10 Questions: Taos composer Joanne Forman

"I’ve done operas, musicals, orchestral, chamber and choral music, song cycles and piano pieces"

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Joanne Forman has been creating music for more than 60 years. A longtime Taoseña, she used to be out and about as the arts and entertainment editor for The Taos News, but that was practically an avocation. Her primary love is composing music.

Her first composition was a set of piano nocturnes. She graduated to operas, musicals, orchestral music, chamber music, song cycles, piano music, ballets and choral music. She loves composing works for kids.

She was born in Chicago, she says in an email, ‘‘the grandchild of immigrants escaping one step ahead of the Russians screaming, ‘Kill the Jews!’ “ she adds, not so tongue-in-cheek.

Forman admittedly struggled with the genderism that permeated society as she was growing up (and which still taints the world today). In suddenly realizing she wanted to be a composer, she was still too young to get it that women weren’t considered cut out for the job.

As a teenager, she read a novel by about a composer, Walter van Tilburg Clark’s “The City of Trembling Leaves,” and then told her parents about her ambition to compose 100 pieces.

“I was 16. (Remember being 16?) Very unwisely, I confided this to my parents, who promptly announced ‘Girls can’t do that.’ This was 1950. And every element of the society told me the same thing. When I entered Los Angeles City College, I was the only female in many of my classes. Today, about one-third of the composers are women.”

She lived in many places but the place where she experienced the biggest disconnect was when she lived in the South, with all the discrimination and class wars of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

“Perhaps the seminal event was moving to Mississippi in 1942, where my engineer father was in charge of a ‘war plant.’ I didn’t have the vocabulary then, but there was this underlying unease: Here we were fighting a great world war for freedom – and there we were in 1940s Mississippi – and the grownups, including my own parents, didn’t think it odd.”

The musical world has changed in exciting ways: one of the good effects of globalization is that music from all over the world is available, via all kinds of media — that didn’t exist when I was a trembling youngster starting out.

We live in interesting times.

1. When did you move to Taos and why?

Joanne Forman: June 1, 1978. I first saw Taos in the early ‘70s when I came up from Albuquerque to bail a friend out of jail. As with so many, I came up out of the canyon, saw the Gorge and the Taos Valley spread out before me, and said, “This is the place.”

2. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the years you’ve been here?

Forman: Growth! But – it’s happening all over the world. Yes, things have changed. Today, about one-third of composers working in the world of classical music are women. No, we haven’t (yet) produced a Mozart or Beethoven – but then, MOST composers are not geniuses of that ilk either!

3. How has the arts and entertainment of Taos evolved since you were Tempo editor?

Forman: The creation of Music From Angel Fire; the chamber music groups started by Nancy Laupheimer and Rebecca Carón; the summer opera institute.

4. What most memorable event(s) or people do you remember – fondly or otherwise?

Forman: It was a shock to lose Steve Parks. I wrote for his arts newspaper (Artlines), and we did some other projects together, notably an art exhibit on the women of Juarez, Mexico.

5. When did you first discover/decide you had to be a composer of music? Were you formally trained? Besides piano, do you play any other instruments?

Forman: When I was 16. I worked briefly with the Pulitzer-prize winning composer Dr. Robert Ward, but otherwise have worked on my own. While I’ve tried various instruments at various times, I don’t really play any besides the piano.

6. What inspires you to lay down a score?

Forman: Most (not all) of my music is for the theater in one way or another; historical events and personalities are a big inspiration.

7. What events have you composed scores or music for?

Forman: I’ve done operas, musicals, orchestral, chamber and choral music, song cycles and piano pieces. One of my fun compositions is an old-fashioned melodrama, “Better than She Should Be.” It’s set in 1859 in Taos, a time of tremendous change. The work includes two girls stolen by the Comanches. It includes a lady of the evening, a villain with no socially redeeming qualities, a handsome young hero and a beautiful young heroine. I completed the research through Nita Murphy at the Southwest Research Center. I’d like the setting to include throwing peanuts and popcorn at the villain.

8. What all is involved in creating a finished score? Do you “hear” different instruments and write for each in all your pieces?

Forman: Different pieces, obviously, involve different voices and different instruments; Yes, I hear the voices and instruments. I taped a radio drama for the Cultural Energy website. Ruth Farbach plays the main character, a youngish single mom with many adventures. Sometimes, my personal feelings enter into my work. I wrote a song cycle, “Songs of the Computer” or “The Universal Recalcitrance of Machines.” “What Happened to my Spam Filter?” discussed the offer of ointment to enlarge a part of my body. “Socket Error” brings forth the idea that this page is not available and other problems. Another more recent work of which I’m proud is a Holocaust opera. I also wrote a cantata to commemorate the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001 for the 10-year commemoration of 9/11. I researched the latter through eyewitness testimonies from the 9/11 digital archives, including those of the firefighters. Both of these were performed at the Taos Jewish Center.

9. You just turned 80 — how was your birthday party?

Forman: My birthday party was GREAT!! I feel like George Bailey! – the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who realizes he’s the richest man in town because he has friends.

10. What are you working on now, and has your age anything to do with the theme?

Forman: I usually have several things “in the works” at any one time – that way, if I get stuck on one thing, I can go to another. In general, I don’t think age has much to do with things – though the one-character one-act opera I’m working on now for bass-baritone Christopher Wyndham is about an old man summing up his life.

Joanne Forman is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Composer’s Fellowship; the National Federation of Music Clubs Award; New Mexico Humanities Award; Maine Commission on the Arts and Humanities Award; and three grants, “Meet the Composer,” from a music foundation in New York City, to name a few.

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