Contemporary Spotlight – Joan Tower: Ivory and Ebony

Several times a month I get the opportunity to look through newly released contemporary music publications, either through my own projects or those of my colleagues. As a composer myself and general new-music enthusiast, I figured I’d promote some of this music by living, working composers.

Joan Tower has had a long, illustrious career, with an impressive output for orchestra and chamber groups. Her warm, expansive, rhythmically active style feels like a continuation of the thread of Americana from Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. A notable work in this vein is Made in America, which meditates on the tune “America the Beautiful” and which was commissioned by a consortium of sixty-five different American orchestras across all fifty states. Ivory and Ebony is only her fourth solo piano piece, but as the pianist and founding member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, a renowned contemporary ensemble, she brings a lifetime of experience to writing for her instrument. If you want an additional introduction to Joan Tower, watch this nice video where she talks about new music in America (the top photo is a screenshot from it).

Ivory and Ebony was written for the San Antonio International Piano Competition, and it’s definitely a good competition piece. By that I mean it’s not overly long (8 minutes), contains a variety of material and opportunities for virtuosic dazzle, and allows the performer room for individual interpretation, all while not making unnecessarily extreme demands.

In this piece Tower explores a simple but compelling idea: the contrast between white and black keys. Indeed, for the first 83 measures, each hand plays only white or black notes, never a combination of the two. It’s a smart compositional choice. We start to perceive a distinct difference between white-key or black-key clusters. The white-key sonorities are softer, while the black-key ones are more bell-like and present. Gradual development of the white-vs.-black ideas leads to closer and closer alternation between the two worlds until the hands are playing rapid alternating chords in sixteenths. Some of the high-energy moments in this first buildup, as well as the slower section afterward, remind me of classic Bartókian or Stravinskian primivitism. The second build develops material based on scales and arpeggios, and the climax sounds like an edgier version of Chopin’s Ocean Etude, with piquant harmonies racing up and down the keyboard. Tower skillfully transitions out of the chaos into a soft tremolo on the white keys. After sustained sections of clashing harmonies, this pure white-key section feels even softer and more lush. Tower brings the piece to a close with some chordal fanfares alternating black and white sonorities (marked “joyously”), some rapid white-on-black figures that create a blur of sound, and then some classic white-key glissandos that lead up to a final cadence: G-flat Major to C Major (both with added tones). Another brilliant move. She’s pointing out the essential tonalities of the white and black key worlds, and the tritone between the two keys further emphasizes the distance between those areas.

I like this piece. On first listening I thought the white-key clusters were a bit too on-the-nose, but on repeat listening they’re just one aspect of a pretty thorough exploration of the white-key/black-key dichotomy. I would certainly learn this piece and perform it. Just from sight-reading a bit, I could tell it would be fun. And as I mentioned before, the difficulties are not excessive.

Click here to find the score.

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