Composer Joan Tower’s approach to the orchestra is decidedly distinct from that of her friend, former student, and Bard College Conservatory colleague Jessie Montgomery. Drawing on a lifelong fascination with percussion, Tower deploys a ready command of orchestration to provide depth and shading to the focused, Beethovenian development of her musical motifs: toe-tapping rhythmic tattoos and tightly controlled melodic gestures.
By contrast, Montgomery—who made a mark as violinist with the Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet before composing took over her musical career—is a more expansive melodist at heart, using the orchestra to guide singing string lines into subtle convergences with entirely different traditions of ensemble playing, from Renaissance to rock.
What they share, beyond mutual admiration, is their status among America’s foremost orchestral composers. Along with other honors, Tower’s accolades range from the Grammy to the Grawemeyer—she was the first female laureate of that honor—and she received the League of American Orchestras’ inaugural 50-state, 65-orchestra Made in America consortium commission in 2004. (The Nashville Symphony’s recording of the work, led by Tower champion Leonard Slatkin, won a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.) Montgomery, the current Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has, according to the Institute for Composer Diversity’s 2022 Orchestra Repertoire Report, become one of the country’s most-played orchestral composers, surpassing even Copland, Barber, and Gershwin in 2021-2022 performances.
They also share a passion for the unique magic of the symphony orchestra and the musicians in it. When I spoke to them via Zoom about their experiences in the rapidly changing orchestral sphere and their hopes for its future, the 41-year-old Montgomery was at an artists’ retreat in the Italian countryside, while Tower had just celebrated her 85th birthday in the Hudson Valley with a visit from composer Missy Mazzoli—another Bard colleague—and live mariachi music courtesy of her Venezuelan students. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
Daniel Stephen Johnson: Joan, you’ve spoken about how, when you were starting out, you felt you had to conform to a severe, modernistic aesthetic in order to be taken seriously. Today, do you see any kind of aesthetic exclusion going on, or is your experience that everything is permitted?
Joan Tower: I just had a premiere of a sextet that I wrote for three ensembles—Bang on a Can, eighth blackbird, and Collage New Music—and what an experience! Because these are three ensembles with different audiences. To eighth blackbird and Bang on a Can, I was the traditional, old-school type, no amplification and no visuals, but they welcomed me, and I discovered through these performances that contemporary music is getting more and more mixed up, less and less parceled out into camps.
Jessie Montgomery: I’ve had a similar experience. At a new music concert, the breadth of styles is wide. The new music community has worked at making space for that, and has been vocal in terms of the way that they invite composers to talk about their work. The American Composers Forum has been re-examining the way that they set up panels for judging grant applications and things like that—meaning panels that include more types of people.
Equal opportunities are important in terms of the industry reflecting talented people, no matter what they look like or how they identify. – Jessie Montgomery
Tower: It’s not always an easy mix. For example, being on a panel where you’re judging jazz, and classical, and ethnic music, and you only know classical. I always abstained. Even though I was married to a jazz musician for ten years and heard a lot of great jazz played, I didn’t feel inside that music enough to make a decision on some of these panels.
Montgomery: People need to create a foundational understanding of what’s going on. So, this person is working from the jazz medium and branching out into another style, and vice versa: this person is rooted in foundationally classical music, orchestral instruments, and is going into another space using that same palette. People are trying to understand how to listen and how to categorize.
Tower: We have a China Institute here at Bard, which has the only degree program for Chinese instrumental performance in this country, and mixing the East and West is not easy either. Chinese musicians have their own notation, so the language is not there yet for us to share. But there are other things to share.
Montgomery: I grew up in the ’90s, so the idea of pop fusion with orchestra is interesting—Sufjan Stevens or Johnny Greenwood, that stream of songwriter-goes-symphonic. That was an interesting doorway for some composers. You can come from a different genre and find a way to bring symphonic language to the music in a way that’s fulfilling for the symphony players, too, where the music is rich with all of the things you would expect sitting in that chair, and not just a “pops” thing. That has certainly influenced me. There’s real, cool orchestral writing going on. When I think about going to orchestra concerts, I try to put in my mind that it’s a real night out. Probably it’s risky to say this, but it’s the entertainment value. There’s something about the entertainment of going to an orchestra and being floored by the experience. Feeling the impact of the symphony on stage—it’s inspiring to say, “Okay, if I was going to bring that type of energy to the orchestra, where would I go with that?”
It’s healthy for the scene to have breathing spaces that play off of each other, rather than treating music like a museum. We can’t live in the museum. – Joan Tower
Johnson: In addition to stylistic questions, there are sociopolitical questions about what composers are and aren’t heard in the orchestral context, and that, too, has undergone a shift over the course of your careers.
Montgomery: It’s a slow and steady progression, and the value in it is to create more music. It creates more opportunities for music to evolve, and involve different types of experiences. Music doesn’t have a gender, but music does have cultural influences and folkloric origins. Bringing in people who have had other influences makes the music richer.
Equal opportunities are important in terms of the industry reflecting talented people, no matter what they look like or how they identify. That’s a human need that we want to fulfill within our community, and people are finally discussing it more openly. Joan, it was so different when you were coming up, but a lot of the same aspirations were on the table. As a role model, there had to be space for you for there to be space for me.
Tower: When I was coming up it was mostly dead white European males. I said to audiences, “How many of you expect to dislike my piece?” 90% of the hands would go up. Then I said, “How many of you think that’s unfair?” 90%.
I started going to bat for living composers—particularly women. I said, “I know you’re going to criticize me because I’m unknown, I’m living, and maybe even because I’m a woman, because you have the power to do that. I’m on a program with Beethoven; are you going to criticize Beethoven?” No! Because Beethoven is too iconic, too big. “Well, I’m doing Beethoven a favor by being on this program, because I’m getting you to sit up in your chair and criticize!” They need to do that with Beethoven, because the farther back they get, the more passive it gets. That kind of thing is deadly. And Beethoven is one of my favorite composers. It’s not helping him.
As Jessie said, it’s healthy for the scene to have these breathing spaces that play off of each other, rather than treating music like a museum. We can’t live in the museum.
Bringing in more diverse composers brings different communities into the orchestral space. That is necessary for the survival of those institutions. – Jessie Montgomery
Johnson: Do you feel that the discourse around what it means to be a “woman composer” or a “composer of color” has changed? What, if anything, do those labels mean to you?
Tower: I always introduced myself as a woman composer, and I’d get giggles in the audience. Now, I’m getting cheers! I say I’m an older woman, and I get even more!
There used to be a lot of women’s festivals, not so much anymore. I went to all of them and learned so much. I’m proud of being a woman composer. Some women think that label is ghettoizing or stigmatizing. I’m the opposite.
Montgomery: I’m a Black composer, a Black American woman. People might expect to hear some connection to the blues, or to particular rhythms. Occasionally, I do use those references, because it’s close to my ear and to my experience, but it’s all integrative. Like any composer, my experiences go into my music, which covers a wide range of styles. In some pieces of mine, you might hear references to Black American music, and in others, it won’t be as discernible. I have had people come up to me afterwards and say they heard the blues, when that was very much not my influence in that particular piece! But I’ve also had people come up to me and say, “That sounds like traditional Hebrew chant to me”—wow, that’s interesting! That was their experience.
When I was coming up it was mostly dead white European males. I said to audiences, “How many of you expect to dislike my piece?” 90% of the hands would go up. Then I said, “How many of you think that’s unfair?” 90%. – Joan Tower
Johnson: Have you had an experience with an orchestra where you thought, “That was a dream, I can’t believe how well that went!”
Montgmery: I have one—but it was with no conductor!
Tower: Is that Orpheus?
Montgomery: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Actually, Orpheus and Saint Paul, both were wonderful! It was sort of a collaboration between the two of them, co-commissioning works of mine. In both cases, the dedication of the musicians … it’s a certain type of commitment, when it’s a conductorless ensemble. But there are experiences that I’ve had with conductors—Osmo Vänskä. Wonderful! Very generous reader of the music.
Tower: He’s wonderful. He has a dialogue with you. In front of the orchestra!
Montgomery: And asks real questions about the feel of the music and not just, “Is this a wrong note?”
Tower: I had a terrific experience with the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra in Boulder, run by Peter Oundjian. He was doing a whole concert of my music with the premiere of my Cello Concerto. He called me up four months before anything was happening to go over the score. We workshopped that premiere. We made all kinds of changes. It was a collaborative dialogue, and there was enough time to make it happen. He comes from a chamber music background, he was a violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet, so the dialogue is part of where he came from.
Montgomery: A major flaw in the development of new works for symphony orchestra is the lack of time to work on the piece with the musicians.
Tower: And the composers are new to writing for orchestra! They’re still—I’m still figuring out balances and things. I need to hear it, and I need to make changes as I’m hearing it. There’s no time for that.
Montgomery: We’re placed with the same expectations as a Beethoven symphony. But Beethoven’s been in editorial mode for 300 years! We haven’t been through that and aren’t given room to make those first big adjustments.
I sometimes say, new music is going to save traditional classical music. – Jessie Montgomery
Tower: One other problem is conductors who don’t know living composers, and the only way they can choose is by somebody giving them advice. They have to stand behind that choice, and they’re not always willing to, because they’re not sure of their own opinion. I applaud the conductors who take time to listen to living composers and find some they can relate to.
Johnson: It sounds like your best experiences in working with orchestras are instances where the conductors were conferring with you rather than striking out on their own.
Tower: Yes and no. One conductor didn’t want to deal with me at all, but he wound up giving one of the best performances of that piece. So, it is the engagement, but it’s also the way they treat the piece, in the end. They could talk to you infinitely and not do a good job.
Johnson: What do you think is the role of orchestral music in contemporary American culture, and what are your hopes or fears for its future?
Montgomery: Orchestras are creating more composer residencies and investing more in commissioning. That’s a big deal, and it’s cultivating a new audience. Bringing in more diverse composers brings different communities into the orchestral space. That is necessary for the survival of those institutions, because they’re all looking at some hard truths right now.
I sometimes say, new music is going to save traditional classical music. We needed Beethoven, and Beethoven needs us.
I’m proud of being a woman composer. Some women think that label is ghettoizing or stigmatizing. I’m the opposite. – Joan Tower
Tower: I totally agree with Jessie. We used to have a program called Meet the Composer, and they put composers in residence with the orchestra. Placing a composer in an orchestra creates a different dynamic, especially if they’re doing outreach and contemporary chamber programs. The composer starts being a personal contact for the players and the conductor. They do some work that the conductor doesn’t have the time for. They recommend pieces. Their presence creates a very big difference. It’s not that expensive, and it creates an on-the-ground presence of a living composer.