I was going to return from vacation with a post about — what else — myself? (I’m a blogger, right?) But then I thought it’d be more fun to start with something about Joan Tower’s concert last Saturday night, at Merkin Hall in New York. She celebrated her 70th birthday, and some top musicians played her music. I love her stuff, and especially liked hearing pieces live that I only knew from recordings. Even though I’d studied some of the pieces, and wrote liner notes about them for Joan’s Naxos CD, I was struck by how physical they sounded live, even — or especially — the very quiet beginning of Joan’s piano trio Big Sky. Just some soft notes, very long, but they draw you into a space they create.
The real delight of the concert wasn’t music by Joan, though. She’s irrepressible — someone who always says what she thinks. So when she came onstage after intermission, she said (just about licking her lips with anticipation), “Now comes the interesting part of the concert!” This was the part when some of the musicians who’d played Joan’s music played pieces of their own — pieces she’d just about forced them to write, no matter how afraid they were. And the results were wonderful. Joan, I should add, thinks (and I agree) that every musician should compose, and that every composer should perform. (I’m working on my piano improvising, and — who knows? — might even return to singing! I’ve got someone ready to give me voice lessons…)
So now Lisa Kaplan, of eighth blackbird, had written a piece, and so had Joseph Kalichstein. And others, too. Lisa may not believe it, but her piece was fabulous — witty, alive, propulsive, surprising. eighth blackbird should commission her! Kalichstein probably thinks that his piece was a throwaway, just some oddball takes on “Happy Birthday” fragments, in the styles of various great composers (with samples of those comopsers’ actual work stolen, magpie-like, and thrown into the mix). But he stitched it all together with delightful wit and finesse. Not easy to do!
Which isn’t to slight the pieces by pianists Blair McMillen and violist Paul Neubauer. All these musicians rose to the occasion, and showed — to Joan’s delight (mine, too) — that composing isn’t a special talent, given only to a few. Anyone can do it, and that’s a good thing. (And just hold on, any purists out there who think I’ve dumped standards out the window. I didn’t say that some people don’t do it better than others. But the ability to compose, simply to compose, at whatever level, putting one note after another, isn’t any God-given miracle. The people who become composers are the ones determined to do it, the ones who sit on our butts and finish our pieces. Which doesn’t mean we have any more talent for it than plenty of performing musicians who don’t compose. Or, for that matter, than non-musicians who’ve never even thought about it, as Jon Deak, the composer and NY Philharmonic bassist, proves with his astonishing composing workshops for adults and children. I’ve heard him evoke notable music from orchestra administrators, just for instance.)
A wonderful evening, Joan’s 70th. And she’s addicted to her iPhone! Who knew?