from: Elements (3/11/04)

"Snow Dreams" by Joan Tower
(Notes provided by Rusty Banks)

While a young girl, Joan Tower (b. 1938) spent some years in South America.  It has been said this may have contributed to her willingness to include guitar in her compositions.  Perhaps it also explains why she finds winter so much more interesting than most of us do.  Snow Dreams for flute and guitar is not her first work to explore “wintery” themes.  Petroushkates, written for the Da Capo Chamber Players, melds the worlds of Stravinsky and Winter Olympics Figure Skating in one of the 1980’s most brilliant chamber works.  With a title like Snow Dreams and an instrument combination like flute and guitar, the listener may expect a gently drifting portrayal of the first few flakes of late fall.  That happens in the first minute of the piece and no where else.  

The guitar introduces two identical gestures; the first is played sul ponticello/bright timbre and the second, normale/normal.
 The third gesture is the same as the first two, except a note is changed and a darker timbre (sul tasto) is called for.  This simple opening serves as a model for the whole piece in that an idea is presented and slowly whittled away by the next idea.  With each gesture something remains and something changes.  The flute’s role in the opening is to pick up the occasional note from the guitarist’s cadenza and hold it, as if it is a footprint left by the guitarist.  At the end of the guitar cadenza the flutist emerges from the guitarist’s last notes to play her own cadenza, much of the material borrowed from the guitarist’s.  

I won’t bother the reader with too much music theory other than to say the entire piece relies on octatonic scale (alternating whole and half steps).  Math aside, what this accomplishes is a leveling of the importance of the different pitches.  For example, were the piece to use a C major scale instead, the note “C” would be perceived as the most important note, and the most obvious destination.  Musical growth in a piece that uses major scales is measured mostly by how far we abandon the most important note before ultimately coming back to it.  Since none of the octatonic scale’s pitches carry more weight than another, the composer must create musical growth from more elemental devices such as rhythm and texture.  The overall form of this piece may be described as starting slow and small and growing to big and fast.  Small cadenzas and material being traded between the instruments punctuates the larger sections, until at last the wind and snow die down in a eddy of trills and tremolos.