Joan Tower, Night Fields (for string quartet)

Joan Tower, 1938

Night Fields, for String Quartet, 1994

Joan Tower“Night Fields, my first string quartet, is dedicated with affection and admiration to the Muir String Quartet. The title came after the work was completed and provides an image or setting for some of the moods of the piece: a cold windy night in a wheat field lit up by a bright full moon where waves of fast-moving colors ripple over the field, occasionally settling on a patch of gold.”

– Joan Tower

Joan Tower is a contemporary American composer, now in her late seventies, who has been called the most successful women composer of all time. Starting with her orchestral tone poem “Sequoia” in 1981, Tower has become one of the most frequently performed composers around the world. While some may bristle at the ostensibly patronizing qualification, “woman” composer, Tower herself has spoken of the tremendous challenges she faced as a young woman in a male-dominated academia fixated on the achievements of what she refers to as the “DWEMS” (Dead White European Males). In this respect, Tower’s success is particularly gratifying. In addition to being a composer, Tower is a teacher, a conductor, a concert pianist and an avid chamber musician. In 1969 she founded the New York based Da Capo Chamber Players where she was pianist for nearly fifteen years. The chamber group provided an excellent vehicle for Tower’s early compositions. Her affinity for chamber music has produced a now sizable canon including five string quartets, four piano trios, a piano quintet, and a clarinet quintet, among others. One of her earliest successes is the frequently performed quintet titled Petroushskates after it’s dual inspirations: Stravinsky’s Petrushska and Olympic ice skaters.

Night Fields is Tower’s first string quartet written in 1994 and dedicated “with affection and admiration” to the Muir quartet. Tower provided a brief description of her own (included above) but fully admits she finds writing a program note to be “absolute torture.” Even the title Night Fields came after the composition was finished recalling the habits of composers like Schumann and Debussy who frequently provided a title as a kind of metaphorical suggestion rather than revealing an original inspiration. The title is nonetheless beautifully apt: moonlight illuminates the wild patterns caused by wind rippling through a wheat field during a cold, dark night.

Night Fields is an intense musical experience featuring a process of movement and growth that is eminently contrapuntal and continuously activated by Tower’s deft mastery of rhythm. A dark muscularity initially suggests Shostakovich, late Beethoven or even Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain but Tower’s musical language soon captivates with its elemental, organic patterns of growth like crystals, fractals, lightening strikes that fork and branch into vines of electric energy with textures that surge and glow. The musical lines are highly chromatic, visceral and kinetic creating a kind of counterpoint with multiple, superimposed timelines. Tower’s own description highlights that the “fast moving colors ripple” until “settling on a patch of gold.” The middle of Night Fields features this patch of gold: a calm, more lyrical adagio section like a valley between two mountains giving the composition a larger three-part organization.

Comments are closed.