National Album Day – Celebrating Women In Music: Joan Tower & Dame Evelyn Glennie

by Ben Hogwood

Happy National Album Day!

This year’s incarnation is ‘Celebrating Women In Music’, and there are two I would like to celebrate on this particular album, released by Naxos earlier this year. Percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie will not need much introduction, for she is probably a familiar figure to you – but I would like to add to that the name of American composer Joan Tower.

Born in 1938, Tower has recently come to greater prominence thanks to the release of some excellent new recordings on the Naxos label. The latest is headed by Strike Zones, a concerto written for Glennie.

To quote from Tower’s program note: “Most percussion instruments are struck (hence the word ‘strike’ in the title) and I decided to have the percussion placed across the front of the stage with the soloist moving from one ‘zone’ to another – starting with the more fragile vibraphone and ending with a tour de force of drums. The other ‘zones’ include a marimba solo, a cymbal/hi-hat group, an ensemble of smaller/softer instruments (like the maraca, piccolo woodblock, castanet), a xylophone solo, and a trio with two other players placed in the hall echoing/‘reverberating’ the glockenspiel (with crotales) and the castanets (with more castanets)”

It is a piece of high drama, a composition with some compelling arguments and fascinating textures, best experienced on a big audio system or headphones.

Strike Zones is complemented by Still/Rapids, another substantial work for piano and orchestra. Rapids was a repeat commission from pianist Ursula Oppens, and is a fast-paced work – to which Tower has added the slow introduction Still. The two sections make a piece that proves every bit as dramatic as Strike Zones, with the unmistakable feeling of the American outdoors.

Meanwhile Small, also written for Dame Evelyn Glennie, is written for tiny percussion instruments – a rather lovely contrast to Strike Zones. Completing the album is Ivory and Ebony, which, as you might have guessed, is a piece for piano, commissioned by the San Antonio International Piano Competition.

I would urge you to have a listen, as Joan Tower’s music is both approachable and powerful. Hers is a distinctive musical voice well worth getting to know.

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