Feb. 8 to Feb. 13, Tower will have a residency at New England Conservatory that includes masterclasses and performances.
When the composer was 9, her mining-engineer father moved the family from Westchester County to La Paz, Bolivia, away from “my peanut butter sandwich and my bicycle and my friends,” she recalled, and dropped her into the middle of an entirely new culture. There, her musical education took many forms.
Some days, she took piano lessons with an ex-wife of Hollywood heavyweight Erich von Stroheim, whom she described, guffawing, as “kind of a witch.” (Tower laughs a lot.) Other times, the young girl’s nanny would take her to local saint’s day festivals and drop her at the bandstand. “I would play some kind of maraca or drum or castanet with the band while she was having a good time dancing,” Tower said. “That’s how I started to develop a real sense of not only rhythm, but dancing.”
While Tower was taking in the local culture in Bolivia and other neighboring countries where she lived, she never forgot where she was from. “I was brought up in South America to believe constantly that America was the land of freedom, and hope, and equality, and democracy,” she said. “I was so proud of being an American, until I came back and all kinds of things started to happen.”
Tower returned to the United States in 1955. Nearly fifty years later, she channeled her long-held feelings and her frustration with then-President George W. Bush’s regime into “Made in America” which celebrates the United States without being jingoistic or nationalist. It’s a resolute and hopeful piece, cut through with broad swaths of darkness and discord.
One challenge for her in writing it, she said, was to make it both musically interesting and within the capacities of amateur orchestras, and for that, she called on musicians who could advise her.
“It became playable by the most amateur orchestra, which was in Ohio. I went there and they had worked on it for eight months. They welcomed me like I was a rock star, because they had invested so much time into this piece,” she said.
This was a contrast, she emphasized, from the reception she’d perceived elsewhere. “In the major orchestras, you walk in, and it’s like, ‘Oh no, we have to play this composer. Oh god,’ and there’d be these paths around me. ‘Uh oh! That’s the composer! Go that way!’”
Tower went to 20 of the 65 performances nationwide of “Made in America” over 18 months, and conducted eight of them. But now, she said, she thinks she’s done with orchestral music for real.
Instead, she’s focusing on chamber music and teaching at Bard College, which she has done since 1972 and said she plans to do “till I’m taken out in a coffin.” She was a performing pianist for the first part of her life, and she thinks the gulf between modern composers and performers has grown too wide, as if they occupy different worlds. In the early 20th century, she notes, “the performers got better and more specialized . . . and the composers were sort of shunted off into academia.”
‘I would play some kind of maraca or drum or castanet with the band while [my nanny] was having a good time dancing.’
Accordingly, she pushes performers who may have never thought of composing to write their own music, even if they’re “kicking and screaming,” she said. “It’s opened up some doors of change for them and the way they look at composing.”
One thing that’s persisted through the years is Tower’s love for dancing. Her music incorporates some of the Latin dance rhythms she picked up as a child, and until recently, she and her husband hosted an annual dance party at their house. It was at one such party in 1996 where she met composer Kati Agócs, who is now a professor at New England Conservatory and the organizer behind the upcoming local events.
Agócs never formally studied with Tower, but still considers her an important mentor in both composing and teaching. “She helped me formulate what my approach to teaching would be, and she was very encouraging in a tough-love sort of way,” Agócs said. “She has a great bull-[expletive] detector. . . . If something wasn’t authentic or clear, she would look at me a certain way.”
Tower also has a longstanding interest in the history and future of women in music, which was sparked when she sat in on a course at Bard with visiting musicologist Nancy Reich. “It gave me a context of where I was in that history. I had no idea the history was so bad,” she said. She makes it a personal mission to support younger female composers — Agócs was among the up-and-comers who wrote pieces for a 2007 “Notable Women” festival she organized in Manhattan — and she is outspoken about gender disparities in classical music. In keeping with that, her residency will begin with a performance by members of an NEC group called Students Advocating for Gender Equality, followed by an all-female panel on women and leadership.
So this week, at least, she won’t have to fight to not be the only female face in the room. “Any panel I was on, they said ‘Oh! Joan’s coming. Do we have any women on this list?’” she said. “I became the thorn in people’s side, and I’m proud of that. . . . I feel like I have a role to play here and I’m going to play it.”
Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert Feb. 9, Jordan Hall. bmop.org. Joan Tower Birthday Concert at NEC Feb. 13, Brown Hall, necmusic.edu.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.