"Augusta Read Thomas's works are performed all over the world, by some of music's starriest names — and all this by the age of 44. Harriet Smith investigates.
"Augusta Read Thomas is a force of nature. Still only 44, she has already spent a decade as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, writing nine works for the ensemble. Simultaneously she found time to teach — at the prestigious Eastman School of Music where she ran the orchestration classes, and at Tanglewood, where she has taught composition for several summers — while the list of performers playing her music would make many a fellow-composer turn livid green. These include the Berlin and New York Philharmonic orchestras the Boston and Dallas Symphony orchestras and The Philadelphia, with such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Christoph Eschenbach and Daniel Barenboim, cellist Heinrich Schiff and the vocal ensemble Chanticleer. And engagingly, she signs her emails 'Gusty'. There's an enthusiasm in that which translates just as vibrantly to her own music.
"Music was a natural impulse, particularly as the youngest of ten children. 'It was my refuge. I used to practise the piano for hours, from about the age of four.' Luck was on her side when her first teacher encouraged her to write down the music she was improvising. 'I'd write down a bar — nothing! But little by little she got my hand moving on the paper.' But it was only as a teenager that young Gusty decided that she wanted to write as much as possible. 'It wasn't an overnight decision, but a natural outgrowth of who I am.'
"Her success, one suspects, is as much a result of her strong work ethic as raw talent. She may be prolific, but she certainly puts in the hours, sometimes anything up to a twelve-hour day. 'I don't feel I write quickly, but I do work very hard.'
"Today, she is certainly a composer much in demand — though she prefers to call herself a musician — with seven significant premieres coming up over the next few months, including one in London, her Helios Choros II, to be premiered on December 14 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Her versatility surely also contributes to her success, for she shows as much enthusiasm writing for amateur youth groups as for international orchestras.
"There's also a sense of an entirely practical mind at work, perhaps not so surprising as Thomas spent many years as an orchestral player. 'I try to tailor-make each piece to the music ians I'm writing for. So I usually listen to as many CDs as I can get my hands on, go to their concerts and meet up with them.' Is she consciously trying to push them or accommodate their strengths? Her answer is simple: 'I'm trying to write the best possible piece, to find the right sounds. With the Chicago SO it was very special because I was there for 10 years, and I knew the players really well so if I was writing a line for the first oboe, I knew who would be playing it; I had that musician's sound in my head.' Thomas is obsessed with sound. Well, that's something of a prerequisite for a composer, you might think. But in her case, it takes on an analytical precision.
"'My music is very nuanced: I imagine exactly how fast the musician is going to move the bow, what the fingerings are, every attack, every decay ... And I physicalise it, I sing every note of every line that I write.' She stops suddenly, 'I hope that doesn't sound hokey!' There's the strongest sense that Augusta Read Thomas's music is there to be performed. 'It's music of the ears — if there's one thing that people should understand about my music, it's that I heard it.' Certainly, players and singers appreciate that quality. The comment that Thomas repeatedly hears is how much 'fun' her music is to perform (which is quite distinct from it being 'fun' to lis ten to; there's nothing whimsical or ironic about it). That comes not simply from understanding the instruments inside out, but also from the painstaking way she approaches composition. 'I map everything out, down to every 20-second section. But I still want the pieces to retain an inner life, a sense of excitement about what's coming next. What is the next note or colour? How does its character shift? In a way the pieces are self-propelling, so that what happens next might seem unexpected, but then, a split second later, it will seem as if it was always inevitable. The balance between the unexpected and the inevitable is very fragile, but it's very important.'
"She attributes this key quality to her love of American jazz, and improvisation. But it could equally come out of her adoration of Bach. 'I need Bach every day, and every time I hear his music it sounds brand new. My music doesn't sound like his of course, but what I take from it is that sense of constant invention, of character, life and colour. And my pieces are short — they mean what they say, they say what they mean, and then they stop. That's something I learnt from him too.'
"She is the opposite of a composer living in a bubble, remote from the world, warmly acknowledging that in her music 'you can hear the perfumes of my metaphorical grandparents' . Aside from Bach and American jazz, she lists them as late Beethoven, early Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Varèse, Oliver Knussen (who taught her) and Mahler. From each she has taken something different, so that her music sounds like none of them. Mahler, for instance: 'I love those immense stretches of counterpoint, and the way he then adds a third line, like a helix dancing around the main contrapuntal lines, as if he's spinning a vast web.'
"And perhaps from Debussy in particular, comes a fondness for poetic titles. Terpsichore's Dream, Astral Canticle, Carillon Sky, Orbital Beacons ... or among her forthcoming premieres, Absolute Ocean and Helios Choros II. 'They're evocative, yes, but they don't tell you what the music actually sounds like. You have to listen to it.' The repeated references to cosmic ideas also give a clue as to what lies behind the music. 'I very much believe in nature, and what you might call force-fields of energy. But these are huge ideas, not the kind of thing that can be put into a soundbite.'
"So if she could travel back in time, what advice would she give her younger self? 'I feel that the best thing in the world is to be a really good person to others, to be an outstanding citizen of the world. And also to be true to who you are — really looking inside and not worrying about being flavour of the month. I honestly feel that for my whole life I've tried to be both those things — and I hope people can hear them in my music.'"
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