About this Recording
FECD-0025 - TOWER: Silver Ladders / Island Prelude / Sequoia

Joan Tower

Joan Tower


When 31-year-old Joan Tower founded the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1969, she considered herself a pianist who also composed. Trained at Bennington College and Columbia University after growing up in South America, Tower, by her own testimony, honed her skills "slowly, quietly, and patiently." Over the years, she wrote solo and small-ensemble pieces for the other members of Da Capo - Wings, Platinum Spirals, Black Topaz, Petroushskates, and Amazon I. Notably absent among her compositions is any vocal music, for Tower thinks of herself as "a choreographer of sound, dealing with the action and reaction of a line. Any idea in my music has to be motivated by the structure and the context, otherwise it has no real meaning."


Performers have always responded to the strong sense of "personality" in Tower's music. "With each work I try to go beyond matters of 'style," she explains, "to carve out a piece's identity and soul, so that it emerges as an individual personality and makes a strong statement." Performers also appreciate her practical understanding of their craft, which she learned from the inside during 15 years as Da Capo's pianist. Remembering the appreciation with which her group greeted a new, well-written piece, she observes, "I always want to have something to offer to performers that both asks things of them and makes them feel musical."


The turning point in Tower's career came with her first orchestral commission, Sequoia (1981). Although she still recalls the trepidation with which she agreed to write a piece for the American Composers Orchestra, Tower took the opportunity to explore on a large scale issues that fascinated her in the music of Beethoven-matters of balance and contrast. She chose a potent image for extramusical inspiration -the immense sequoia tree. By the time she completed her next orchestral piece, a concerto for Da Capo cellist Andre Emelianoff (who insisted that his Tower composition not be a solo piece), she knew she had become a composer who no longer had time to be a pianist.


- Susan Feder



Silver Ladders


Silver Ladders is dedicated with admiration to Leonard Slatkin


If Sequoia thrust Tower into national prominence, Silver Ladders seems destined to do the same for her on an international scale. Slatkin has conducted the work throughout the United States and in Berlin, while many other conductors have added it to their repertoires. In April 1990 Silver Ladders won the $150,000 Charles B. Grawemeyer award, competing against 140 other entries submitted from around the world. It previously was a prize winner at the 1988 Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards.


The line of sound that Tower choreographed in Silver Ladders moves vertically. "I was trying to see if I could make the simple action of an upward-moving line an integral ingredient of the structure. By creating an architecture of lines moving upwards at different speeds with varying degrees of intensities and surrounding textures, and juxtaposing these with opposite types of events such as stasis - I hoped to create a perspective on the feeling of moving upwards." Thus, the  "Ladders." Tower's main principal materials for this upward-thrusting music are the ascending scales heard in the first section of the piece and, in the third section, a motive of rising fourths (borrowed from Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No.1, Opus 9, a piece she played with the  Da Capo Chamber Players), which eventually mingles with the scales.


The "Silver" in the title conveys images of that metal in solid and molten states, as heavy blocks and delicate filigree. The four solos in Silver Ladders - for clarinet, oboe, marimba, and trumpet - provide a flowing contrast to the solidity of the orchestral ladder, a change of density as well as of mood.


In Silver Ladders, Tower takes Sequoia's concerns with balance and contrast and carries them further with an ever-surer hand. If Silver Ladders straightforward in its use of basic musical elements-scales, trills, steady driving rhythms, separation of orchestral families of sound-it is deliberately so. Tower uses these elements masterfully, and creates a momentum that extends from the opening crash of timpani to the final shimmers of strings and percussion.


- Susan Feder



Island Prelude for Solo Oboe and String Orchestra


Island Prelude is dedicated with love to Jeff Litfin


Island Prelude shares with Silver Ladders a sense of rising, but here it is in a context of very slow and sustained music, which proved to be Tower's main compositional challenge. She found inspiration in "Mr. Bowman's exceptionally lyrical playing and also Samuel Barber's wonderfully controlled Adagio for Strings." As she describes it, "this work starts with a very slow-moving consonant landscape that gradually becomes more active and dissonant. Above this terrain, the oboe emerges as a slightly more prominent and melismatic line which in turn activates the surrounding held chords. Finally, the oboe releases its 'contained' energy in two short cadenzas rising upwards in a burst of fast notes that lead into a final, quiet coda. This last section is again very slow, sustained, high, and distant."


Other versions of Island Prelude are scored for oboe and single strings and for woodwind quintet. The wind quintet version, recorded by Gerard Reuter with his fellow members of the Dorian Quintet, is a "heavier piece," according to Tower, because of the "weight" of the different timbres under the oboe. "The counterpoint, however, is more easily heard in this version."


Regarding the title, she adds, "The Island is remote, lush, tropical with stretches of white beach interspersed with thick green jungle. Above is a large, powerful, and brightly colored bird which soars and glides, spirals up, and plummets with folded wings as it dominates but lives in complete harmony with its island home.


- Susan Feder



Island Rhythms


The Florida Orchestra, with a grant from Lincoln Properties Company, commissioned Island Rhythms in 1985, The commission was in honor of the opening of Tampa's Harbour Island and received its first performance by the Florida Orchestra, Irwin Hoffman conducting, on June 29, 1985. Accordingly, Joan Tower calls it a celebratory piece. It is dedicated to Michael Hogan, a partner in Lincoln Properties, the developer of the island.


The work has three sections: fast-slow-fast. "The fast outer sections, somewhat reminiscent of Carribean drum music, develop and explore a repeated figure through textural, timbral, registral, and dynamic contrasts," Tower notes. "The repeated tutti chord which climaxes the work, was inspired by a fragment from the final movement of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. The central section has a slowly-moving upward direction that becomes more luminous as it rises. This was an attempt to depict an underwater swimmer gradually rising to the water's surface from a very deep place in the ocean."


The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, bass trombone, timpani, percussion and strings.


- Nan Harman



Music for Cello and Orchestra


On the snowy January night when Silver Ladders had its premiere Lynn Harrell played Dvorak with the Saint Louis Symphony. At rehearsals that week he had met Tower and heard Silver Ladders come to life, which motivated him to ask her for a score to her cello concerto.


Tower found it a special delight to work with Harrell and hear a new interpretation of her concerto. When she originally wrote the piece, she had made an "intuitive decision" to solve her concern of "how to write an energetic piece and allow the cello - a low, non-projecting instrument to carry over a massive and passionate orchestral sound." She was pleased with the results of that decision: "the more I increased the intensity, the more I would have the cello play alone. I made the assumption that the cello could compete as an alternating sound and idea with the high orchestral intensity beside it." What worked less well for Tower was her cadenza, and so she and Harrell focused their attention on it. In a "truly creative collaboration" they altered phrasings, articulations, and tempos. Without changing a note of music they created a more lyrical, less stridently motivic cadenza, one that stands up structurally and stands out from the solo writing within the body of the concerto.


Like Sequoia before it and Silver Ladders after it, Music for Cello and Orchestra falls into three uninterrupted sections. Connecting the slow middle section to its energetic conclusion is the cadenza. The concerto's bright palette of instrumental colors and its propulsive rhythmic figurations also link it readily to Tower's other orchestral music.


- Susan Feder





"The achievement of such great heights by the giant, majestic sequoia seems to me an incredible feat of balance," she observes. "Yet, in spite of its power and grandeur, its leaves are tiny, no larger than a thumbnail. In fact, the overall shape and contours of the tree are really very simple." By translating these concepts into musical terms, Tower created a vigorous work of immense appeal. Orchestras around the world immediately took up Sequoia, propelling Tower into the mainstream of American orchestral life.


Leonard Slatkin reacted so positively to Sequoia that in 1984 he recorded the piece with the Saint Louis Symphony for Nonesuch (re-released on this recording). The following year he invited Tower to become his orchestra's composer-in-residence. Given her performer's background, Tower gravitated easily toward members of the orchestra and the guest artists. At rehearsals and concerts she refined her knowledge of instrumentation and repertoire. The two pieces written for the Saint Louis Symphony during her residency, which are also heard on this recording, pay specific homage to the skills of several of her colleagues through solo passagework and general tribute to an orchestra she came to love as well as admire.


Indeed, to hear Sequoia again after this survey of orchestral music written by Joan Tower in the 1980s is to be reminded of the strength of her own compositional "roots." Tower likens the architecture of her piece to the structure of a tree. Like a tree trunk, the harmonies and registers grow and spread from one source, the main pedal point G that opens the piece. "This 'balancing,' like the branching of a tree, continues to develop into more complex settings, as the 'branches' start to grow sub-branches. The balancing principle permeates every facet of Sequoia - most importantly in the areas of rhythm, tempo, dynamics, pacing, texture, and instrumental color." But this is also music that soars with terrific energy, reaching for the dizzying heights, as well as for "the power and grandeur inherent in the sequoia." Along with the other pieces on this recording, it demonstrates the vigorous and engaging "personality" of Joan Tower and her music.


- Susan Feder

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