May 18, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Across her enduring and celebrated career, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman has become something of a calling card for composer Joan Tower.

The fanfare is actually a series of five fanfares written between 1986 and 1993 that Tower revised and collected into a single piece in 1997. Each of her fanfares, which playfully riff on the name of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, are dedicated to noteworthy women who are “risk-takers and adventurers.”

The fanfares are something of a calling card both because they have been critically embraced and also because many feel that the title is more than fitting for a composer who has broken a few glass ceilings in her time. Marin Alsop — to whom the first fanfare is dedicated and who recorded all five of Tower’s fanfares while with the Colorado Symphony — called her “one of America’s preeminent composers.”

More than two decades after her fifth fanfare was completed, Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman #6 for orchestra was given its world premiere earlier this May by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Alsop’s baton. Tower said she never had any reservations about adding onto a series of works that at least to some observers might have seemed completed.

“It was never really [a fixed thing],” Tower said. “It was always open-ended.”

For women composers, there’s sometimes some hesitation to affixing the gender adjective to their identity. They are, after all, first and foremost composers who approach their craft with the same artistry and intention as anyone in their field. The label “women composers” can sometimes feel limiting, as if it restricts their work to be considered in a small pond rather than its rightful place in a storied and vast classical music ocean.

Tower is often hailed as a trailblazer for women composers as an artist who started her career during the 1960s during an era when female names were not found as readily in the concert program. Along with composers like Ellen Zwilich, Tower is seen by many as part of a generation of composers who helped open up the symphonic world for more women who followed them, and Tower said she’s proud to be given that label.

“I’m happy to be called a pioneer [for women composers],” Tower said.

Part of why she embraces the label is because of a chance encounter with musicologist Nancy B. Reich at Bard College, who Tower said changed her life by giving her a better understanding of where she fit into a long and often difficult history of women in classical music.

“She taught a course called Women in Music. I’m not a big fan of musicology classes because they kind of bore me, having taken too many of them at Columbia University,” she said. “So I thought I’d show up once in a while and try to learn something. I not only went to every class, but my hand was up in the air half the time because I was so fascinated by [the story] she was telling of women from the past in music.”

That class grew into a partnership between Reich and Tower, and the two worked to put on three festivals featuring music by some of the often-ignored women composers taught in the class.

“It was a real eye-opener for me,” Tower said. “Knowing that history was important to me because it showed me where I was along that line [of women in classical music] and that some of my problems might not necessarily be personal but historical.”

Since writing her first fanfare, the pieces have been performed by more than 500 ensembles worldwide. They regularly are featured at inaugurations or events paying tribute to women in some way.

“These fanfares have had quite an interesting life,” Tower said. “I like being helpful in that respect. That’s why I continue with the title.”

The centennial celebration works are commissioned for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Marin Alsop by Classical Movements, Inc. as part of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. Also made possible by a grant from New Music USA through a generous contribution from Thomas Brener and Inbal Segev, and additionally supported by the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the Randolph S. and Amalie R. Rothschild Endowed Fund for New Music.