Music Makes Me Come Alive

Joan Tower - Red Hook, New York
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, November 27, 2006
Joan Tower

After 60 years of composing, Joan Tower believes more than ever in the power of music. She says it nourishes our souls, encourages us to feel, connects us to one another and helps us change the world.

Age Group: 50 - 65

After 60 plus years of composing and performing, I believe more than ever in the extraordinary power of music.

In this day of fast information and communication, music nourishes our inner souls. As tensions between nations continue, music reaches beyond borders. At weddings, funerals, inaugurations, and parades, music gives us public permission to feel and share things. In fact, music has always been a shared thing — between the creator, the performer, and the audience. Music connects me to people I don’t even know.

Strong music puts you in a space where you forget about yourself. It’s like a good movie. It’s an escape. You lose yourself. It’s a license to feel, sing, shout, and to dance.

Do you remember when you first fell in love? Was there a song associated with that love? When you hear that song now, do you think of that person and actually remember what you felt? Maybe you even cry.

When I was growing up, my life largely centered around boys and sex. I was into music, but music didn’t always give me the nourishment that boys did. It takes time and patience to be nourished by music. Now, I can say, without music I would be lost.

A conductor once told me that music had kept him off the streets and even out of jail. Music became a kind of “survival” phenomena for him (and for me, too). It is our drug of choice because it has given us the extraordinary lasting inner experience that has even replaced real drugs, vacations, money, fame, and all the things we associate with pleasure and excitement. A friend of mine who happens to be an extraordinary pianist and still practices up to five hours a day once said to me, “The piano is my best friend. I can’t think of anyone better to spend my time with.”

I feel the same way about composing. I’m in the studio from 1:00 to 5:30 religiously, every day. I used to run from the studio — I’d tell myself I had to clean or make a telephone call, anything to get out of there. Now I look forward to these hours. Composing is slow — I wait for the right notes. The hardest thing is to get your soul down on the page and have it come out on the other side in a way that works.

Music is not just my most trusted friend. It makes me come alive, to show strength and passion and to feel useful. Music makes me feel like I’m doing something terribly important. I believe that with music I can help to change the world around me — if just a little bit.

Composer and pianist Joan Tower was born in New York and spent her youth in Bolivia where her father worked as a mining engineer. Her most famous works include “Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman" and the tone poem “Sequoia." Tower teaches at Bard College.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Noah Sheldon.