The Capacity and Caprice of the New: Some Thoughts on Augusta Read Thomas and the OSU Contemporary Music Festival
Essay by Jeremy Glazier
A quick glance through the catalogue of works by Augusta Read Thomas reveals a striking affinity for lyric poetry. "Poets," Thomas says, "have a way of saying a lot in a very short amount of space, and I find these vignettes very powerful." In My Sky at Twilight, for example, recorded in 2006, is practically an anthology of poetry from Sappho to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pindar to Pablo Neruda, "Anonymous" to e. e. cummings reminding us of the ancient musical origins of lyric verse. Poetry permeates her work, not only in her vast output for voice ("People think of me as an orchestral composer," she says, "but actually what I've done most is write for voice."), but throughout much of her chamber and orchestral music as well. Thomas, who was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in music, describes a room in her home that is filled with books of poetry, and from the many literary allusions in the titles, epigrams, and lyrics of her compositions not to mention the ease with which she can recite long passages of poetry in conversation it is clear that she has spent many hours (a "thirty-year search," she calls it) immersing herself in literary as well as musical traditions.
Large-scale compositions such as Words of the Sea and Light the First Light of Evening take their titles and their inspiration from poems by Wallace Stevens, whose "fictive music" remains a crucial expression of 20th century American verse. The third movement of Silent Moon, for violin and cello or viola, takes its epigraph ("When twofold silence was the song of love") from a sonnet by the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Listen closely to the third movement and you might just see Rossetti's "dragonfly / hang[ing] like a blue thread loosened from the sky." ("It's fun," Thomas says, "to try to pick up the images of the poem, and character paint them a little.") Yet these works are not mere tone poems; Thomas insists that, when it comes to using poetry as an inspiration for music, "one plus one" needs to add up to much more than two: "otherwise, the poem didn't need my music and the music didn't need the poem."
Take, for example, Bubble: Rainbow (spirit level) for soprano and ensemble, which is something of a microcosm of Thomas's oeuvre. She sets together poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson, two of America's strongest and most representative poets in the transcendental vein. "The juxtaposition of the Dickinson with the Bishop in a two-movement form is interesting to me," she says, "so that in a way it multiplies and becomes something else." These two poems with their shared images of flight and rainbows reflect and refract one another through Thomas's kaleidoscopic setting. The poet Lloyd Schwartz, among many others, has found it useful to compare the two poets: "Like Emily Dickinson (even down to the dashes), Bishop was a complicated mixture of formalist and formal maverick." That paradox applies just as deservedly to Augusta Read Thomas.
Thomas describes herself as "a real repertoire junkie." She programmed new music for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a decade; she programmed the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival in 2009; she's assimilated the whole tradition of Western classical music (counting Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler among her idols); and she's known for making her students study repertoire ("listen to everything Strauss made in the next month," she tells them, and while they may groan at first, they inevitably write on her evaluations at the end of the term, "I'm so glad she made me learn repertoire."). But for Thomas, it doesn't stop at the classics: "You can tell a composer who has heard all of European music (and African, and Indonesian), and understands gagaku [Japanese imperial court music], because their music has a depth as opposed to someone who has only listened to one music, because their music sounds derivative."
Thomas's music is anything but derivative. It does, however, come out of the tradition, and engages with tradition. Works like ...a circle around the sun..., Dancing Galaxy, and Serenade not to mention Sun Threads (her string quartet) or Juggler in Paradise (her third violin concerto) clearly draw on traditional forms, forces, and genres. Yet they also extend the boundaries of that tradition which, again, for Thomas, doesn't exclusively mean Western, European art music. "I grew up in the Sixties," she says: jazz and rock music are just as much a part of who she is as a composer as the Modernists from Debussy and Ravel to Varèse, Carter, and Berio that she cites as her influences. Take, for example, her Scat, for oboe, string trio, and piano, or Love Twitters, an arrangement for solo piano of Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful." The music of today, she contends, can be just as powerful, relevant, and moving as the works of the past: "Music's eternal quality," Thomas writes, "is its capacity for change, transformation, and renewal. No one composer, style, school of thought and practice, or historical period is given a monopoly on music's truths."
That idea of change, transformation, and renewal can be seen clearly in a work like Silhouettes, for solo marimba, where each of the four movements crosses one of the composer's "classical" influences with one of her jazz influences (Takemitsu with Bill Evans; Stravinsky with Thelonius Monk; Boulez with Oscar Peterson; Bartok with Art Tatum). Part of this eclecticism stems from Thomas's American identity: "I'm an American, I grew up here, I live here," she says. "I live in the middle of our country, in Chicago, and yet in America everyone always says, 'Her music is so European!'" Thomas attributes this partly to the fact that her music has been influenced and championed by the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, and Pierre Boulez. It's also because she's "not doing the minimalist, or post-minimalist, or downtown kind of pieces," she says. Nevertheless, when she "go[es] to Europe, they say, 'Oh my God, her music is so American!'"
Such a doubled perception was also faced, interestingly enough, by Elliott Carter to whom she dedicated Bubble: Rainbow (spirit level). Like Thomas, Carter cultivated an aesthetic that, from an American vantage point seems European, and vice versa. But also like Thomas, Carter's Modernism is essentially comic, in the Aristophanic sense think of Carter's playfully theatrical late concertos for clarinet or horn, and Thomas's own Juggler in Paradise as opposed to the classically tragic vein epitomized by the pre-twelve-tone works of Schoenberg and the expressionist movement.
Thomas is a Modernist, though she wears her modernism lightly. ("Definitely, the Modernists have gotten under my skin," she says.) In a culture that seems to have turned its back on a Modernism it tends to see as difficult, cerebral, and ugly, Thomas has managed to do something for Modern music that few other composers have been able to do: make it seem fun and accessible again, without losing any of its edginess. "My works are highly nuanced, highly notated, very carefully worked out," Thomas says, "but on the other hand I want them to be spontaneous and fun. There is a whimsy in my work or a caprice a certain kind of wink of the eye." That word "caprice" implies frivolity, of course, but in its Italian form, capriccio, it designates a free-form, usually virtuosic, piece of music. One can't help but make the connection to one of Thomas's works that will receive its world premiere at this year's Contemporary Music Festival: Euterpe's Caprice, whose title, appropriately enough, invokes the Muse of flute playing and of lyric poetry.
In his book Classical Music, Why Bother?, Harvard Professor of the Humanities Joshua Fineberg insists that "Art is not about giving people what they want. It's about giving them something they don't know they want." This is especially true of contemporary art music, particularly in a culture that seems to value the easy, the familiar, and the accessible over the complex, the strange, and the hard-won. In the case of so-called inaccessible music of the 20th century from post-war serialism and musique concrète to the "complexity" of composers like Brian Ferneyhough today the new has often been accused of privileging intellect over emotion, structure over content. As this year's Festival amply demonstrates, Augusta Read Thomas reconciles these dichotomies to present us with music that, while thoroughly grounded in the Modernist tradition, also speaks authentically to contemporary sensibilities. Her work has garnered awards from a wide range of musical and cultural institutions, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the Siemens Foundation in Munich, thus demonstrating its broad appeal.
Thomas has held teaching positions at the Eastman School of Music and at Northwestern University, where she was Wyatt Professor of Music from 2001 until 2006. While she left her tenured position to focus on composition, Thomas continues to devote much of her energies to advocating for new music. As Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a position she held from 1997 to 2006, she was instrumental in establishing MusicNOW, the CSO's contemporary music series. She was Chair of the Board of the American Music Center from 2005 to 2008, and in 2009 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She works with young composers, youth orchestras, and children's choruses preparing the next generation of musicians and music lovers. "These are tricky times for composers," Thomas says, evoking the uncertainty unleashed by the recent economic turmoil. But she remains an optimist. "I feel like I should try my hardest to be a good citizen," she says, "to really reach out and raise money for other people's commissions, or sit on a board that will help a large group, or make a whole new music series and program everybody else's pieces but my own. I feel that if all composers devoted fifteen or twenty years to the profession, just to be good citizens, we would be in a better place."
The only way for audiences to assimilate new music, Thomas suggests, is to hear it and to hear it often. The OSU Contemporary Music Festival gives us that opportunity, not least because it offers us a unique opportunity to hear a wide range of works by a single, living composer: works for solo instruments, chamber and choral music, as well as large-scale orchestral works. In an ordinary concert setting, it is rare to hear more than one work by a single composer. Here, in the Augusta Read Thomas "sampler," we will hear seven pieces in one program. These are followed, over the course of the weekend, by two orchestral works, Alleluia and Prayer Bells, that have been coupled with two recognizable 20th century pieces (Poulenc's Gloria and Stravinsky's Firebird suite) that will help contextualize them. Needless to say, there are few opportunities in the Midwest or anywhere, for that matter to celebrate and absorb new music on such a scale and under such conducive conditions. For the last ten years, this Festival has faithfully been bringing the new to Ohio State, to Columbus, to the Midwest and, with premieres like Euterpe's Caprice, to the world giving us something we maybe didn't know we wanted but, once we have it, we can't do without.
© Jeremy Glazier, 2010
Jeremy Glazier is Assistant Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University, where he directs the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program. He is a poet whose works have appeared in The Paris Review, Antioch Review, Slice, and elsewhere, and he regularly contributes articles on contemporary classical music for La Tempestad, an international, interdisciplinary arts and culture magazine published in Mexico City. He has written on Brian Ferneyhough, Alvin Lucier, and Elliott Carter, and his music criticism was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2010. He can be reached at email@example.com
Thomas, Augusta Read. Telephone interview. 16 Feb. 2010. Unless otherwise noted, quotations attributed to Thomas are from this interview.