Last week, Joan Tower visited the University of Redlands as part of the Frederick Loewe Symposium in American Music. Like many other students in the music department, I never grew tired of the humor and wittiness she brought to every event, whether it was a performance of her music, a panel discussion, or masterclass.
As a composer participating in the symposium, what struck me the most was the way she examines her own compositions and shares this method of looking at pieces with students. When Kelsey Broersma performed Wings for alto saxophone as part of Tower’s presentation on Wednesday, Tower highlighted the fact that during rests, many performers utilize the moment to breathe, turn a page, or gather themselves together in one way or another. However, she views rests as vital part of the musical action. She says that a rest is often analogous to the moment between a one diving from a board and landing in the water: it goes somewhere. I find that the hard part of this as a performer is envisioning rests as part of the musical phrase when there is already so much going on mentally. As a composer, I simply have trouble conceiving of such phrasings in the first place. Yet, her perspective makes complete sense as demonstrated by the bombastic ending of Made in America, which our orchestra performed at the large ensembles’ concert of her works on Thursday night. Each time I played that ending, I fought the urge to play in the rests not because I had trouble counting them, but because they were wrought with so much energy and tension.
I wish I could soon learn to incorporate this dynamic in my own pieces, for I have realized long ago that I severely underestimate the power of a rest. During the composition masterclass on Friday afternoon where I presented “Rites of Amber” for her critique, she brought to my attention how overly steady and consistent the eighth note pulse becomes in the piece, therefore making those rhythms become banal. The piece would benefit from moments of obfuscating the pulse in one way or another. Rests, long notes, and changes of pulse are a few ways to do this. I look forward into solving this puzzle not only when I reorchestrate this piece in the future, but also in the pieces I am currently working on. Since rhythm is one of my compositional “safety-nets,” I could afford to live on the “wild side” by comparison.