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Made in America
By Greg Sandow

How many orchestras are there in America? And how many composers are there?

These are questions worth pondering. When we think of classical composers, we tend to think of great figures from the past—Beethoven, Brahms, we all know their names.

And when we think of orchestras, we think of the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic, big-league ensembles in big-league cities, orchestras that play around the world, make records, appear on TV.

But is this the whole story? Ask the American Symphony Orchestra League, and they'll tell you that there are hundreds of orchestras all over America. There are big ones, small ones, professional orchestras, community orchestras, youth orchestras, orchestras in every state and nearly every city, playing their hearts out for people who don't spend much time in New York or Chicago.

And as for composers, we've got thousands of them—old ones, young ones, black, white, male, female, composers of every kind, writing music in all the towns and cities that support our many orchestras.

So maybe we need to change our view of what classical music is. And here's an amazing project that starts to help us do this—Ford Made in America, a partnership program of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer, with funding from Ford Motor Company Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others. This takes a piece newly written by composer Joan Tower, and takes it to 65 orchestras throughout the country, from Maine to California, from Alaska to Florida.

Tower—one of America's leading classical composers, and, as a person, a delight in every way—couldn't be happier. Normally, she says, a composer might get a performance by one orchestra, or two. Once, she says, the St. Louis Symphony took a piece of hers on tour and played it many times, bringing her to tears with the growing warmth and understanding that the musicians brought to her work. And once she wrote a piece for concert band, and had it played by 34 ensembles.

But that's nothing like what's happening here. Listen to the grin in her voice as she talks about how the project grew, from 26 orchestras to 30, then to 36, 40 and beyond: "Whoa, whoa, whoa, where are we going with this? This is like an adventure!"

Ford Made in America—Joan tower 1 [23 secs, 371KB, mp3]

To see how varied these orchestras are, you could visit their websites. The Glens Falls (New York) Symphony Orchestra—founded as the Adirondack Concert Orchestra, and now in its 28th year—already talks about Tower's piece, as well it might, since it's offering the world premiere, on October 2. The Wyoming Symphony asks you to "close your eyes and flood your thoughts with memories and emotions," as you feel the power of music. The South Dakota Symphony offers profiles of its musicians, among them an emergency room physician, a husband and wife who develop business software, and a farmer who drives up from Iowa to play his trombone. This orchestra also features new music, concentrating, for the second straight year, on composers who have won the Pulitzer Prize. The Mobile Symphony in Alabama, now starting its 35th year, will offer four works by living composers. The Wyoming Symphony will play a world premiere. There's a strong and vital link, in fact, between orchestras that don't play in big cities, and composers of our time—these orchestras play more new music than most of us realize.

But to see how far this Ford Made in America project can reach, listen to Tower's amazement as she talks about an invitation she received from the Juneau Symphony, a chamber orchestra in Alaska—an offer to tour the state with the orchestra, traveling by biplane, bus, and dogsled!

Ford Made in America—Joan tower 2 [37 secs, 588 KB, mp3]

So what kind of music did Tower write for these 65 orchestras? She began with a quintessentially American tune, "America the Beautiful." One reason for that, of course, was that she wanted to write a quintessentially American piece. Another is that she finds the tune very beautiful (and she's certainly not alone in that). But the song and its title have another meaning for her as well; they take her on a journey into her past. When she was nine years old, her family went to live in La Paz, Bolivia, and she had to get used to a new country and a new language. When she was 18, she returned home, and found everything surprising. Every home had hot water. There were opportunities Bolivia didn't offer. She was grateful for everything we take for granted.

And so the piece itself is a journey. As this text was written, the music hadn't yet been performed, so there isn't a recording with an orchestra. But we can hear Tower herself playing—and very effectively—the start of the music on the piano:

Ford Made in America—music [40 secs, 626 KB, mp3]

From this we can tell quite a few things. First, the music really does sound like "America the Beautiful," but also does other things as well. "You will hear things that are totally familiar to you," Tower says, "and things that are totally unfamiliar."

But these unfamiliar things are all related to the tune. You can hear that, too, in the piano excerpt. The music begins with the start of the song, "O beautiful, for spacious skies." But then when the song starts to rise upward—"and amber waves of grain"—the music keeps rising further. "I like to go up!" says Tower, talking about the things that happen when she sits down to compose. "I keep going up. It's a thing I have."

Above all, though, the tune has adventures, not unlike Tower's own trip to Bolivia, or the Alaskan tour by biplane and dogsled. You can hear that at the end of the piano excerpt. The music gets darker, and grows just a little uncertain. "What happened as the piece wore on," Tower says, "was that the tune started to get more and more challenged, and 'America the Beautiful' was having trouble surviving, actually."

But the lovely tune did survive. "This wonderfully beautiful tune was being challenged throughout the piece," Tower says, "and just kept coming back in different guises, sometimes tender, sometimes big, sometimes angry, but it was always popping back up." Rather like our country itself, it's tempting to say. And while Tower disclaims any political purpose in writing the piece—"music has its own language," she says—she also says that "A musical struggle is heard throughout the work. Perhaps it was my unconscious reacting to the challenge of how do we keep America beautiful."

Which is a challenge, really, that all of us face—and one that both Joan Tower's music and the entire Ford Made in America project can help us to meet.

This work was completed in 2005 as the centerpiece of Ford Made in America, a partnership program of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer. It is approximately fifteen minutes long. Audio clips were taken from the DVD "Joan Tower on Made in America" that was produced and distributed as part of the Ford Made in America project. Greg Sandow is a veteran critic who is now more active as a composer and consultant. You can find out more at his website, www.gregsandow.com.


Program note: Made in America

When I was nine, my family moved to South America (La Paz, Bolivia), where we stayed for nine years. I had to learn a new language, a new culture, and how to live at 13,000 feet! It was a lively culture with many saints' days celebrated through music and dance, but the large Inca population in Bolivia was generally poor and there was little chance of moving up in class or work position.

When I returned to the United States, I was proud to have free choices, upward mobility, and the chance to try to become who I wanted to be. I also enjoyed the basic luxuries of an American citizen that we so often take for granted: hot running water, blankets for the cold winters, floors that are not made of dirt, and easy modes of transportation, among many other things. So when I started composing this piece, the song "America the Beautiful" kept coming into my consciousness and eventually became the main theme for the work. The beauty of the song is undeniable and I loved working with it as a musical idea. One can never take for granted, however, the strength of a musical idea—as Beethoven (one of my strongest influences) knew so well. This theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, interjecting, unsettling it, but "America the Beautiful" keeps resurfacing in different guises (some small and tender, others big and magnanimous), as if to say, "I'm still here, ever changing, but holding my own." A musical struggle is heard throughout the work. Perhaps it was my unconscious reacting to the challenge of, "how do we keep America beautiful?"

Joan Tower, Spring 2005