Joan Tower has become one of today's most popular composers - really popular, not just the token contemporary on a concert of old masters. She has composed music for nearly every genre of instrumental music, including orchestra, chamber ensembles of all types, concerti for a flock of different instruments, and ballet. Her music is complex but accessible, with exciting rhythmic drive and motivic ideas that are discernible and understandable within the context of her compositional design. The drive, in fact, is so compelling, even for her, that she keeps going until it is played out. Her compositions are usually not subdivided: "I don't do movements," she states bluntly.
"What I hate is this attitude that every piece of new music is horrible. When I talk to audiences I ask them 'how many of you think you're going to dislike this piece?' and about 90 percent of the hands go up. And I say, "well how many of you think that's unfair?' The same 90 percent go up. I say, 'you don't fool me. You're judging me for WHAT? For being alive? That's your problem.'"
But in some ways it became Joan Tower's problem. Schooled in the rigors of serialism during the '60s, she wrote her first works in the stark, spare style of her teacher, Charles Wuorinen. As she became familiar with the works of Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb she began to move away from the strict serialist model. Her works became more colorful and were often described as impressionistic. "I started pulling away. It was really hard because I was pulling away from the only family I knew."
Tower describes herself as a very "intuitive" composer. She doesn't plan her works, but writes them one measure at a time. ''I'm totally un-pre-compositional. I compose very slowly but I have tremendous concentration. I can go three hours at a time without looking up, but I've built that up over time; I used to have to go sharpen my pencil, get a cup of coffee, make that phone call '" The only thing I know is who I'm writing the piece for and how long it is. The piece sort of writes itself. Other people can get away with [cranking out pieces quickly] but I'm totally anti-speed and I hate it when people think if you can't turn out a piece overnight there's something wrong with you."
In a telephone interview, Tower spoke about her interest in composing for the less common instruments, as well as about the challenges it presents. "You go to a flute convention and there are dozens of pieces offered ... the less common instruments just don't come forward." Although Tower has worked with Peter Kolkay on other occasions, she was unfamiliar with composing for the bassoon as a solo instrument. In her characteristically focused manner, she enlisted the services of David Nagy, a student at Bard, who played drafts of the solo part as she worked. With the help of Nagy and a pianist, she was able to mold and correct her work to fit the idiom of the instrument.
Red Maple is a 17-minute work for bassoon and strings that has three cadenzas that allow the instrument to come forward unimpeded, revealing the rich color spread throughout its different registers.