Joan Tower: Copperwave


Joan Tower was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1938. When Tower was nine, her family moved to Bolivia, which she describes as an integral part of her compositional style. Upon her father’s insistence, she learnt the piano and had consistent musical training. Her father was a mineralogist, and you can see parts of their relationship in works such as Black Topaz, Copperwave and Silver Ladders. In the early 1960s, she moved back to the USA to study music at Bennington College, Vermont and then at Columbia University, where she studied composition under Jack Beeson, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. She was awarded her doctorate in composition in 1968.

A year later Tower, alongside Joel Lester and Patricia Spencer, founded the New York-based chamber group ‘Da Capo Chamber Players’, where Tower was the pianist. Whilst working in this group, Tower wrote a number of successful works including Platinum Spirals and my particular favourite, Wings. She left the group in 1984 after the immediate success of her first large orchestral work, Sequoia (1981). Tower was also offered a place at Bard College in composition, a post she holds to this day.

In 1990, Tower became the first woman to win the Grawemeyer Award for Music for her composition, Silver Ladders. She became composer in residence for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, where she later won the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer. Tower has gone on to win a wealth of awards for her services within composition.

Tower has worked with a wide range of different ensembles, from large orchestras to percussion quintets. In 2008, her composition Made in America won three Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Album and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Today, Tower still holds her Professor of Music chair at Bard College.


The Music

Copperwave was commissioned in 2006 for the American Brass Quintet by the Julliard School for its centennial celebrations. Due to the nature of the commission, Tower dedicated the work to the quintet. Tower describes her inspirations for this work:


“My father was a geologist and mining engineer and I grew up loving everything to do with minerals and rocks. Copper is a heavy but flexible mineral that is used for many different purposes and most brass instruments are made of copper. 

The ideas in this piece move in waves, sometimes heavy ones, and at other times lighter – also in circles. Turning around on the same notes. Occasionally, there is a Latin type of rhythm that appears, which is a reminder of my years growing up in South America where my father was working as a mining engineer.”


Tower uses two trumpets, one horn in F, one tenor trombone and a bass trombone to make up the quintet. The sparse opening showcases the two trumpets, who are accompanied by the horn. Tower utilises mutes throughout Copperwave to create clashing timbres. The piercing trumpet mutes sit on top of the warmer lower end. 

A driving Latin rhythm is featured near the start of the piece, with the lower end keeping the groove going as the upper ensemble plays the melody. The piece highlights all five instruments for different reasons, with Tower writing unique parts across the board. However, some of the most impactful and intense moments of the quintet is found when the instruments unite. Repeated rhythmic structures emphasise the unity between the ensemble, and creates an intense atmosphere. 

Tower’s use of syncopation in conjunction with ever-evolving dynamics and performance directions adds focus into the lower end of the ensemble. The two trombones in particular play a melodic and rhythmic part throughout, creating a really interesting dialogue with the trumpets and horn. From aggressive unison sections to quiet and sparse ethereal segments, the quick changes in texture and dynamics keeps the excitement a priority. 

After a Paso Doble-esque trumpet cadenza, the bass trombone is then featured as a soloist. The horn takes a cadenza, which also comprises previous material from the quintet. Through muted unison sections that are intricate for the players, the texture becomes more and more stretched out. A reprise of the opening Latin rhythm shows the quintet build in intensity until the final bell tolls of the piece ping out until the final four blasted notes. 


Final Thoughts

Joan Tower’s brass quintet Copperwave is full of intricate writing that showcases all five instruments. From unison Latin rhythms, to solo cadenza work, Copperwave is an exciting showcase of brass.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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