Joan Tower ‘Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No.1’: Musical Individualism

Hello readers! It is September 1st so that means only one thing…a new challenge can begin! Welcome to my new challenge ‘Female Fortnight’, which aims to celebrate female composers throughout the ages. It will be run similarly to that of the ‘August Alphabet Challenge’ where I will write blogs daily on a wide-variety of female composers. Two weeks full of girl power, what more could you possibly want? Like with any challenge, I wanted to start Female Fortnight with a bang, a composer and a work that really makes a statement for female composers. I think I have found the perfect way to start the challenge, with Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No.1. This is a fantastic piece of music by an equally as fantastic female composer, so I do hope you find this as fitting as I do to start my Female Fortnight Challenge!

Joan Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1938. When Tower was nine, her family moved to Bolivia, which she describes as an integral part of her compositional style. Upon her father’s insistence, she learnt the piano and had consistent musical training. Her father was a mineralogist, and you can see parts of their relationship in works such as Black Topaz and Silver Ladders. In the early 1960s she moved back to the USA to study music at Bennington College, Vermont and then at Columbia University, where she studied composition under Jack Beeson, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. She was awarded her doctorate in composition in 1968. A year later Tower, alongside Joel Lester and Patricia Spencer, founded the New York based chamber group ‘Da Capo Chamber Players’, where Tower was the pianist. Whilst working in this group, Tower wrote a number of successful works including Platinum Spirals and my particular favourite, Wings. She left the group in 1984 after the immediate success of her first large orchestral work, Sequoia (1981). Tower was also offered a place at Bard College in composition, a post she holds to this day.

In 1990, Tower became the first woman to win the Grawemeyer Award for Music for her composition, Silver Ladders. She became composer in residence for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, where she later won the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer. Tower has gone on to win a wealth of awards for her services to composition. Tower has worked with a wide-range of different ensembles, from large orchestras to percussion quintets. In 2008 her composition Made in America won a whopping three Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Today, Tower still holds her Professor of Music chair at Bard College.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman is a set of fanfares in 5 parts composed between 1987 and 1997. For this blog I will be looking into the first fanfare, as I personally find it the most intriguing. The first Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman was compose in 1986 and was further premiered in 1987, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hans Vonk. This fanfare is also dedicated to the female conductor, Marin Alsop. As the title suggests, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman was originally inspired by Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Tower uses the same instrumentation (the whole brass section and percussion), whilst also adding extra percussion such as marimba, glockenspiel, chimes and drums. Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman is a tribute to “women who take risks and are adventurous.” Some have even described Tower’s work as “a feminist answer to Copland.” However, one of my all-time favourite quotes is from Tower, where she states that “unless it has lyrics, music is genderless” – so what point is both Copland and Tower’s work trying to say? I believe if you take the above quote and put it into action, then one should just enjoy the works for what they are – musical triumphs. Both works are bold, colourful and vibrant, and most importantly they are both all-involving. I think it’s important to relish in Tower’s musical individualism, even when she has used Copland’s fanfare as a reference point. I think one should enjoy the irony of the work. Although Tower uses Copland as a reference, one can definitely hear her compositional style branch out by the end of the work, making it her own. Tower is merely creating genderless music which welcomes all who will listen to it.

The fanfare starts with the same percussive strikes as Copland’s, but the first brass themes heard are much more embellished and fast-paced. The work is additive, which means instruments are layered in, which makes this work very polyphonic (differently to Copland whose work is homophonic). The start is bold and strong, which represents Tower’s first ‘brave woman’. The flourish of sound that happens at the beginning of the fanfare is just wonderful. The lower brass then play a new motif, which is shadowed by the tuba. The horns then play a vibrant theme which is free and reflects Tower’s unafraid musical voice. The initial themes are repeated and the work builds to a climax. The dissonance heard is a way in which Tower makes this work individual to her. The extensive use of percussion is also a highlight as it brings this vibrant work to life. The snare drum and timpani at the end bring drive to the end of the piece. This fanfare is absolutely bursting with energy and character and is a fantastic opening work for the set of five pieces in Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. 

Joan Tower has been described as one of the most successful female composers of her time, with Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman being one of her most famous and well-loved works. On face-value it seems that Tower’s set of fanfares is a somewhat feminist blast against Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, however upon further inspection it seems that Tower was trying to ‘even the balance’ by proclaiming that music is genderless. If you enjoyed this work, then do look into Tower’s other works as she is a fantastic composer in her own right. Thank you for reading Day 1 of my Female Fortnight Challenge, I wonder which fantastic female will make the list tomorrow?

Happy Reading!

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