Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman no. 1

Joan Tower (b. 1938)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

American composer Joan Tower certainly fits into the category of “uncommon.” As a female composer coming of age in the mid-twentieth century, she had to overcome perceptions as to what a composer was and could be. Although Tower states she never personally felt discrimination, she notes the obstacles other composers have faced and has served as a staunch advocate for younger colleagues trying to break into the traditionally male-dominated field. Perhaps her upbringing in Bolivia from the age of nine kept her far enough removed from expectations of the American musical establishment to allow her to dream of a career generally unheard of for a woman in the U.S. at the time. Whatever the circumstances, she graduated with a DMA from Columbia University and was soon hired as a professor of composition at Bard College in 1972. Four years later she was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship. Since then she has received many prestigious awards, as well as commissions from major orchestras across the country.

Tower modeled her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman on the similarly-titled Copland masterwork, utilizing the same performing forces of brass and percussion. The instrumentation seems an apt choice for a work written, in the composer’s words, to honor “women who take risks and who are adventurous.” The inscription is striking, especially when one considers that brass and percussion are the two orchestral sections least likely to feature female players. Tower dedicated the piece to noted conductor Marin Alsop, who finds herself in the top echelon of another musical discipline in which women are far underrepresented. Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman was originally commissioned by the Houston Symphony and premiered in 1987. Since then, Tower has composed five more fanfares with the same titlethree for brass and percussion and two for full orchestra. Alsop recorded the first five with the Colorado Symphony in 1999. In 1987, interviewer Bruce Duffie asked Tower if she would rather be known as a woman composer or simply a composer. Her response? “… some people are not aware that there are no women composers on their concerts. So for that reason, I do like to be reminded this is a woman composer. ‘Have you ever heard a woman composer? Oh, yes, come to think of it, no.’ I think that’s an important reminder. Other than that, the music is the music.”

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Joan Tower, of course, is one of America’s most recognized and honored composers, having contributed a wealth of significant compositions primarily for orchestra, including several solo concertos, and chamber ensembles. While the composer of an impressive number of significant works, ironically, perhaps the public thinks of her most for her six fanfares entitled Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman. The somewhat cheeky reference to Aaron Copland’s beloved composition is pellucidly clear. Four of her fanfares are scored for brass ensemble, some with percussion, and two are written for full orchestra. She composed the first in 1986 and the last in 2016 and they are collectively dedicated to “women who take risks and are adventurous.”

Each of the six fanfares is dedicated to one woman of merit, with the first fanfare recognizing the well-known conductor, Marin Alsop. The Houston Symphony commissioned the work and gave its première in 1987. The instrumentation of Tower’s work is the same as Copland’s, but adds additional percussion instruments. Like Copland’s fanfare, Tower’s begins with a monstrous percussion explosion, but eschewing his ponderous tempo, Tower’s work moves right out in a somewhat brisker tempo. Twittering motifs in the trumpets and gestures in the low brass that seem to evoke something of Copland yield to dense layers of distinct material in the various instruments. Driving rhythms seem to collapse into thick, dissonant tone clusters as the riotous texture grows. The “layers” of contrasting fanfare-like figures seem to cascade all over each other as they gallop along in growing intensity. An allusion to the opening “twitters” briefly surfaces before the smashing end.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic at the Lincoln Center, February 2022.

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