One of the highlights of the Conductors Guild's 2002 Annual Conference in Chicago was the lively hour spent in discussion with Augusta Read Thomas, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Mead Composer-in Residence. Augusta Read Thomas was born in New York in 1964, and has composed for most of her life. In the last fifteen years she has composed on commissions from the many of the world's leading soloists, conductors, orchestras, choirs, wind and chamber ensembles. In describing her music, the Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein wrote: "Thomas' music, particularly her orchestral music, fairly explodes with an extroverted boldness of utterance audiences and musicians alike find challenging yet immediate. It's music that doesn't sound like anybody else's — music that insists you pay attention."
She currently holds the only fully-endowed composer-in-residence position for a major American orchestra and teaches at the Northwestern University School of Music. She is also the recipient of many of music's most distinguished awards, most recently the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 2000, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2001) for lifetime achievement in music and as a composer who has arrived at his or her own voice. For more information on her life and works see her website: www.augustareadthomas.com or her publisher's, G. Schirmer: www.schirmer.com.
In June, 2002, Ms. Thomas was interviewed for JCG by conductor Reed Perkins. She answered additional questions via e-mail in September, 2002. The author has chosen to make as direct a transcription of their interview as possible, trying to retain the flavor and color — if not the occasionally breakneck speed — of Ms. Thomas's speaking style in hopes that it will give the reader a clearer sense of the composer as an artist and individual.
RP: You have recently renewed your commitment to the Chicago Symphony as its Mead Composer-in-Residence, a position you will hold through 2006. Could you talk about your relationship to the CSO? How did it begin?
ART: The chance to be with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is really one of the best things that has ever happened in my life. I suppose I would say a few things happened that were really, really, great: One was meeting my husband [composer Bernard Rands] for example. One was getting the job at the Eastman School of Music where I taught for nine years, although I've now switched to Northwestern. And one is the CSO job. There are a few things in life that happen that really change your life, and this is so important to me.
Actually, my very first relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was when the Civic Orchestra read a piece of mine, which was conducted by Cliff Colnot in a reading session which lasted, maybe, an hour. And that would have been, my Lord, a long time ago, 1990 or so. Then I was commissioned in 1995 to write for the Ernst & Young Commission in which they try to commission a younger American. And so in '96 I completed that work which was a piece called ...words of the sea... which Pierre Boulez premiered in December of 1996. At that point I was not composer-in-residence. But what happened was, after that piece — which was a fantastic experience for me: one, because I worked so hard on that piece and two, it was brilliantly played and Boulez was fantastic — it was a very important piece for me. Because before that time I had written, you know, forty symphonies — I mean an enormous amount of pieces, and I'd had them done by New York and L.A. and Philly and Louisville and Cleveland — it wasn't my first orchestral "moment." But it was an important one, for a lot of reasons.
After that, [CSO Executive Director] Henry Fogel and [CSO Artistic Vice-President] Martha Gilmer were really, really nice, and they said "we'd love you to do another piece," which I thought was fantastic. So I made a proposal to do another piece called Orbital Beacons, which was going to reseat the orchestra and have the ensemble broken into a series of chamber groups. And that was all extremely exciting: the thought to not only have this one chance, but to have a second chance. And, as far as I was concerned, at that moment I was totally in love with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the rest of my life.
Then, Martha Gilmer called me up and said "I have a proposition for you." You know, just being a composer I thought, well, I wonder if they're going to ask me to change my piece that reseats the orchestra. So I said, "yes, what is it" and she said "would you like to be our composer in residence?" which was a complete shock, I had no idea that was even a possibility. And so I said yes, right there, that was it. And so I hung up the phone and I was, I remember I was jumping, I was really, really happy. So that was 1997.
RP: Has the position always involved similar duties, or have they evolved over time, and what part have you played in that?
ART: Well, it's one of these positions that, because Henry Fogel is a really wise and generous man, I think the person who's in the position can really make it be what it should be. I don't think there's a cookie-cutter "composer-in-residence" at the Chicago Symphony, that it only has to be "this" or "that." But, what are my strengths, what are the things I can lend to the position? The things I do for the orchestra are: I write music for them; I host all the guest composers and sometimes the guest conductors, I give many pre-concert lectures about the music of our time, either interviewing composers or I prepare lectures, which actually takes me an enormous amount of time. To stand up and give a lecture about X or Y, I can easily spend 10 or 12 hours preparing to do it right, with excerpts. And then I also review all the materials that are sent to the orchestra, either to Daniel or Henry or myself. So I listen to a lot of CDs and write back to people and say "we've received your materials," and things of that sort.
RP: And how many scores or CDs come under the doorway at the CSO?
ART: A lot. I would guess Henry Fogel gets at least — this is just composers, not conductors — at least 200 packages a year, that...roughly two every three days. I would say that the composer-in-residence office gets a least 300-500 a year, and that's submissions. A submission might have five works in...so it's an enormous amount of stuff.
RP: What do you look for in a new score? Obviously, if you are going to continue your life as a composer, you have to give only a certain amount of time when looking at a new piece. What grabs you in the ear, or the eye, as you look at a piece among five hundred submissions that would cause you so say "well, this merits further study?"
ART: Several things. First of all, I would assume the following: excellent technique, fantastic notation, incredible musicianship, wonderful "ears," all of that is assumed. Well, before that, in a way, one would look for honesty, passion, integrity, flair, integration, balance, beauty, individuality. There are a lot of different things. You have to assume that the piece, already, is at a very high level. But I would say of myself, that my ears are very wide. I listen to everything, from all sides. There's something from over there that I like and then from the far, other side I like that a lot... I would say I'm a very generous listener. Even though my own music is utterly, relentlessly ruthless, with such a strong point of view... I have two choices: either I have to be a very generous listener and enjoy all these other things, or it can only be a...singular way, a singular voice. Like Bach had a singular voice, or Mozart had a singular voice. But in this position, you have to be more [open] to seeing all different kinds of music.
RP: Are there any kinds of composition where you just look at the first page of the score and say: "Oh, I'm sorry, but I'm not interested."?
ART: To be honest, yes. I mean, I don't know if I would look at the first page alone. I would at least look at twenty pages — maybe quickly — but I wouldn't look at just one page. Not because I'm such a Good Samaritan, but because I'm curious. I want to know where these ten bars lead to, so I would actually take a bigger pass. So I would look at twenty pages of something, or twenty-five pages, and then say no.
RP: Is there any kind of music, in general, that you would rather not have to sit in a room and listen to for twenty minutes?
ART: In terms of style? No. It could be a 12-tone piece, it could be a Pop-y piece, it could be a movie music-ish piece, it could be a minimalist piece, it could be an "I-think-I'm-a-Ligeti" piece or an "I-think-I'm-Luciano-Berio" piece. You know it could be a lot of different things. But what I'm listening for is really quality. So what would be torturous [for me] is twenty minutes of very poor quality.
RP: Thinking back to your own experience, over the last fifteen years or so, you've had opportunities to collaborate with so many of the world's top ensembles, orchestras, conductors, chamber musicians, and singers. How has that affected you, in general and, if you like, specifically in Chicago?
ART: In general, and maybe you shouldn't quote me on this because it sounds immodest, I like my CSO pieces... But you'd have to know me well enough to know that I don't like a lot of my music. It's not like I say that about all my music, but I think...you really have to step up to the plate, you can't write a real "dud" for the CSO. In other words, the pieces I've done for the CSO get all my attention. I mean, up all night, worrying about every last eighth-note...
RP: But you've always done that.
ART: I've always done that. But in other words there's a certain thing when you're writing for Pierre Boulez and the CSO. It's such a monumental, massive, serious object. I take it extremely seriously. So that would be one thing I've learned: when you are writing for these great ensembles it's...I don't know how to describe it. It's so monumental, it takes over your whole life. I'm addicted to writing music, as you know, but — the CSO — they can play. I mean these musicians can play, they can read, excellent technique... So the first read-through is already good and the second read-through is fantastic. It's unbelievable, the "chops." And so for myself, I want to write music that doesn't need just a first read-through or a second read-through, but that has some guts to it, some meat, some meaning. Something to dig around in, and work out, to do the nuances, and to play again and to find something else in it. It can't just be a quick [snaps fingers]. I want it to be something with more depth or, complexity is not the right word, but more meat-on-the bones.
So, for example, working with Daniel Barenboim, he's so musical. He's just so musical. He can phrase everything so it's musical, it just is. It's impossible for his nervous system...it's impossible for him to be unmusical. I've really learned that from him. And I've also learned from him a lot about bow speed, because I go to all of his rehearsals and I've been very interested to watch him talk a lot about bow speed.
From Pierre Boulez, I've learned in working with him — and also from Daniel, I hate to divide these up because they teach the same thing — in a way, whenever I think of Pierre Boulez I think of just one word, which is courage, coraggio, go for it, just do it... It just gives me inspiration to just go for it. It's the only way I can say it, and I mean that as the highest compliment to him. That he affords another composer that he would conduct another composer's work? I mean, he doesn't have to do that — and do it beautifully.
And for him I also like to write really fast music. In all the pieces for him I have some real mixed-meter [sings examples], this kind of really fast, threes-and-twos, and all off on the syncopation and he just lays it right down. So I can't write a piece for Boulez without doing one of these mixed-meter monsters which, maybe, other conductors will hate me for. But he just lays it down and the CSO just plays it. It's clearly notated and everything.
And [Christoph] Eschenbach [music director of the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's summer home]: one of the things I think is really great about him is he's able to switch characters. He's highly energized, and he's able to switch characters on a dime. And both of those things are very characteristic of my music; it's high energy stuff, it's right there, it comes out to meet you. It's not "in your face," but it's very much like "I'm here!" And then [Eschenbach] can get very elegant, very quiet. I found it a real joy to work with him because it feels very natural. Who else? There are so many people!
RP: I know that early in your career, ten years ago or so, Mistislav Rostropovich was a big figure, both with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, and at the Evian Music Festival. How was that experience?
ART: That was great. He did four works. The first was an orchestral piece (which has a great story), the second was an opera, [then] a second orchestral piece and the fourth was a cello concerto, which Seiji Ozawa conducted and Slava played. He basically heard my cello concerto, my other cello concerto, and he said to his agent, "find her, I want to commission her." That's it. So I get a call out of the blue from an agent saying "would you meet with Mr. Rostropovich?" And I was young, really young. He thought I was about forty, but I was actually 22 or something. In any case, I think the thing I learned from him was about line. He said "your music has such a line in it, it's always singing. It's always knowing where it's going; there's always somebody singing behind it." And I remember when he said that to me it just went up into my face like smoke because I sing all my music. And I was, like, "how did he know that?" Because it's not, choral music, but it always has this river running through it, it's always going somewhere. And I remember he said to me, " that's such a strength of your music, you have to write me an opera." And I thought to myself, that's quite a statement, for him to believe in me to write a whole opera.. But then I thought back, and I thought...my music has always retained that lyricism, that direction, that river running through it, in large part because he gave me the courage to...believe in it. He basically said to me, "that is a great strength of yours, you have this lyrical impulse, an expressionist impulse. Go with it." He was also really supportive; nobody had ever heard of me and he was commissioning four big, high-profile works.
The other one who really helped me at that time was Lawrence Leighton Smith. He played works with many orchestras...
RP: Was he in Louisville then?
ART: Yes, and he recorded two pieces and he played about four with Louisville and with the New York Philharmonic and out in California at the Music Center of the West and other places... And another conductor who really helped me was JoAnn Falletta. She did two or three of my works at that stage, and she's done other works since. Without all of that, I wouldn't have been ready for the CSO job; I wouldn't have been prepared.
RP: How has your work with the CSO, and your teaching schedule, originally at Eastman and now at Northwestern University's School of Music affected your life as a composer? Do you sleep?
ART: The short answer is: I have no life. I haven't been to the movies for twelve years. I have very little time to myself, just to be there and to read. I don't have enough time to read. I do read a lot of poetry, but largely because it's short, because I don't have the time to read a whole book! So it's just extremely busy. I'm very aware of every five minutes of my day. For example, I'm doing this for that hour, I'm doing that for that hour. It's packed very tight, every day, 365 days a year. And I work 24/7; I don't take any days off. I'm working all day Saturday, all day Sunday, half of Christmas. I just work like a maniac. But I like it that way. If I have any time off I get nervous. Like, my husband said we should go on a vacation once, and so we did. A two-day vacation, because that was all I could dare to handle. And so we went to Bermuda for two days, from Boston, which was a very simple trip. And I was a total wreck. I was on my cell phone the whole time, on my computer. I had my FedEx there to send back my proofreading to the editor and my husband was like "OK, this is not working." So, I'm not very good at that.
But I like to work. I get up really early...on an average day I'm up by 4:00, certainly by 4:30. And I drink very strong black tea. And usually by 4:30 I'm working, and I don't teach until 11:00, or if I'm in a perfect world, I don't teach until 12:00, depending on the students' schedules. So I can actually work from, say, 4:30 to 9:30, five solid hours in complete silence with nothing else in my day. Although sometimes I do E-mails before, at 4:00 or 4:30 and then I do my day. And then I start my other day. But in a way I kind of do the music first. And then, now, I teach four hours, something like that.
RP: And in your teaching, are you doing any classroom, any academic work, or is it all just one-on-one with composition students?
ART: It's all one-on-one composition lessons, for several reasons. One, that's my favorite kind of teaching, because it means the student is fully engaged. They're there, their soul is on the paper, they've written their string quartet or whatever it is, and I'm there. It's just him or her and me, that's it. It's very intense, very exhausting, for both the student and the professor. If you really teach well, and you really get into the music and into the philosophy behind the music, and the students' knowledge of the repertoire, and the tradition and the context in which they're creating their piece and so on and so forth... I don't teach to make a bunch of Little Augustas. I mean all of my students are so different from each other. And every quarter I do a masterclass, usually right here in this house. I have this huge table of food, and we sit around for like five or six hours, depending on how long it takes, and each of the students, in an intimate setting, presents the work to each other. And at those masterclasses, if a fly were on the wall, he would see how diverse the students are...there's not a cookie-cutter in my studio at all. In that way [teaching is] hard, because you really have to react, on you feet, with your ears — Boom! — to this, and then switch the channel, you're off to somebody else. But I like that much better than classroom teaching because I'm so focused, so high-charged and so prepared that if I see someone half-sleeping or someone doodling I'm just like "Well! What're you doing! You know, we're here, we have forty minutes together, I'm telling you about the most important composer I've ever met in my life, and you're sleeping and you're doodling!" I can't... I don't do that well. My only way to do classroom teaching would be to do six focused, dedicated students who want to be in the class not — what do you call it — a requirement. And also I think it would be easier if I taught a class, I mean in terms of my time. Just teach a class and get rid of a lot of students. It's much harder and more time-consuming to teach all these private [students], but I much prefer it. It just feels better.
RP: Although you have composed for a wide variety of media, would it be fair to say that the orchestra is your preferred medium of musical expression, and if so, why?
ART: Yeah, I'm in love with the orchestra, as you know. Because [as an undergraduate composition student] at Northwestern I wrote what, eight orchestra pieces, or something absurd [like that]? It was ridiculous. So I've always been obsessed with this instrument, and I'm madly in love with it. And if I have the chances, I'm going to keep writing for it until I die. You know, it's hard to get the chances. You need a commission, basically, to get the chance to write orchestral music. But it really is my love. But I would have to say, also, there are a few other things I love. One is the string quartet, and I've made a number of other quartets. The other is solo piano, although I find it utterly terrifying, completely bewitching and very difficult. I would rather write a forty minute orchestral piece than a three minute piano piece. But I love solo piano, even though I find it terrifying.
And the other thing is vocal music. Because, actually, minute for minute, if one were to look at my catalog, the thing I've done the most of is vocal music. I've done a ton of pieces for chorus, voice and orchestra: four of them, these sort of big, monumental 180-voice chorus or 100-voice chorus and orchestra [pieces]. And I've also done a whole bunch of pieces for Chanticleer, the small group.
RP: Several years ago, before the Chanticleer CD won a Grammy Award, I remember listening to NPR and the announcer introduced a group of works to be sung be Chanticleer, including a new work of yours, The Rub of Love. And I thought, this should be interesting. I hadn't heard any of your vocal works in a long time and it was very striking: beautiful and unusual and, in its interplay of words and syllables and sounds, almost erotic. Was this a new direction for you?
ART: Well, Chanticleer asked me to write them a short piece — it was a commission — on any text I wanted. And I read it — it's a anonymous Greek text — and I thought "that's good." It's just fun, because you have the idea of "Once while plaiting a wreath" [she sings a sinuous line from the piece:] "plaiting..." It's just like plaiting a wreath. "I found Eros among the roses." I picked him up "and dipped him in the wine..." [she sings another, illustrative, phrase:] "and dipped...him...in...the...wine..." like dipping. I was just painting the thing. And "Now inside my lips he tickles me ..." so I had them all go [singing:] "tickle...tickle...tickle..." It was just, when I read the poem, music. It wasn't supposed to be so sexy or anything.
RP: Well, no, but it seems to me there is a bit of Eros in it, a bit of the erotic. But the thing that struck me is that it is one of the few really witty pieces of music from the end of the twentieth century that I've bumped into... It's almost like a little bit of Haydn or something. It's not goofy, it's not slapstick, but it has real wit and charm.
ART: It's funny with that piece, because Chanticleer did it, I don't know how many times, like 500 times or something like that. All over the place, all over the world, for two seasons they toured it. And they told me that they actually got requests for The Rub of Love. Because it's so short, it's two minutes. And I heard them do it about four times, but every single time I heard it the audience just started laughing, spontaneously. And I thought, "that's good." It's also funny because, in their case, it's twelve men singing about the difficulties of love.
RP: I've noticed that when you write for orchestra you write for rather large orchestra. Is that fair to say?
ART: I think that's fair to say.
RP: Are you just enjoying the extravagance of working with these great international ensembles? Or when you hear your music, are you saying "I've got to have that tone color that only comes with three or four of this woodwind" and that sort of thing?
ART: Most of that was commission-driven. The Cleveland Orchestra said "here's our roster," the CSO said "here's our roster." My tendency is to use [the players in] the roster that is stapled to the contract. Usually the contract will list all the players in the ensemble, what their names are, who doubles what, and all that. I like to have that, because I like to write exactly so that right player is doubling the right instrument that they specialize upon.
But, for example, my piece called Spirit Musings, which is a little violin concerto, is just one-on-a-part. It's like a London Sinfonietta kind of thing. It's a Mozart-sized...one of each [instrument]. And Ritual Incantations, my cello concerto, is also less than Mozart-sized. And Aurora, [her piano concerto] is ones and twos [of each instrument], also Mozart-sized. And then my piece Daylight Divine for chorus and orchestra, is also Mozart-sized.
So the way I tend to think of it, vis-à-vis my publisher, is that I really have something in every category. Like I have the big huge monstrous orchestral piece that's 30 minutes, then I've got the one that's 20 minutes and I've got the one that's 10 minutes and then I've got the little overture. And then I've got the same for smaller orchestra.
For example Spirit Musings can be played by any community orchestra. The orchestral parts were written for community orchestra. It's completely easy. You just need your solo violinist — and every town I know of in the world has a good violinist somewhere in it — and a decent harp. But the rest of the parts are totally...a [good] high school could play it. And so that's a piece which, really, anyone can do. But then you have something like Orbital Beacons which is this massive orchestra piece that's really written for the world's top 20 orchestras. You know, that kind of level... But I do have the [pieces] for smaller orchestras in my catalog.
RP: One aspect of your music that is almost universally applauded is its distinctive sonority, that combination of choice of timbre and the way the different lines interrelate through timbre. And yet, you seem to have a preference for traditional instrumentation: no synthesizers, amplified instruments or computer generated or manipulated sounds? Is this by intention or just happenstance?
ART: The real answer to that is a bit further away from the question, which is: I can only write what I hear. Which might sound like a really stupid thing to say, or even a stupid thing to admit to. But I really do hear my music. And so while you'll have these crunchy brass chords that are kind of like Messiaen on speed, or you might have Varèse crossed through with Big Band with a sort of curtain of Debussy or something like that — sonorities that that are crunchy and massive and bold and spirited — I really hear those. In other words, I'm not just saying I hear a solo clarinet play a solo clarinet [line], but I really hear these conglomerative sounds. But in my head I don't hear synthesizers. They're not in my "hard drive." I don't hear computer-generated sound. There's a long story that we probably don't want to get into but, in short, I love computer-generated sound. And I've learned a lot from computer-generated sound.
And even some of my music sounds — you can tell I've heard electronic sounds. For example, in my work Trainwork, at the end, you have three flutes and piccolos at the top going [she sings a brief, manic bit that sounds remarkably like a reel-to-reel tape being spooled backwards] like a noise at the top. And then you have this very clean thing underneath going [she sings a strongly accented, irregularly rhythmic passage of large ascending and descending melodic intervals]. But this high piccolo thing is actually coming straight out of electronic music. That would be a sound you might hear on a tape piece or a computer piece, but I much prefer to do it with flutes and piccolos and glockenspiels. So in a way I am affected by computer-generated sound and I study it, I teach it, I know it, I go to concerts, I respect it. I don't want to sound like I don't — it's actually very important to me — I just don't want to write it. The reason is because the mixtures of combinations of what you can get out of an orchestra are infinite. It's also extremely young. The orchestra as we know it is about 100 years old, maybe 110 if you argue about when Strauss wrote what or when Mahler wrote what. But we're talking a hundred and ten years at the most. That is so young! So I don't feel, myself, the need to have computers and all of that in my orchestra.
RP: Along the same lines, is there — or will there be — a role for microtonal writing or unusual tunings (such as in the music of Harry Partch) in your works?
ART: That's a great question. I've thought a lot, a lot, an enormous amount about quarter tones (and eighth tones and sixth tones and all of that). I've even tried to write with them. I've even written whole sections [of pieces] using quarter tones. But... I think the reason [I don't use them] is — and this is probably a weakness or whatever — but because I hear pitch so clearly, I really hear it as an "A," I don't hear it as an "A quarter-tone-flat," I hear that "A." My pitches are very clean and I don't like to muddy 'em up. The thing is, in certain contexts, these quarter tones can be very beautiful. But you know, even if you don't write them, for nuance — sometimes — you get them anyway. I mean that positively, in the sense that someone might use a slight portamento — a tiny, slight, itty-bitty, teeny-weeny portamento — that's in there, you hear that tone a bit lower before you get to the tone [itself]. It's in the style of what we play and how we play.
Also, I tend to use harmonies that, let's say, have six notes in them, or maybe eight notes. And if you're going to work with harmonies like that, that are rich and often unresolved, so to speak, quarter tones would just throw it off for me because I want to hear exactly how those overtones are beating. So, no, I don't [use microtones]. I might in the future; I keep trying.
RP: One of the major developments in the serious music business over the past 20 or more years has been the rise of historically informed performance practice and the restoration or re-creation of period instruments. Recently some composers have begun to write new music for "old" instruments, Sir John Tavener being a notable example. Does this hold any interest for you?
ART: It does. I would love to write a piece for, like, five viols, or a viol ensemble and vocalists, very light-vibrato vocalists. I would like to do a little opera or something. That totally interests me. I'm very interested in early music. If I had to be pressed to the wall with a pitchfork and spit out two [choices of favorite music], I would say early music and contemporary music... Of course I love baroque music and classical music and romantic music but if you really pressed me to the wall, those would be the two I would pick.
So that would really interest me. There are two commissions I'd like to have. One is an early music commission and the other is a Big Band, like a tight, hot, cookin', Wynton Marsalis kind of tight Big Band. Those are two commissions that aren't normally given in our field, or aren't normally sought out, that really resonate with me, deeply. Especially if the early music [commission] had voices, sort of like a cross between Monteverdi sliced through with some Debussy and out into a kind of Webern world. That's what I would imagine writing if I had an early music ensemble.
RP: Along those lines, have you ever had any interest in improvisation or more-or-less controlled aleatoric techniques, such as — for example — in the music of Lutoslawski? Would a Big Band piece call on the players to improvise? Or is that also a factor of being able to hear what you've written?
ART: It's interesting, because the main thing I tell my students — you cannot study with me and not know this (I have several Gusty Sayings, and this is one of them) — you must keep the improvisation in your composition and you must keep the composition in you improvisation. I tell them that day in and day out. For example, for myself — and you have to take this with a grain of salt — I think everything I've written is completely improvised. Now that doesn't make any sense, because everything I write is so highly detailed and so completely notated. But I improvise it before I get there. So for example, in the piece I'm having played tomorrow night [Trainwork], there's this one big section where every body is going [she sings a fast, violent, irregularly rhythmic passage], I would have improvised it a lot [she sings several distinctly different versions of the passage]. And I'd say "no, that's no good..." and I'd try all the different [versions] and say, "that's the one." I could sing it — like, in fifty years I could sing it — because I've internalized it so much. I could dance it, tap it, feel it. So in that sense it really is improvised. Because I want my music to sound alive. Like, that next note, right there? [snaps her fingers] That was an emergency! It had to be that note! Boom, keep going! Next note, what was the next note!? That's the right note! That kind of feeling you have in jazz. I don't want my music to be like [she speaks in a very proper, "academic" tone], "well, now lets see, should I make it a 'G' or shall I have an 'F'?" My music doesn't sound that way.
And so, in that sense, I think my music is highly improvisatory. If anyone watched me on video, composing, they would learn that. So that's the real answer. But do I want to let my players improvise in my piece, where I would say, "alright, they're playing and you do whatever you want from bar 30 to 90?" Never! And the reason is this. One, I know what I want to write. I mean I already have something in my head. Why should I just leave it up to chance? And two, with all due respect, unless you have a player that's really, really solidly understanding the context of the music, and what's happening structurally and formally and harmonically and rhythmically and everything else and — on top of that — is a fantastic improviser and has been improvising for 30 years, you don't want anybody [improvising]. Because a lot of these players — you know, I've seen a lot of pieces where players are given [parts] to improvise — end up playing scales [she sings], because that's what they're used to. And their improvisation just falls into these patterns that they've already known. So, in general, unless you're a professional improviser, players are not good improvisers. And anyway, I want to set my music, not in stone, but I want to set it as it is. So I keep the improvisation on the composition side and then I write it down.
RP: Fairly recently, Joan Tower was quoted to the effect that she wasn't going to write orchestra pieces anymore because she put all that time and energy and love into this big thing that is an orchestra piece, and it would get its handful of first performances and hardly ever a second and perhaps never a third or fourth. How do you deal with that? Is that the case for your music?
ART: I totally admire and respect Joan, and I completely understand her statement, a hundred percent. I am on her side with that; I totally understand. The problem for me is that I'm so in love with the orchestra that I'm just going to keep making these things. And I hope that someone, somewhere along the road will say, "Who's that Augusta Read Thomas writing all that orchestral stuff? Let's check it out." I have this blind optimism. My works are not — you know, I get a first performance and maybe a second and that's it. I'm in the same boat she is. But my career — career, that's a terrible word — has been one of premieres. For example, I tend to be offered a lot of commissions, in general. So what happens is that people will want to commission me. They don't want to play an old piece. They want a new one. Which in a way is good because I then have this flood of commissions and I can write all these pieces. But on the other hand, sometimes you wish to say "Why don't you play one of my old ones, and then we can do a new one." Let the orchestra get used to my language, know what I'm doing. See if you still want to commission me... Otherwise, it puts me on this treadmill to keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. When actually some of the pieces I've written are pretty darn good, but they'll never be played again. It — let me say what I'm trying to say — it takes a lot of courage to get up every day and write another one and then another one and another one when people won't play the old ones... It's just what Joan is saying...
You know, not getting a second or a third performance is frustrating but — from a composer's point of view — it's even more frustrating when you do get a performance and it's not recorded. For example, tomorrow night the CSO will premiere my new piece Trainwork, and there will not be a recording. They will play it once and then, poof, it's done. So, when a conductor calls my publisher and asks for information on my recent works, there will not be a recording of Trainwork to send along with the score and that will affect its possibilities for future performances. But anyway, not getting performances is one thing, but not getting tapes is worse.
RP: Bands and wind ensembles are often the most prominent "new music" ensembles on our campuses and they have a voracious appetite for serious new works. My colleagues in the band world tell me that many leading composers either aren't interested in composing for this medium or, when they do, the results are seldom as interesting as the same composer's orchestral works. What are your thoughts on the medium, and when can we expect another substantial new wind ensemble work from you?
ART: Composing for wind ensemble and band is something to which I am naturally attracted, in part because I grew up playing in one. In the past, I have composed a few band works. My piece magneticfireflies was a wonderful experience for me since it was commissioned by 25 high school bands, all of whom played it in the first year. This work has also been played by college bands, for which I am grateful. It is a six-minute zinger! Lots of brass, fluttertongueing and grace-notes. Needless to say, I felt deeply honored for that commission. Jack Delaney and the Southern Methodist University Wind Ensemble have commissioned me for a new work that I will compose this year.
RP: It is now, in 2002, almost 90 years since the premiere of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and many ensembles and their audiences still find it technically (and financially!) difficult to perform and hear these works and others from the — I can't resist — past century. With this in mind, what are your thoughts on programming? In a season — or over several seasons — how does one balance established masterworks from the period before, say, 1900, with the huge and yet still spottily explored repertoire of the 20th century, all the while maintaining a commitment to truly new music and young (and not so young?) composers? In programming works by living composers, how would you balance such considerations as whether the composer is already well known and regarded (e.g. Ligeti, Carter) or younger and less established? How much should other factors — for example, nationality or ethnicity — factor into the decision?
ART: We have to keep in mind several things: the first is the importance of continuity. What is a musical tradition? Is it important that composers preserve a musical tradition? Why? Why not? How do we know if a new composition stems from a well-defined tradition? And then there is the importance of innovation and the creative artist's responsibility. Is it important that composers break away from musical traditions? How can composers forge lasting paths in new directions? Should artists feel an obligation to be original? How do you define the word original?
Thirdly, there is the "profession's" responsibility: How can we, as members of the profession, be responsible and responsive to the music of our time? How can other members of the profession (recording companies, artistic administrators, marketing specialists, teachers, orchestras, Universities, agents, publishers, etc.) support and foster excellence for the music of our time? And we must consider the art of listening. How do we listen to the music of our time? Do we listen to new music in the same way that we listen to old music? Do the following three items affect audience reactions: preparation, willingness to suspend preferences or prejudices, and the environment or context in which the music is being played?
The history of western art music leaves us in no doubt that it has changed over the centuries, but it has remained unaffected in its unyielding urge to uphold utopian — idealistic — sanguine, visionary values. We cannot justify such simplistic notions that all the music of Bach is better than the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Berio or Boulez. No one composer, style, school of thought and practice, or historical period, is given a monopoly of music's truths. Music's eternal quality is its capacity for change, transformation and renewal. With this in mind, we all as artists and audience members and orchestra supporters must be nourished by our inheritance — the repertoire — but have the confidence and courage to believe in music of our own time. As musicians and music lovers we are guardians of an unsurpassed legacy — but remember that there would be no old music to perform if there had never been any new music.
I think we have to strive to understand and master music's challenge here and now, today and tomorrow. Be of — and embrace — the music of our own time, confident that great music will remain unfaltering in its truths. I am sure you have had this experience listening to classical music or jazz, etc. Music has the capacity to transport any willing listener or performer from mundane concerns and parochial thought into a magical realm of experience which is powerful, curious and mysterious. Whence comes this magic?... Such magic is the result of mastery. Mastery of musical meaning and technical skills born of dedicated routine and intelligent practice. Mastery of self — in the sense that motivation and ambition are tempered by modesty — that manner and magnanimity are essential ingredients in the creation and performance (which is the recreation) of music. Then music becomes magical and transcends otherwise limiting boundaries of experience.
Yes, music is a profession but it is more than that. Music is a way of life, a way of being in the world and a model for behavior... As a composer I know the stamina we musicians need to pursue music... As musicians, we must try to be self-reliant without being self-satisfied and this is no easy challenge. But we musicians are obligated to seek and maintain this balance: To keep the equilibrium between self esteem and self control; to break silence with sound; to love solitude as much as public acclaim; to know solemnity from the scintillating; to recognize what is seductive and what is sacred; to have a sensibility (which is — in itself — responsiveness) and yet remain single-minded; to trust sensation yet reject the sensational; to search the soul — but seize the moment. All these we are required to place at the service of music in order that it reveals its secrets.
In contrast to this — too often I see composers taking a different path: We live in a society in which "noise" is paramount. A culture which is full of surface Pop and commercial pressures. Often composers get lazy/sentimental/commercial/sell-out/make-a-buck/cute-title/trendy-dedication/simple-minded solutions. There appears to be a tendency to find a gimmick to attract media attention rather than to struggle or grope through the blind alleys of the creative process.
What is wonderful about USA culture is that is has such a wide spectrum ranging from the banal to the profound. I like this, but we must be able to recognize the difference. I want to state clearly that I am completely open minded. I accept and love and crave all influences: jazz, rock, pop, world musics, etc., as long as they are of quality. I feel strongly that we should not dummy down this great art simply because we live in a culture which is Pop and commercial — microwave TV dinner, new and improved toothpaste, a toothbrush that tell you when it needs replacing, etc. We need to recognize what is generic and not original, superficial rather than profound, transient rather than permanent.
RP: What role should the local composer play in the life of an ensemble? Should an ensemble cultivate the local composer?
ART: I think the local composer should have an essential role in the life of an ensemble, but only if he or she is good. If he or she is good, then absolutely, but not to the exclusion of all other new music. There has to be balance.
I think quality is the most important thing of all. For me, potentially the most interesting things in life are the things I do not yet know. Humans have an insatiable curiosity and as audience members we have to let interest take over in the effort to understand a new work. We have to have an open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. We must also have a vision for new sounds, vision for 2100, 2200. The tradition is one of change. We are always led to new things. No one can own music and maintain it in a preferred manner. It is greater than all of us and it will change whether we want it to or not. We should be glad about this and celebrate it. Keeping quality as number one, there is enough excellent new music for us to program for a long time.
RP: Stravinsky was once famously quoted as saying "my music doesn't need interpreters, it need executants." What qualities do you value most in a performer or conductor of your music? What sort of balance between "execution" and "interpretation" do you desire in your ideal conductor/performer?
ART: All composers like and desperately need committed performances and recordings of their music. Without such, it is entirely difficult to improve as an artist and makes a publisher's promotion of the music tricky and problematical.
One always wants plenty of rehearsal time, of course.
For my music, I like dazzling, passionate performances.
My favorite moment in any piece of music is the moment of maximum risk and striving. Whether the venture is tiny or large, loud or soft, fragile or strong, passionate, erratic, ordinary or eccentric! Maybe another way to say this is the moment of exquisite humanity and raw soul. All art that I cherish has an element of love and recklessness and desperation. I like music that is alive and jumps off the page and out of the instrument as if something big is at stake and I like my players to perform with this spirit. Have an excellent technical command of the music and then play it from the heart like a solo cadenza!
RP: We've already talked a bit about your music for voices — I don't think I had realized how many vocal works you have composed — and recently you seem to be writing more works for voice or voices, sometimes without accompaniment, and sometimes with orchestra. Could you talk a bit about how you approach writing for the voice and how you choose your texts?
ART: Yes. I love writing for the voice. I find it incredibly compelling and natural and beautiful and elegant and sensuous. I just love the human voice, and any piece in which I can use a voice: I'm happy. I'm always asking for voices. People will say "can you write a string quartet?" [And I say] "yeah, can I add a voice?" "Will you write a this?" "Yes, can I add a voice?" Or "you can write any piece you want," and I'll have a voice.
The texts, I choose by their beauty and by the sound of [the words]. An example would be my piece Daylight Divine, for chorus, solo soprano and orchestra, which is based on the texts of Gerard Manly Hopkins. I'm completely in love with Gerard Manly Hopkins, everything he ever wrote, and it so resonates with my soul. So, for example, that piece is really about the sound of the words and the meaning of the words, both... "I caught this morning morning's minion, dappled dawn drawn falcon..." It's just so beautiful... I just love the sound of Hopkins so much. With Hopkins I can just start writing music.
The piece I'm doing right now, it's on my desk, is called In My Sky at Twilight, which is a beautiful text by Neruda. "You are taken in the nets of my music, my love, and my nets of music are as wide as the sky..." It goes on from there. It just so captured my attention. These songs I'm working on right now are songs of love and passion and the words — for example the first words are "Ablaze with desire." They're so open sounding, my radar goes right for it. a beautiful poem by Cummings, "somewhere i have never traveled," you've got to read that poem!
I do read a lot of poetry, as I've said, and I also have a massive amount, like fifty, tapes and CDs of poets reading their poems. Whenever I go to a bookstore I go straight to the books on tape and I buy all of the poets on tape that I don't yet have. Unfortunately, most of the ones that are out, I've got. There aren't that many out. I've Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, all these different poets reading their own poems. And I know a lot of poems by the sound of the poems. I've really got to tell you this one, it's so beautiful. The Wallace Stevens "The Idea of Order at Key West": "She sang beyond the genius of the sea. The water never formed , to mind or voice, like a body, holy body..." It's the way it sounds that I remember, it's not just the meaning. I'm not one of these people that just takes a bunch of ugly words, like [she affects a stereotypically flat, nasal Midwestern accent]: "Then there was a hat on the table, and the table was made of glass and there was water on it." Those words, I don't want to set them. But you give me, like, "Ablaze with desire," and fine, those words are great. So, I'm very particular about the sound.
RP: Speaking of vocal writing, I know you have written at least two operas, Ligeia — conducted by Rostropovich — and from your student days Psychles. Have both been withdrawn from your works list?
ART: Yes. When I moved my catalog to G. Schirmer, which is now about two years ago, I withdrew ninety-five percent of what I had ever written. That was my decision. Publishers, just in general want...more is better. The more flavors you have the better. But I really wanted to withdraw, withdraw, withdraw and get my catalog down to twenty-five pieces that I love. That I think that if any conductor calls up and says "give us an Augusta Read Thomas piece," there's only like twenty-five of them, but I've selected those. It saves somebody doing all this research, I mean it's already been pared down.
But Ligeia, you've brought up a very soft spot. Because the one piece I might un-withdraw, don't tell anybody, is Ligeia. Because it had five full productions, it won the Orpheus Prize, and Bernard — that's my husband — told me "That's your best piece. You cannot, it's impossible to withdraw." But I have withdrawn it. What I want to do with that is a chamber opera. It only needs 29 players total: 12 singers and 17 musicians. It's like a Benjamin Britten church opera. So what I want to do is at some point get a commission from one of the smaller opera houses or a summer festival or somebody who could do a church opera and revise it a little bit. And then it would be 1991: written, 2003: revised. It would be the same piece, but I would re-do it.
RP: Your website tells us you are busy on another opera, with the same librettist, Leslie Dunton-Downers, that you worked with on Ligeia. Can you tell us anything about Dream in the Cave of Eros? Who is it for? When is it due?
ART: It has no commission. The libretto is completely written and I've written three scenes of it. It's a massive, it's a Metropolitan Opera kind of thing. Or Lyric Opera of Chicago, or San Francisco Opera would be a great place for it. It's a big, two act, whole evening, large orchestra, chorus, counter-tenor, soloists, the whole nine yards. It's a dream mission. I may have to just write it. It's like Wozzeck or Lulu, it's just a Big Thing.
RP: On an original story?
ART: Yes. Leslie Dunton-Downers has written it. It's loosely based on a story of Georges Bataille. It's got a lot of mediaeval-isms about it. It's dark, mediaeval, a lot of chant, abstract, hysterically funny at times, so on and so forth. I really, really want to do it, but at this point it may be 2011 before I even start to do it. And it'll probably be one of those things I write and secretly leave under my bed and die and hope that someone comes and digs it out from under my bed. I'll leave a note somewhere: "The opera is done. Would someone please read it?"
RP: Your next premiere [June 29,2002] will be Trainwork to be performed by the CSO and Christoph Eschenbach at the orchestra's summer home at the Ravinia Festival. Ravinia was once described by Sir Thomas Beacham as "the world's only train station with a first-class resident orchestra," or words to that effect. Can we assume this has had an influence on your new work? Is that where Trainwork comes from, and what sort of piece is it?
ART: What happened is, in 1904 they put the [commuter] train line in and they put Ravinia up there [at the end of the line] to attract people to ride the train. What ended up happening, of course, is that Ravinia is wildly successful and the train is bankrupt or something. It's completely the tail wagging the dog. In any case, in 1904 the train line went in and Ravinia Park went up. In 2000-2004, [Ravinia Executive Director] Welz Kauffman had the great idea of commissioning four train works, one each year. Four works about the train, it could be anything, and they're all going to be by Chicago composers.
The first one was Ricardo Lorenz. [My] commission was to write a ten-minute piece that featured the solo flute, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that had anything to do with a train. It could be anything. And what I decided to do in this instance was to write a real piece, not like a summer ditty — some silly old thing that would only be played at Ravinia — but to write a real piece with a strong point of view. And I was looking around and I found this word "trainwork," which is a nineteenth-century word which, you may know, means things like lace. Like very intricate trainwork, another example of which would be inside a watch. If you had a beautiful Swiss watch, with all the gears, one would say, "wow, your watch has beautiful trainwork...." So I thought that's perfect, because my music has all these little gears that are fitting into each other and playing off one another and rotating around and very intricate. Exactly like a trainwork-lacy-French kind of a way. And at the same time it could be kind of a pun, you know, Train Work. But the piece gets going and at the end, if the [real] locomotive comes through, it'll have a run for its money: the CSO at full volume, and I have all the brass like this [she sings a series of loud, irregularly syncopated, fanfare-like outbursts], and if the train comes through there it will be great! I like it. I'm just sad that I won't get a tape. That's really hard. I want to say that especially, because people don't think about, they don't get it. "Why would a composer need a tape?" How will I get a second performance of Trainwork?" Because if you, as a conductor, wanted to play it you'd say "Hey! You got a tape?" Of course you would. And I'd say "No, I never got a tape." So it's such a bummer. But it'll be good.
RP: The titles of your works, and the texts of your vocal music, often suggest a poetic or ecstatic vision of our world and the universe we inhabit. You have also composed a few reflective or contemplative pieces, for example Song in Sorrow for the Cleveland Orchestra in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Kent State tragedy. In these uncertain times after the events of September 11, 2001, do you find yourself drawn to respond musically, or are you hesitant, or...?
ART: One thing I would say is that you are exactly right, that my titles and texts are about things spiritual and things ecstatic. Like you have a lot of spiritual texts and lot of texts about the moon, the sun and orbits and planets. So it's been running through my music all the time, those two things. And in a way spirituality and, like, the cosmos totally relate to me. So, in a way, it's really one thing, one strand.
Vis-à-vis 9-11: the piece I did for the Cleveland Orchestra in 1999, Song in Sorrow, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate the Kent State shootings and the tragedy that happened and the Viet Nam war. But I purposely called it Song is Sorrow, and I purposely made it a piece the texts for which are global. I mean it could be about the Holocaust, it could be about some tragedy in 2000 B.C., it could be about 9-11. It's a Song in Sorrow, because I wanted the piece to have this: that tragedy has similarities, and I wanted there to be this deep human understanding that peace is important, love is important, these big themes. Rather than, "Oh, Viet Nam was terrible," and all the Viet Nam things. So for that piece I picked forty texts, by all different poets, from Anonymous to a Vietnamese poet to women, young people, old people, all fairly well known texts and all with this beautiful sound that I was talking about earlier. So in a way, I think that is, for me, my 9-11 piece because it's a big Song in Sorrow. I don't have this reflex to come out and write my 9-11 whatever. Let me put it this way: Everything I write comes from direct inspiration, like the Holocaust, 9-11, like my father dying. Like hearing La Mer, like hearing Jeux, like hearing rock music. It all goes in. All this stuff goes in and what comes out is like a totally digested version. I don't feel I have to wear something on my sleeve. I don't want to call attention to my — I don't want to write "CNN music" — like, OK, my next piece is going to be called Homage to Monica Lewinsky, and the next one will be about some disease in Europe. I think a lot of composers do that. There's a lot of what I would call CNN titles, and they do not resonate with me for my music. I don't say anyone else shouldn't do it, but it's not digested enough. For me it's way too opportunistic. I want everything to be much more centered, and gracious and spiritual. It's much more interesting to me that way. I don't really want to call attention to myself. Also, my titles, you never know what they are. What really is a Ritual Incantation? What really is a Spirit Musing? What is Orbital Beacons? What are the ...words of the sea...? It's not very obvious. They're much more, like... Chanting to Paradise.
RP: Do you ever feel impelled to write a genre piece? That, instead of having an ecstatic or evocative or spiritual connotation, it's you and "Symphony No. 1," or "Sonata something or other?" I think those are titles you've pretty much avoided along the way.
ART: Yeah, I have. I don't even have subtitles. So, like, Meditation, you have to figure out that it's a trombone concerto. But I figure if anyone wants to play my music, they can read the instrumentation. In other words, it doesn't have to say Meditation — comma — "a trombone concerto." I usually don't do subtitles, but my publisher has added some subtitles, like "a cello concerto," "a flute concerto," whatever: the genres as a subtitle. In a perfect world I just like my things to be like Chanting to Paradise, Ritual Incantations, Spirit Musings, Aurora. Just floating like words. You could even make a poem out of the titles. And people could look up what [each] is. So I probably won't do like Symphony 1 or 2 or 3. And I don't have opus numbers, either. Just the titles.
RP: Any final thoughts for our readers?
ART: I guess I would say something like: Bravo to those of us who understand that old music needs new music and new music needs old music...
And I would say the form in a piece must be the best reaction to the objects calling it into being. If it's a good composition, the form of it — ABA, or rondo form, or scattered form, or interrupted form, or whatever it would be — has to be the best reaction to the music that's bubbling up in it. And as a conductor, if you can see what the objects are that are calling it into being, then the form is clear. But you have to start with the objects. I don't know if that makes any sense, but see what's bubbling at the molecular level that's putting up a whole section, or piece.
And the other thing is: Play the music of your time. Don't be afraid of anything in life. Have courage, take risks, and do it all with love!
Reed Perkins is currently Assistant Conductor of the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra (IN). Previously, he was the Music Director and Conductor of the Peninsula Youth Orchestra (VA), and a Lecturer in Music at the College of William and Mary (VA). He has held conducting positions with orchestra and theater companies in Illinois, Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin. He has conducted a number of works by Augusta Read Thomas since they first met at Northwestern University in the early 1980s.
This interview was originally published in the Journal of the Conductors Guild, 23:2-16 (2002)
© Copyright 2002 by Reed Perkins
All Rights Reserved
Used by permission of the author