Joan Tower: The Comprehensive Bio-Bibliography. By Ellen. K. Grolman. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007. [vii, 221 p. ISBN-10: 0810856530; ISBN-13: 9780810856530. $60.] Bibliographic references, index, discography, illustrations.
Composer Joan Tower's bold and colorful personality is readily apparent in her music. Her life has been anything but dull, from an upbringing in South America to a long career as a performer, which overlapped with an equally impressive career as a composer (one that isn't over yet!). Hallmarks of her work include the prominent role of rhythm (p. 36) and the influence of South American cultures (p. 38). Tower often writes for a specific performer, with his or her abilities and style in mind (p. 10). Her history as a performer with the Da Capo Chamber Players gives her the enviable opportunity to see the musical process from both sides-creation and performance (p. 10). Ever conscious of the role of women in music and more specifically the role of women composers, Tower has been an advocate for her female colleagues throughout her career.
In Joan Tower: The Comprehensive Bio-Bibliography, Ellen K. Grolman draws from almost 600 sources concerning Tower, including interviews previously conducted with Tower by six separate interviewers and a seventh one Grolman conducted herself. Grolman also utilizes solicited reflections by Tower's peers to illustrate her career and body of work, at the same time painting a picture of her practical, down-to-earth nature. This ability to obtain the direct input of a composer's contemporaries is a wonderful addition to scholarship, and a reason why more research should be done on living composers and performers. Too often scholars must piece together the reception of a figure by his or her contemporaries from historical correspondence and reviews, whereas the approach used by Grolman is much more direct.
Given the prominence Tower has enjoyed in the last two decades, I may not be the only one surprised that no full-length monograph had yet been published. There have been several doctoral dissertations, but otherwise no books solely about Tower. Grolman uses Tower's own words to explain the disparity of attention given women composers-or AWAGs (American Women Above Ground) as Tower calls them, in contrast to DWEMs (Dead White European Males, p. 43), at least on the concert stage. Because she is still actively composing, at almost 70 years of age, one hopes that once Tower's oeuvre is complete, a full-length bibliography or guide to research will be written.
This bio-bibliography includes five sections: biography, Tower's musical voice, works and performances, discography, and peer reflections. The appendix consists of an alphabetical list of published compositions. The bibliography contains articles, scores, books, and interviews in one section, and dissertations and theses in another. It might have been more readable if the scores were in their own section, which would have then served the same function as the existing appendix. Because the peer reflections section is narrative, the book would have flowed better had this section been situated after the second chapter, so that all of the narrative sections were grouped together. It also would have been more useful to have had a separate list of awards and commissions, rather than only including them in the works list.
The biography section reaches back three hundred years before Joan Tower was born, to the early days of the Tower family-1637 to be exact! It traverses from the seventeenth century through Tower's childhood and education, her early career, and on to her current events. The coverage is balanced across the time span, and the information provided serves to exemplify Tower's personal and musical development. Although the constraints of the biobibliography format likely prevented it, more extensive information about Tower's formative musical training, education, and early career would have been valuable, especially in light of the book's later discussion concerning the acceptance of women composers. Did Tower encounter any resistance in musical circles? Did she ever encounter difficulty getting her works performed? Deeper coverage of this issue may need to wait for a full-length biography.
The second section of this book, "Tower's musical voice," discusses her compositional process, aesthetic, titles, forms, influences, as well as her viewpoints on the state of contemporary music, "musical citizenship and musical feminism" (p. 42). Grolman gives the reader the opportunity to learn directly from Tower about her compositional process and naming rationales, among other things, and this knowledge is valuable to researchers. Noncomposers might be fascinated to learn that Tower composes an average of only three minutes of music a month (p. 39), perhaps comparable to the output of some great writers. Although the rate of composition is not important, it is interesting to see it quantified in this way.
Both the biography and Tower's musical voice sections contain important dates about events in her life and career, such as positions and awards. In verifying these dates against the New Grove entry (Sharon Prado Howard, "Joan Tower," Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy. www.grovemusic.com [accessed 21 November 2007]), several discrepancies were found. While Grolman's bibliography cites the Grove article, it doesn't comment on the variations in dates. Grolman and Grove differ on the dates of Tower's St. Louis Symphony residency completion (1988 [p. 14] vs. 1987), her Columbia M.M. (1964 [p. 8] vs. 1965), and her Guggenheim Fellowship award. Grol man states on page 10 that Tower received her Guggenheim in 1975, while Grove and the Guggenheim Web site (http://www.gf.org/tfellow .html [accessed 21 November 2007]) say 1977. Without further research it is difficult to know whether Grolman or Grove is correct in each of these cases.
The works and performances section is arranged by genre and performance medium: band, stage, orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments; works in progress; early, unpublished works; and works written for or dedicated to Joan Tower. Each entry contains some or all of the following information: piece title, composition and/or copyright dates, publisher information and plate number, piece duration, dedication and/or commission information, instrumentation, composer's note, premiere information (date, location, performers and/or conductors), selected performances, and recording(s). What this section lacks is an explanatory note regarding the source of the composer's note, why plate numbers are included for some works and not others, as well as the rationale for which performances were included. In checking the composer's notes against some of the scores in our library, I discovered that some of the notes Grolman includes seem to come directly from the score, while others do not. It is possible that Grolman consulted other editions of the scores, although our scores had the same publication data as the ones she cited. Examples of these discrepancies include W29, Breakfast Rhythms I and II, for which Grolman includes a composer's note, but for which one does not exist in the score, and W49, Petroushskates, for which the text of Grolman's included note varied from the one in the score I consulted. I also observed that some of the works are presented out of alphabetical order (Noon Dance comes before Night Fields (pp. 86-87) and Snow Dreams comes after Trés Lent (pp. 92-93). While this last point is not hugely important, small errors such as these can cause frustration in readers, and seem wholly avoidable.
The discography section is arranged in alphabetical order by composition title. Entries include: composition title, album title, label and label number, ASIN (for compact discs), format, date, performers; in some cases recording location, recording date, and other contents of the album are listed. Included at the end of the discography is a list titled "Joan Tower Performs Works of Other Composers," the entries in which date from her tenure with the Da Capo Chamber Players. Both the works and performances section and the discography section include useful cross-references to one another as well as to the bibliography.
The peer reflections section includes two dozen narratives by composers, conductors, and performers who have worked with Tower personally or performed her music. The entries appear to be in no particular order (it seems as if they could have been arranged alphabetically by last name). Some are quite short, while others are several pages. There is no dating of the entries or explanation of how they were solicited (e.g., were individuals asked to respond to any specific question or prompt?). This is a unique opportunity to understand Tower and her music as viewed and interpreted by her contemporaries, as many of the responses are well-thought out, and in many cases quite candid.
Grolman has presented a valuable tool for the research of Joan Tower and her music. It fills a gap in the reference section of the library, as no equivalent resource exists. While the data discrepancies are a bit disturbing, there are any number of reasons that they may have occurred, and hopefully they will be addressed in any further printings or editions. Performers and researchers will find this new tool useful, and will, as I did, likely come away with a renewed interest in Tower's life and compositions.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign…