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Joan Tower

Publisher: AMP

Silver Ladders (1986),
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
23 Minutes
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Programme Note
Joan Tower Silver Ladders (1986),
Composer Note:

The images and feelings of this composition are reflected in the title. Its many upward-moving lines suggest nothing so much as a giant ladder, reaching to the sky and moving into space. Just as the metal silver has many contrasting qualities, so the textures of this music range from heavy to light, solid to fluid. Like a silversmith, Tower places rising motives in various contexts, molding and shaping the music to reveal its multiple properties. Instrumental solos spin forth slowly like liquid metal, fluid and silvery, providing contrast to the solid orchestral ladder surrounding them.

Certain motives recur throughout a number of Tower's compositions. One of these, a slow, straight-line upward action, can be traced back to a piece which she played as a pianist with her group, the Da Capo Chamber Players. Although she does not consider Schoenberg to be a primary influence, a beautiful moment in his Chamber Symphony No.1, Opus 9 -a slow, stately motive in rising fourths- stuck in her ears throughout the years. This motive has appeared and reappeared in different guises in several of Tower's works; she decided to give it prominence in this piece.

The first section is based on upward-moving scales (the ladder) formed largely of whole and half steps. Placing the scales in a variety of textures and contexts creates a long-range buildup of tension throughout this section. The one notable release consists of a contrasting, fluid undulation played by the clarinet.

This secondary action is taken up in the second section by a long oboe solo which develops the clarinet's material. A gradual accumulation of lines is achieved by a metamorphosis of solo violin to two violins, to string quartet, to horn quartet, to full orchestra. A marimba solo unwinds the tension and leads to a very low trio of bass, contrabasson, and bass clarinet which closes the section.

The rising-fourths motive begins the final section and becomes the basis for the harmony and the action of the lines. The scale passages from the first section eventually mingle with the rising-fourths motive. A contrasting interruption toward the end of this section recalls the clarinet and oboe solos of the two preceding movements; in this case the trumpet plays a fluid, contoured solo which has its own rising line.

— Sandra Hyslop (in collaboration with Joan Tower)

  • Ensemble
    St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
    Leonard Slatkin
    First Edition:
...a real crowd-pleaser. No composer this season has won a warmer reception. The piece is built on exciting, contrasted ostinatos of the sort Stravisnky taught us to think of as "dry"; Tower's, on the other hand, are drenched, supersaturated with color. The movement of the lines is upward throughout and the harmonies become progressively richer as the events and ideas build on each other.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,04/05/1987
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