"The poet represents the mind in the act of defending us against itself."
— Wallace Stevens
We like to think we love artists most for their art. But perhaps we love them more for their dangerous, enviable position: they make good on their obsessions. The best artists, at least, seem to redeem distraction as a category of experience; they transform the nuisance or neurosis into a well-formed work, and cast the most petulant and implacable idea into image incarnate. It's only one way to view a pearl, but Stevens offers a fine view: the poet as a first line of defense on the battlefield of the imagination.
Perhaps, then, it's better to call composer Augusta Read Thomas a poet, in Stevens's sense: already famous as a great obsessive in the world of Western concert music, she's also famous as one who makes good on her passions, prolific and perfectionist. There's wonderful interview with Thomas from 2000, in which she speaks about the music she loves most, and the gravity of her enthusiasm inflames the page with its blazing evidence of fixation:
I'm very attracted to music which has a passion about it. You can feel the stomach of the composer who created it, kind of burning through the sound, as if they were grabbing you at your shirt-collar and shaking you and saying "You must hear this — it's deep, it's real, it's totally honest and passionate and inside of me, coming out."...I try very hard in my music to have it retain that passion and that sense of spontaneity and alive-ness — as if it were a sparkler, with lots of flames and lights flying off of it. It's completely white-hot and alive.
That this is a composer committed to a vision, to making it sound, seems indubitable. And anyone who has had the pleasure of both meeting Thomas and hearing her music knows that mind and work are inextricably linked: Thomas is exactly as "deep, real, honest, and passionate" as her pieces, though she graciously leaves her music to do the shirt-shaking.
And yet — that a root fascination exists at Thomas's creative core seems certain, but what that fascination might be is another question, much more open to inquiry. Certain possibilities can quickly be ruled out. She isn't, for instance, interested in technique for its own sake; it's a means not an ends, and it's not her goal to innovate a tradition, or create new software or hardware. Nor is she a stylist, in the post-modern sense; her "voice" is much too self-possessed and urgent to frolic in the contemporary playground of historical vogues and manners — she's anything but a creature of fashion. And neither is she a hermit, diffidently dedicated to solipsistic life of private projects; rather, Thomas is utterly sustained by communication, both as composer and speaker. The beneficent listener — ready, receptive, anxious to listen — is everywhere in her music, floating just beyond its every gesture like an ion awaiting its charge.
So do we look to Thomas's influences to reveal her creative crux? It would be an extremely rich place to look, and accessible too: she makes them known in speech and score with impressive candor and devotion. Bach is her daily bread, Mahler "nourishes my soul". William Byrd's vocal polyphony, so tautly balancing technique, physicality, and precise expression, is essential to Thomas's contrapuntal sense; and she treasures Webern's lucent concision, his musical paring to the marrow. The sensual lineage of her sound is unabashedly European, deeply French: its gestural clarity seems possessed by the best of Debussy's pianism; her ravishingly full chords and ecstatic dance rhythms feel inconceivable without the work of Olivier Messiaen and early Boulez; and the eruptive exigency of her scores, their gift at explosively transcending themselves from moment to moment, seems to nod admiringly at the compositions of Edgar Varese. The Gallic disposition is perhaps most evident in the elegance of Thomas's music; even at its most savage or imploring, her work never gives up its grace, its sheen of refinement — it works well and rightly, even in its perilous moments.
But these descriptions (of types or allegiances) falter at precisely that place where the Augustan obsession is most present. And those who know Thomas's music may well agree: putting "music into music" — accounting for Thomas's work by comparison or contrast with other composers' work — misses only the most essential mark of her own work, the stuff that normal music-journalism isn't so well-equipped to deal with. Perhaps this is because Augusta Read Thomas is a composer with a poet's mind, a music-maker who thinks in pictures, whose music unfolds within a cosmology of obsessive, ever-purifying images, just as the best lyrical poetry does. Both in speech and deed Thomas operates less like Debussy, or Mahler, or Bach, and more like William Blake, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Percy Bysshe Shelley. There is a formula for Thomas's much-beloved "passion", but it won't be found in remarks by Boulez or Byrd. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats came much closer, in his famous statement about Shelley and the lyric temperament. His eloquence addresses a prince of English Romantic verse, but generously invokes Thomas as well:
I think that as [Shelley] knelt before an altar where a thin flame burnt in a lamp made of green agate, a single vision would have come to him again and again, a vision of a boat drifting down a broad river between high hills where there were caves and towers, and following the light of one Star; and that voices would have told him how there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images...
What is that "some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture" that is the image of Thomas's secret creative life? What would it sound like? Yeats thought Shelley's one scene consisted of a boat, a broad river, high hills with caves and towers. But music doesn't work this way, and it must be stressed that Thomas is adamantly not a "programmatic" composer, into sound-pictures and tone-poems. Her music actually moves in the contrary direction, away from Straussian depiction and towards a kind of vigorous abstraction. But Yeats's "image" is a deeper term, much more interior than "Don Juan in a sword fight" or "Baby screeching for its bottle". For him image was the smallest, most essential grain of an individual creativity, the personality-atom in the poet's art. Yeats had his own precious purse of images, among them the Sword, the Tower, the Moon, the Rose.
And, it seems, so does Thomas: the Voice, the Bell, the Sun, the Spirit. They return, perpetually distilled, in almost all her many works, and even a cursory survey of her titles testifies. Voice, for instance, is the axial metaphor in the solo violin Incantation (1995) and the cello "concerto" Ritual Incantations (1999); bells are ubiquitous in Ring Flourish Blaze (for winds and brass), Bells Ring Summer (solo cello), Prayer Bells (orchestra), and Ring Out Wild Bells, to the Wild Sky (setting Tennyson for soprano, chorus, and orchestra), all from 2000; stars, suns and other vast cosmic bodies orient both the fiery string quartet Fugitive Star (2000) and the re-envisioned orchestral universe of Orbital Beacons (1998). And while the violin and chamber ensemble work Spirit Musings (1997) makes its soul-search explicit, spirit and its symbols are omnipresent in the whole Thomas-cosmology — in every "prayer", "ceremony", "invocation" and "ritual", and, more globally, in the role of inspiration, the metaphysical "breath" which infuses every moment of Thomas's best scores. In these scores the four images often clamor and co-mingle, fusing into a single process: voice transmogrifies into bell, bell expands into a star's radiant aura, and the aura transforms into an animate being, the Spirit manifesting itself. In this sense, Thomas's images aren't "objects" at all, but rather things-turned-timeward, inflected with music's perpetual flux. Thomas's voice and bell, sun and spirit, are "images" the way Yeats's friend Ezra Pound defined them when he wrote that "the image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster...a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which ideas are constantly rushing."
It is perhaps within the frame of these four "VORTICES" that Thomas's one adventure materializes, living itself out in work after work. And here, rather than abstract a scene, it might be better to explain via an exemplar, the 1999 work for cello and chamber ensemble Ritual Incantation. A kind of concerto, it's also one of Thomas's more perfect creations; its distilled gestures and brief span approach the clarity of an archetype, something hewn and fashioned in a single stroke. So hard to describe, it rewards even description:
A solo cello, "declarative, bold", sings out a fortissimo C-sharp in stentorian full-voice. The pitch becomes a kind of glistening psalm-tone, around which the cello ardently expands, up a minor-third, down a whole-step, up a tritone; but the cello always returns to the opening pitch, as if clutching and recasting its own resonances in mid-air. In only seconds, these first bars achieve a perfect balance between the melodrama of good operatic recitative and the stern ritual of medieval chant; they realize a crucial category in Thomas's music, its intimate monumentality, its fusion of private confession and public liturgy — and all with a single characteristic "tone of voice". As the cello waxes on, a small concertino of flute, violin, and oboe take the second step in this adventure: they catch the solo cello's tones, beginning as pianissimo "echoes" and increasing into full chords; echoes becomes animate, take on a life of their own. They spread to other instruments outside the concertino: the harp ensnares five of the cello-song's pitches in "bell-like" attacks and sends two notes to the clarinets, who taper into silence. The concertino again captures more notes from the cello, and converts them into a newly colored six-note chord, now including vibraphone, horn, and piccolo trumpet. Some bars later the cello breaks its song with a sharp pizzicato fortissimo tritone: the ensemble pops a chord back like a rich ricochet; in the next bars the cello's long-held A entices the harp and glockenspiel into bright arpeggios.
No matter what metaphors spring to the listener's mind, it's clear something is happening, a subtle game or rite is underway. The remainder of the movement only confirms this presentiment: around bar 51, the entire group accelerates to a faster tempo, exploding into myriad independent lines, colors, attitudes. Some instruments dart in bursts and adornments, others propel the pulse with sprinting repetitions, still others declaim in slow, leaping intervals; but the entire edifice always remains tethered to the cello as its "ductile anchor". The cello is the switchboard, the nerve-center for an active system of musical impulses which it itself initiates; and yet, the whole while, the cello maintains its passionate monologue, seemingly operating in a different time-zone, ardent and imperturbable. "Perfume" is Thomas's word for the ensemble's swirl around its center; it seems to incarnate a famous simile of Wallace Stevens, one of the composer's favorite poets, whose imagined that "the air, the mid-day air, was swarming/ With the metaphysical changes that occur,/ Merely in living as and where we live."
Can we distill, or at least invent the central adventure from this music? Perhaps, with the caution appropriate in the shadow of central things, we could call the scene this: a soliloquy which gradually but urgently splays into the line and light of many voices. Or a pressing recitative — that musical declamation that insists "I am speaking, I must speak" — which unceasingly draws upon itself, its echoes and implications, until it swims in its own vigorous polyphony, its "swarm of metaphysical changes." In this sense the adventure is "systolic": it breaths, expands and contracts to its inner and outer limits, like a body or a cloud, like the best products of culture or nature. And this same archetypal scene — call it a venture, an exploit, a quest or method — obsesses Thomas. It is her one image, and the testament to her brilliance and integrity as an artist is the variety with which she recreates it each time. It is in this sense, and not in sound, that she betrays her love for Bach's music. Just as someone once called Bach's 45 instrumental suites a "thesaurus" for its genre, so Thomas creates a thesaurus for her central musical adventure.
For instance, this process governs the trajectory of Thomas's other concertante works, Spirit Musings (1997, with violin) and Aurora (2000, with piano). But it also brings their differences into vivid relief; the violin and piano become opposite personalities thrust into identical roles, and so they perform different plays. The adventure also inspires both the smallest and largest works. Orbital Beacons is an ambitious concerto for orchestra from 1998, which intricately re-seats the ensemble; it enlists soliloquies from no less than nine soloists, each surround by its own solar system of instruments; its first movement's passage from single voice to vigorous polyphony is extremely complex, like a synapse transformed into a whole nervous system. But Bells Ring Summer sees an unaccompanied cello-recitative begin on one pitch, expand into a giant imaginary carillon, and condense back into a high lonely line, all within the parameters of an inviolate monody. The brazen, heroic orchestral movements Ceremonial and Prayer Bells sound very little like one another. The former is supple and elastic, an ever-increasing bandwidth of musical energy which ends in pliant, blinding fullness. But Prayer Bells is all hard edges, a game of resistances between granitic brass-chords and an arching, adamantine melody; it culminates in euphoric rigidity, a visceral freezing of fanfares and bell strokes. And yet both scores pursue the same arduous, rewarding path: they see a solitary voice all the way through its course, from potential to kinetic, from monologue to chorus, from nebula or nucleus to walking, running body.
Augusta Read Thomas is a lyricist. Perhaps this is another way of asserting her fascination with the voice, an instrument which she writes for with ever-increasing frequency; in the past year and half she's complete no less than four vocal works, from the massive Song in Sorrow for soprano, chorus, six choral soloists and orchestra, to the exquisite miniature setting of Basho, among dawn flowers, for soprano and piano. But Thomas is also obsessed with voice as a process, as a verb — a "voicing" which constantly spins itself outwards and forwards, which looks only to expand and increase its own continuity from thread into fabric. Hence "lyrical" in the etymological sense, coming from "lyre" and referring to the ancient Greek harp and its taut, tensile strings. This metaphor of flow and cohesion also defines poetic lyricism. Harold Bloom, writing on Shelley, explains that lyrical poetry "at its most intense frequently moves toward direct address between one human consciousness and another, in which the 'I' of the poet directly invokes the personal 'Thou' of the reader." Likewise Bloom sees Shelley's lyricism as a kind of "compulsion": Shelley is a chemical agent, sublimating the states of epic, drama, and essay from solids in lyrical stuff, fluid and musical — for lyrical poetry is the poetic genre closest to its musical origins, its singing state.
In the best sense, Thomas is a kindred "lyrical compulsive", a composer who finds and exploits the vocality, the fluid seed, in any music she writes, whether it's a static wall of timbres or a Bartok-inspired swing. Her music sings. Even when it's dancing in the most bounding, jagged accents, it sounds less like a motor than a grandly symphonized scat-singer edging towards exalted breathlessness (Thomas often sings while she composes, and dances too). The last movement of Orbital Beacons, for instance, breaks in with an alarmingly urgent solo violin line, spidery and liquid, and rapidly entangles other instruments into its song. But soon enough the whole orchestra is bumping and grinding as if possessed by some mystical post-Ellington big-band. Contrary to instinct, the shift doesn't interrupt; the dance doesn't seem like a distraction from the lyrical beginning. It feels more like a shape-shift — as if the lyrical line, under enough pressure, hardened into blocks of rhythm with precise edges and corners. But inside the dance one still hears the song, like the water caught in an ice-block.
In fact, one almost wants to imagine that Thomas's music harbors a single lyrical thread, always coursing, spinning and spinning under different grades of pressure, softness, and fineness. And amidst all the various textures and thicknesses, one might discern three distinct lyrical "modes." The first, and rarest mode: the line unfolds in slow and facile sweeps, as if it had all the time and solitude in the world; these moments, like the remarkable lullaby from Murmurs in the Mists of Memory, the interlude from Divine Daylight, or the second of the chorale Love Songs, confront the listener with an astonishing intimacy, as if one were peering in on the most private mental time, open and unguardedly honest. The second lyrical mode is perhaps Thomas's most native musical state, that scene described above in Ritual Incantation; it is "lyricism under pressure", caught in a game of collisions and evasions, of fertile imbalance. In this mode the music becomes extremely elastic, speeding up and slowing down, sustaining puncture and stretch, condensation and evaporation; it is sometimes playful, sometimes desperate, but it's clear, in Thomas's words, that "something big [is] at stake." The last mode is well-captured by that moment in Orbital Beacons when soft song tumbles into hard dance. But its also defines that thrilling moment in Prayer Bells when a charging Mahlerian line transmogrifies into a wild gallop, and voice toughens into brass and bell.
Thomas's most inspired scores tend to run the lyrical gamut; making opulent show of their composer's agility in veering from swimming to singing to dancing. The orchestral masterpiece ...words of the sea... (1996) exhibits great range in this regard, each of its four movements inhabiting an entirely different world of movement. The second movement is dark, low and skinless; it is ideal "second mode" lyricism, denuded into its tragic strain. The third movement blazes by in sharp, almost brutal accents, like an anarchic force bound within the tightest rhythmic cadences. But the last movement opens into a endless pool or vista; here Thomas's lyrical line returns to its "first mode", indeed almost halt into a pure harmonic state, a return to music's amniotic fluid. The work's first movement manages a tour-de-force of quick transformations: it opens with a searing melody on oboe and piccolo trumpet, quickly inflaming other instruments into action; in seconds the music has catalyzed into a dervish-like dance, and soon it suffers another state-change, into a gargantuan dialogue between pulsing brass and bolting interjections from the rest of the orchestra. One thinks of Debussy's "Dialogue between the wind and the sea" from La Mer; but here depiction has inverted into rawer action, "impressionism" into "expressionism." The tactility, the sheer torque and arch of these brass chords astounds. They writhe and flip, and in their urgency, their state of emergency, they don't have time to become "pictures" or "ideas"; they're incendiary events, caught in snapshot while exiting the frame of the imagination.
In a way, the bell is the perfect compliment to Thomas's "compulsive lyricism"; it is the other side of the voice in almost all ways, and it's a credit to the scope of Thomas's vision that she integrates such antinomies so fully. The voice grows and wants only to grow, to unfurl and encroach; the bell, on the other hand, is a fading sound, always in a state of graceful decay from its initial stroke. The voice sings, the bell signals; the voice offers cohesion, but bell offers the incisive blow. If Thomas's lyrical impulse is her will made into music, the bell-sound offers her music what Nietzsche called "will punctuations" — crucial breaks in the flow, out of which new sounds grow and old ones die.
Thomas's tonal language seems to take the tintinnabulary as its reservoir of melodies and harmonies. So many lines unfold in overlapping thirds and sixths, skewing and bisecting themselves between major and minor intervals. Dissonance is ubiquitous in Thomas's music, but it is more frequently the dissonance of natural pealing than the dissonance of human pain. The tritone often sounds as a major symbolic event, a vital structural node or point of arrival — but Thomas doesn't push the tritone a danger-sign, another diabolus-in-musica; rather, she seems to exploit it for its sheer luminescence, that instability which makes the tritone so radioactive. And the composer's signature melodic gesture, the semi-tone apoggiatura, seems to wrest away the carillon's interference tones and sequence them into a singing line of pitches. At the same time, these inflections carry a certain maritime memory; perhaps they've internalized Benjamin Britten's famous evocations of coastal dawns in Peter Grimes. Chords, when they sound against unfolding melodic lines, almost always transcend "accompaniment" function; instead, with their effervescent gleam, they peal, or toll, or chime, serving as a literal "bell" for the singing line.
This intimate relationship between opposites of bell and song inflects many a work of Thomas's, and even controls the form of some. Bells Ring Summer is an unassuming work for solo cello at first glance, an unbarred three-and-a-half minute soliloquy in the cello's higher registers. But the piece actually cost Thomas considerable energy and time, and is infused with a kind of whimsical Romantic image reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings; Thomas herself imagined that "David Finkel [the dedicatee]] is sitting there with his cello and ringing these bells. His cello will be like a huge carillon and he's ringing in summer." And indeed the work in performance achieves a kind of glow and gleam which somehow transcends to the wood and string of cello for the hard shimmer of bells.
But what makes the work so magical is not its imitation of the carillon, but rather its infusion of vocal qualities into bell-sounds, so that singing rings and ringing sings. Hence the cello's line revolves and expands slowly around a single set of tones in bell-stroke articulations, and with that unpredictable, phasing rhythmic sense so endemic to change-ringing. But the cello also exploits its most vocal resources — its rich, sighing portamenti, its thick vibrato tone, its elastic passage over its many registers. What results is a lovely and characteristic confusion of voice and bell, embodying the best qualities of two opposing sound-sources in one sounding body. The same effect plays out on a much larger scale in Ring Out Wild Bells, to the Wild Sky, the score starts with single fortissimo bell-stroke; but exactly as it fades, the oboes and flutes intercept it and pass it to the horns, and the horns hurl it to the chorus, who draws out the single tone in a brazen crescendo, upwards and forwards. In the process, the bells' decay undergoes a magical paradox: bell fades into a massive crescendo of tone, tone turns into voice, and voice into a single word — "Ring..."
Perhaps Thomas's finest essay in fusing bell and voice is her piano concerto Aurora. Cast in five meticulously crafted miniature-movements, the concerto envisions the piano as a kind of anti-vocalist; in stark contrast to either Ritual Incantation or Spirit Musings, the soloist here doesn't have a soliloquy in a strict sense. Instead, Thomas rejoices in the piano's dual universe of attack and decay, and in the process the piano becomes a kind of tolling beacon for the ensemble. Its music is a music of signals, its role less that of "soloist" in the traditional sense, and more of provocateur (Thomas's expressive marking at one point), spurring a small orchestra of Mozartian lightness into a volatile game of catch. But at the same time as Thomas treats the piano like an 88-bell orchestra, she also savors the instrument's extraordinary gift for impersonation: yes, it only attacks and decays, but, Thomas adds, "if you play a long note...it is like a clarinet... if you play a short note it is like a xylophone." And so Aurora becomes another of Thomas's endeavors in magical metamorphosis, the orchestra imitating an orchestra-imitating piano, the piano imitating a vast and finely-tuned carillon (the musical result is infinitely more eloquent!).
But there's another transformation in Aurora, beneath the level of sound-scape. While bells toll outside the cathedral and through the town, we know that bells also mark that supremely intimate moment of high mystery in the Catholic mass, the transubstantiation of Christ's body and blood. Bells effect a similarly unaccountable change in matter in Aurora's breathtaking conclusion: after four movements of bell-like sounds from the piano, we actually hear a real toll and chime, from temple-gongs played by various members of the ensemble. And to our surprise, these decays introduce an actual voice, a soprano near the back of the orchestra, who sings a line from St. Ambrose: "May our souls know no twilight." Thomas surrounds the plaintive, chanting voice with only the temple gongs and a few barely audible wind-lines, and eventually the voice gives its song back over to the piano; marked "sublime, interior, subtle", it plays its reflections of a reflection and wanes into silence. Even couched in such sonic dusk, the sign seems clear: the bell, in Thomas's music, is always a redemptive move, a signal to birth or save a sound — and the sound is always the symbol of illumination. Hence Aurora ends on almost exactly the same notes it began, played with the same undamped elegance, carrying dawn to dawn through a brief twilight. Announcing such a powerful benediction only in the incandescent, fading end of her concerto, Thomas also gives voice to a certain Romantic trait in her work in general, its perpetual move towards the light. "What living person, gifted with any sense, doesn't love, more than all the wonderful appearances of spread-out space around him, the all-joyful Light?", asks that consummate Romantic poet Novalis. "As life's inner soul it's breathed by the Giant-world of restless stars." Aurora is one of Thomas's most restless stars, and its breath testifies to the transcendental in Thomas's lyricism, its homeless, pining strain.
...The sun was emitting
His glorious beams
From Heaven's high streams.
Over sea, over land...
In particles bright,
The jewels of light
Distinct shone and clear.
Amaz'd and in fear
I each particle gazèd,
For each was a Man
— William Blake, "To Thomas Butts"
For what is Augusta Read Thomas's music pining? What might be its homeland? Evidence abounds that it is the sun. We see glimmering traces in those most effulgent bell-works: the climax of Bells Ring Summer demands the cellist to "reach for the sun" in order to hit a high B-natural; the sketches to Aurora show that "the piano is like the Sun, giving energy which gets magnified by the ensemble"; and while 2002's Daylight Divine (for soprano, children's choir, and chamber orchestra) sets poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, its title is Thomas's own invention, to be read as both a blessing and an irresistible challenge. Of course, we really needn't look for signs: Thomas shouts it loud and clear, having confessed to "worship the sun, literally"; she has even noted, with a playful mysticism, that "I feel as if the sun writes my music."
Shelley is not Thomas's star here; both he and Yeats were poets of the moon, engaging in an "art of shadows". No, Thomas's kindred poet in this regard would have to be William Blake — who Yeats imagined "worshipped in some chapel of the Sun", and who "was always praising energy, and all exalted overflowing of oneself." For Thomas, as for Blake, the sun is the greatest muse; both are passionate Apollonians, seeing in the star the very "personification of poetic genius [laboring] at the furnace." And this love goes deeper than mere rhetorical figures; it also defines Thomas's personality to the core — her rare mix of the imaginative and mystical, the sincere, the indefatigable. Palmer's famous portrait of Blake shines kindly on Thomas too: "In him you saw the Maker, the Inventor . . . He was energy itself and shed around him a kindling influence, an atmosphere of life, full of the idea. . . . He was a man without a mask."
Like the bell and the voice, the sun is also omnipresent in Thomas's music — in its inflammatory gestures, its splaying lines, its gravity. But perhaps it is most present in the inimitable brightness of Thomas's scores; for a music so seemingly mobile and ranging, it frequently manages to stay impossibly brilliant, to accomplish its entire journey in full undiminishing luster. The low registers are not places of residence but quick springboards to mid- and upper-ranges; Thomas frequently employs piccolo flute and piccolo trumpet as melodic instruments, and has no fear of the stratosphere when writing for strings; most essentially, her sound seems to set its plateau, its natural ground, higher than most music. When a bass-pizzicato enters with a sharp sforzando, it feels like an earth fleetingly registered on the heavenly radar. In this virtuosic feat, Daylight Divine is Thomas's best example: its perpetually transfiguring textures seem to realize to its fullest a long-standing dream of Thomas's, to write music with no matter but only energy — to apply Einstein's famous formula to a gram of solids and notate the sonic result.
The sun also accounts for a particular hallmark of Thomas's style, her endings. In Ritual Incantation and Spirit Musings, and especially in Ceremonial, the music seems to fade, not into silence but sound, not into darkness but light. Here the sun is invoked simply because no other body has energy enough to make objects disintegrate into brightness; likewise, the orchestra in the last bars of Ceremonial seems to lose all definition, all its edges and components, under a total radiation. The mythical figure here might be Icarus, surging toward the sun with ecstatic confidence. But Thomas revises the myth: she catches Icarus in high-flight and keeps him there, backed by his blazing destination like an icon. This might be as close as Thomas comes to one of Yeats's images, to an actual picture in music.
There is one other way in which Thomas's sun is also Blake's: it is a human force, a natural phenomenon endowed with feeling and reason, made into person. Blake's narrator in the poem above doesn't merely praise the sun; he gazes "astonish'd, amazèd" at each particle of light, and discerns that "each was a Man/ Human-form'd..." In the web of metaphors one could use to describe Thomas's music, maybe this "bringing-to-life" is the most stable, the most inexhaustible. For Thomas the best music, and the best of her music, is actually alive, breathing and speaking; its blood flows, its synapses crackle, because only this way can the sound — to return to Thomas's earlier words — grab you at the shirt-collar, shake you, and say "You must hear this — it's deep, it's real, it's totally honest and passionate and inside of me, coming out..."
The Romantic mind dreamed of bringing life to things; while one Shelley produced The Triumph of Life, the other gave us the tale of Frankenstein. But the dream didn't die with the Romantics. Indeed, the most dedicated "modernists" at the turn of the 20th century seem just as obsessed with animation, if not more so. In the first decade of the 1900's, painter Wassily Kandinsky (whom Thomas much admires) wanted only to paint the spiritual aura of things, their most living part; Schoenberg demanded a music "set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reaction of the senses or the nerves". And Mahler, who Thomas has repeatedly invoked as an artistic father, is recorded in Webern's diaries announcing that "nature is the model for us", a nature which would nourish "the primordial cell, from plants, animals, and men into God, the Supreme Being..." Mahler's practical corollary was inevitable: "Every repetition is a lie. Like life, art must constantly develop."
Thomas adores the Mahler of wrenching intensity and morbid, acute sensation. But she also adores this Mahler, the Mahler of organic invention and eternal transforming. And it's in this sense that Thomas is a proud modernist — modernism as that heroic, radical extension of the Romantic project. "Modernism to me", says Thomas, "is about always looking forward, seeking the new, treasuring the unexpected, loving the abstract...It has to do with things that are in transition, things that are fugitive. I'm trying to pursue some unknown future. That's why modernism has to have hope. If you're going to build something brand new, you have to have some hope that it's out there — or that anyone cares."
And that hope, that "unknown future", lies for Thomas in the realm of the spirit. Not spirit in the occult sense, nor the cozy spirituality of crystals and easy comfort; Thomas does not write religious music in any strict sense. Her spirituality is more aligned with Kandinsky's: it is a basic vibration of the deep center, the "inner calling, the inner necessity." And the artist's special task is get the inside out, to notate the soul into hard copy, to ex-press and im-print as honestly as technical limitations allow. Works like Thomas's Fugitive Star (string quartet, 2000) and Murmurs in the Mists of Memory (for strings, 2001) are essays in spirit-catching among other things, their generally extreme pace and concentration a result of toilsome introspection. But the courageous irrigation of the numinous is no excuse for indifferent vagueness: Thomas hasn't written a note, timbre, or rhythm which she didn't exactly mean. For her, spirit is the anti-fuzz, diamond-definite even in its most atmospheric forms.
But spirit is also the most flexible thing in the world, and sustains Thomas's impulse to constantly transform her music. The transforming spirit affects every note of Thomas's work, but it is perhaps most fully explored in Orbital Beacons. The score is, in the best sense, an essay in motive-lessness: all patterns, all hard-bits and sharp edges are liquidated into a perpetual flux, a "streaming" music waxing both mercurial and protean. Lines spray out and radiate, splinter and collect, generate small and large chordal and rhythmic explosions. Likewise, the radical spatial layout of the work — Thomas's most daring essay in orchestral reorganization — increases the evolutionary nature exponentially: constantly transfiguring gestures and harmonies mirror constantly transfiguring ensembles; sounding-source and sounding-body metamorph with astonishingly deft ease and poise.
In many works this complex, complication comes at the cost of life. But Thomas's complexity is coupled with a formidable honesty — both to her own impulses, and to audience which she respects. "One of the things I try to do in my music," she maintains, "is be extremely concise and articulate — to say what mean and mean what I say. The music therefore doesn't usually repeat itself. It trusts its audience, it says 'I trust that you heard this'." And in the process, something as intricate and labyrinthine as Orbital Beacons ends up becoming sublime rather than intimidating. Its vast, mobile networks begin to suggest the human rather than the machine, and its revolving constellations begin to map a firmament of near-cardiovascular filigree. In its cosmic evocation of a swirling, vital physiognomy in sound, Orbital Beacons prompts affinities with another orchestral experiment, Mahler's Eighth Symphony, which starts out celebrating the health of the body and ends giving birth to "planet and suns."
Above and beyond Thomas's interest in spirit as a musical force, however, the composer seems to cherish spirituality as the great energy of communication. One remembers that Thomas doesn't want her music to grab the listener's collar in order to impress — in order to exclaim "Listen to how great I sound!" Just the opposite: Thomas wants her music to leave its composer behind, to exit the maker and live on its own, so that it can flow into the auditor and simply exclaim "Listen!" That desire, we might recall, hasn't necessarily been the priority of many musical modernists; but again, fin-de-siecle modernists like Kandinsky were quite fixated on this goal, and felt that music was the ideal medium for spiritual transfusion: "Musical sound acts directly on the soul and finds its echo there...", Kandinsky wrote in 1910. And Thomas, a century later, redeems that ideal. It even seems to find a credo in her wordless setting of the Persian mystic Rumi, who wrote,
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest
and let the spirits fly in and out.
"I believe — because I am an optimist — that if I write what is totally in my heart and soul, believe in, and am true to my truest, truest self, and write exactly what my ears are telling me...that the piece will reach the audience. After all, I'm a human being, and feel the same feelings that the audience members feel...I think the best thing I can do for an audience is to give them the most honest, passionate, personal thing."
— Augusta Read Thomas
After this tour of sympathies with others — other composers, poets, painters — what can we say about Augusta Read Thomas? We can say without doubt that Thomas is a composer, just as much as those composers who influenced her artistic growth and still sustain her today: Byrd, Bach, Mahler, Stravinsky and Bartok, Messiaen, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, Duke Ellington. But it might be more effective to say that she is a poet, the way Wallace Stevens invoked "poet" — as one who defends us against the mind by combating her obsessive imagination into extraordinary works. Thomas is a poet as Yeats was a poet, in her fixation on some one scene or adventure; also like Yeats she is a cultivator of sustaining images, an artist ever-pursuing harder, brighter, more exact incarnations of a few concentrated forms. She is a poet like Shelley was a poet, in her "compulsive lyricism", finding and exalting the lyrical element in the most diverse musical situations. Her love of light and sun, her work ethic and the Promethean spark she seeks, are perhaps best echoed in the poet Blake, as is her carefully calibrated mysticism. When she is not a poet, she is a painter, as Kandinsky was a painter — after auras instead of objects, seeking to stabilize and hold them fast in wonder. Also like him she has her creative anchor in spirituality, as the force which braces her and as the content she seeks to externalize. And when she is not a painter, she is composer, but like Mahler was a composer — it is perhaps most in his music that one can see a similar fusion of visceral intimacy, transformative consistency, and clarity of thought. It's not common that a single personality would seek to produce music exuding a sense of emergency, mutability, and elegance all at once, and in this sense Mahler is Thomas's rare kindred spirit in music, with Bach casting shadows on them both.
But all these personalities, of course, don't add up to Thomas, in character or music. Whether they cast an articulate shadow on her work or illuminate some facet of it in perfect brightness, these other artists tell us what makes her comparable. But they don't necessarily speak to that "truest, truest self" which Thomas seeks to commit to script and sound. As a mission-statement, however, this goal of Thomas's bares remark enough — to want to make a musical self is not a task to be taken for granted these days. Music can traffic in many trades at present: as entertainment, as history lesson, as panoply of styles and masks, as forum for technological advance, as the stuff of demagoguery. But Thomas pursues a rarer end, with an even rarer optimism. For her own being and for her audience she wants to be the best channeler of herself.
If we could invite yet one more poet into this collaborative portrait, it would be Walt Whitman, who indeed felt that being a poet was only possible for the individual who was "the best channeler of himself." But Thomas intercepts Whitman's reflection far beyond this mere remark, because Whitman's ideal had another side. He wanted not only to channel self into verse, but that verse into other selves. His "Song of Myself" dispatches ego into poetry, but only so as to make the most fluid contact with other egos: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/ And what I assume you too shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." And from Whitman's poem "So Long", we read an exhortation uncannily like Thomas's call to give her audience "the most honest, passionate, personal thing": "Camerado, this is no book,/ Who touches this, touches a man...I spring from the pages into your arms..."
Many other aspects of Thomas illuminate in this last reflection. Her optimism, for instance, is Whitman's optimism in that it feels distinctly American, organically linked with the Transcendentalist dream of a universal, earthly interconnectedness. Thomas too shares Whitman's devotion to the role of poet-lamenter, as one hears in Thomas's formidable, searing Song in Sorrow (soprano, chorus, six soloists, and orchestra, 2000). Commissioned in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, this three-movement work far transcends its task, weaving the words of 40 poets into a vast tapestry of protest and mourning; indeed, Song in Sorrow sets its panoramic view forwards and back, becoming a meditation on war in general, full-throated and unblinking.
And it is perhaps this sheer big-ness, this broad and incautious honesty, which Thomas shares most with Whitman, and which, conversely, makes her temperament quite unique at present. As much in the creative Western world slips into ever-tighter niches of specialization, Augusta Read Thomas steadfastly maintains an untimely task, dealing vociferously with "art", "honesty", "integrity", and "audience." Her vision is too sincere to slip into the marketplace of post-post-modern cynicism and her work rewinds the clock on irony, from a contemporary irony of styles and rhetorics, to that marveling cosmic irony that was the bounty of the 19th century. Like the best modernists, she offers us an "untimely meditation", something generally absent in the present, but possibly vital for the future.
In the meantime, she continues to work with outstanding rigor and pace, the way one works when searching for something vital, both living and necessary for life. This drive seems foremost a drive to connect — one moment of music to the next, one voice to others, the earthbound to the sun, the soul to other souls — and in this, perhaps the drive is yet another form of Thomas's "lyrical compulsion". All of these impulses seem to cry out for another passage from Whitman, perhaps if only because no other prose so perfectly replicates in image what Thomas's music makes in sound:
And you oh my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
© Seth Brodsky, 2001