In late 2008, Joan Tower was about to celebrate her birthday with a pair of concerts and had been recently nominated for three Grammy Awards—all which she ended up winning. Five years later, the composer and Bard College educator is once again the focus of a musical program in her honor, an event commemorating the 75th year of her birth and taking place on the campus this month. "It's lovely to have your birthday celebrated, especially when you get older," she observes from the desk of her photo-and-memento-lined office. "I just try not to think about the fact that [the birthday concert] means that everybody knows how old I am. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, I do have a great life. I have a really good job at Bard, with great students. I'm doing what I want by making music with great musicians. I feel like I'm one of the most blessed people in the world."
Thanks to Tower's amazing music, the world is pretty blessed itself. One of America's foremost contemporary composers, the Red Hook resident is revered for her dramatic, colorful, rhythmically dynamic, and frequently percussive works, which are as accessible as they startling and challenging. Her signature efforts include the frenetic chamber piece Petroushkates (1980) and such expansive orchestral opuses as Sequoia (1981) and Silver Ladders (1986), the latter of which made her the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize for musical composition. But the Grawmeyer and the Grammys are by no means the only honors she's accumulated over her nearly five-decade career. Besides being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998) and the Harvard Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004), Tower has a Guggenheim fellowship (1976) and an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory (1972); has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic; and has served as composer-in-residence for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and other esteemed ensembles. In 1993 she composed Stepping Stones for the Milwaukee Ballet, and later ended up conducting a segment of the work for a concert at the White House. Not too bad for the daughter of a nomadic mineralogist.
Born in New Rochelle, Tower spent her earliest years in nearby Larchmont. She started piano at age six, initially transfixed by Chopin. "I just fell in love with [his music]," she recalls. "Chopin just has this incredible combined sense of melody and harmony. His music is very piano-centric, unlike with Bach or other composers, whose music you also hear played on harp, guitar, whatever. Chopin's DNA is the piano. And since I was discovering the instrument back then, that just made his music even more magical." When she was nine, her father took a job in the mining industry that saw the family resettle in South America. "It was kind of a jolt, coming from Larchmont, which was very comfortable, and going to where there were revolutions every week," Tower says. "But it turned out to be a great childhood education. I learned Spanish in two months—I guess I've always had a good ear."
The clan lived in Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, and the composer traces her love of percussion, dance, and rhythm to her time in the latter. "I had an Incan nanny who used to bring me to the All Saints Day celebrations in La Paz," she says. "The musicians would hand me native percussion instruments and let me play along." The future luminary also got into her share of trouble as a young expatriate, however. "I used to flirt with surfers and visiting American servicemen," says Tower. "One time, the Harlem Globetrotters were in town and I invited them to our house. I called home and said, 'Hey, Mom, I'm bringing over some new friends!' Boy, was she surprised. [Laughs.] It must've been hell, bringing me up. I went to private school. You had to a wear uniform and all that. I wasn't good with rules. I was a rebel."
When the family eventually moved back to the States, as she prepared to enter college it looked like Tower's rebellious tendencies would continue to cause contention. "I was interviewing for admission to Radcliffe College [in Cambridge, Massachusetts], and after a few minutes the administrator said to me, 'You won't be happy here. You should check out Bennington College instead,'" Tower says. "So I did, and I absolutely fell in love with it. The professors were all in blue jeans, they were like-minded rebels themselves. Bennington turned out to be the perfect place. That Radcliffe administrator saved my life."