Joan Tower

Joan Tower (born September 6, 1938) is a Grammy-winning contemporary American composer, concert pianist and conductor. Lauded by The New Yorker as "one of the most successful woman composers of all time", her bold and energetic compositions have been performed in concert halls around the world. After gaining recognition for her first orchestral composition, Sequoia (1981), a tone poem which structurally depicts a giant tree from trunk to needles, she has gone on to compose a variety of instrumental works including Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which is something of a response to Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, the Island Prelude, five string quartets, and an assortment of other tone poems. Tower was pianist and founding member of the Naumburg Award-winning Da Capo Chamber Players, which commissioned and premiered many of her early works, including her widely performed Petroushskates.

Life and career

Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1938, Tower moved to 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 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. 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). In 1972 Tower accepted a faculty position at Bard College in composition, a post she continues to hold today. Tower received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1976.

In 1985, a year after leaving the Da Capo Players, Tower accepted a position at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra where she was a composer-in-residence until 1988.

Tower became the first woman recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Music in 1990 for her composition Silver Ladders. 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 1999 Tower accepted a position as composer-in-residence with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and in 1998 she won the Delaware Symphony's prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer.

In 2002 Tower won the Annual Composer's Award from the Lancaster Symphony. During the 2003–2004 season two new works were debuted, DNA, a percussion quintet commissioned for Frank Epstein, and Incandescent. In 2004 the Nashville Symphony's recording of Tambor, Made in America, and her 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, New York, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She also serves on the Artistic Advisory panel of the BMI Foundation.


Tower's early music reflects the influence of her mentors at Columbia University and is rooted in the serialist tradition, whose sparse texture complemented 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.

Among her most notable work is the six-part Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, each dedicated to 'women who are adventurous and take risks'. Inspired by Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, four of the six parts are scored for 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba and percussion. The first was debuted in 1987 and conducted by Hans Vonk. For the second, which premiered in 1989, Tower added one percussion while the third, debuted in 1991 was scored for a double brass quintet. The fourth and sixth are scored for full orchestra. The fifth part was commissioned for the Aspen Music Festival in 1993 and was written specifically for Joan W. Harris. The first five parts were added to the National Recording Registry in 2014.

Works list




  • Breakfast Rhythms I. and II. (1974), for clarinet solo, flute, percussion, violin, cello and piano
  • Black Topaz (1976), for flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano and two percussion
  • Amazon I. (1977), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano
  • Petroushskates (1980), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano
  • Noon Dance (1982), for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello
  • Fantasy... Harbour Lights (1983), for clarinet and piano
  • Snow Dreams (1983), for flute and guitar
  • Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1986), for eleven brass and three percussion
  • Island Prelude (1989), for oboe solo and string quartet/quintet or wind quintet
  • Second Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1989), for eleven brass and three percussion
  • Third Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1991), for brass dectet
  • Celebration Fanfare (1993), for eleven brass and three percussion
  • Elegy (1993), for trombone solo and string quartet
  • Fifth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1993), for four trumpets
  • Night Fields (String Quartet No. 1) (1994), for string quartet
  • Très lent (Hommage à Messiaen) (1994), for cello and piano
  • Turning Points (1995), for clarinet and string quartet
  • And...they're off (1997), for piano trio
  • Rain Waves (1997), for violin, clarinet and piano
  • Toccanta (1997), for oboe and harpsichord
  • Big Sky (2000), for piano trio
  • In Memory (String Quartet No. 2 (2002), for string quartet
  • Incandescent (String Quartet No. 3) (2003), for string quartet
  • For Daniel (2004), for piano trio
  • DNA (2005), for percussion quintet
  • A Little Gift (2006), for flute and clarinet
  • Copperwave (2006), for brass quintet
  • A Gift (2007), for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano
  • Trio Cavany (2007), for piano trio
  • Angels (String Quartet No. 4) (2008), for string quartet
  • Dumbarton Quintet (2008), for piano quintet
  • Rising (2009), for flute and string quartet
  • White Granite (2010), for piano quartet
  • White Water (String Quartet No. 5) (2011), for string quartet, commissioned for the Daedalus Quartet by Chamber Music Monterey Bay.



  • Circles (1964), for piano
  • Fantasia (1966), for piano
  • Platinum Spirals (1976), for violin
  • Red Garnet Waltz (1977), for piano
  • Wings (1981), for clarinet or alto saxophone
  • Clocks (1985), for guitar
  • Or like engine (1994), for piano
  • Ascent (1996), for organ
  • Holding a Daisy (1996), for piano
  • Valentine Trills (1996), for flute
  • Wild Purple (1998), for viola
  • Vast Antique Cubes/Throbbing Still (2000), for piano
  • Simply Purple (2008), for viola
  • Ivory and Ebony (2009), for piano
  • For Marianne (2010), for flute
  • String Force (2010), for violin
  • Steps (2011), for piano
  • Purple Rush (2016), for viola



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