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Absolute Ocean (2008)

for solo soprano, harp obbligato, and orchestra
Texts by E. E. Cummings

Pairs perfectly with Mahler’s 4th Symphony and was, in fact, commissioned to be paired with Mahler 4.

solo soprano, solo harp, pic., fl., alto fl.1+EH.1+bcl.1/[4perc]/pno./cel/str
[An alternate version exists for solo mezzo-soprano, harp obbligato, and orchestra. It is identical the original, merely transposed down a minor third. Slight re-orchestrations were made by the composer to accommodate the downward transposition.] The versions score and parts are not “mix and match". Please order from the publisher either the soprano version or the mezzo-soprano version.

First performance by Twyla Robinson (solo soprano) and Paula Page (solo harp), Hans Graf, conductor, the Houston Symphony, in Houston, Texas, on 22 January 2009

First performance of the Mezzo soprano version by MSgt Sara Sheffield (mezzo soprano) and by 1st Lt. Darren Y. Lin, conductor, the “The President's Own" United States Marine Chamber Orchestra, in Washington, D.C. 21 May, 2023
Duration: 18 minutes


Dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Hans Graf, Paula Page, Twyla Robinson, and to Augusta’s sister Elly Thomas and her wife Cynthia O’Neill.

Live Unedited Concert - Mov. 1: the moon is hiding in her hair.

Live Unedited Concert - Mov. 2: who knows if the moon’s a balloon.

CD Available
Portrait of Augusta Read Thomas

This work is available on


Absolute Ocean runs from 3:24-4:28


Three poems by E. E. Cummings
Used with permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 1923, 1925, 1944, 1951, 1953, 1963, 1972, 1991
by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust
Copyright 1976 by George James Firmage.


the moon is hiding in
her hair.
of heaven
full of all dreams,
draws down.

cover her briefness in singing
close her with the intricate faint birds
by daisies and twilights
Deepen her,

upon her
the rain's

pearls singly-whispering.

     who knows if the moon's
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky--filled with pretty people?
(and if you and i should

get into it, if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
why then
we'd go up higher with all the pretty people

than houses and steeples and clouds:
go sailing
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody's ever visited, where

Spring)and everyone's
in love and flowers pick themselves

(Harp solo interlude)

open your heart:
i'll give you a treasure
of tiniest world
a piece of forever with

summitless younger than
angels are mountains
rivery forests
towerful towns (queen

sprout heroes of moonstar
flutter to and
swim blossoms of person) through

musical shadows while hunted
by daemons
see the luminous
leopards (on wingfeet of thingfear)

come ships go
snowily sailing
perfect silence.
Absolute ocean

Selected Reviews

Michael Cameron, Chicago Classical Review “Soprano Emily Birsan joined Kirov and the IPO for a finely calibrated and thoughtfully conceived performance of Augusta Read Thomas’s Absolute Ocean.”

“The composer’s own masterful way with an orchestra sets up an interesting contemporary parallel to the Viennese master’s music.”

“Thomas knows the potential perils of balance in such a work, but no matter how intricate the orchestral fabric, there was always space for the vocalist to be clearly heard. Birsan inhabited the difficult score with seeming ease, boasting warmth and urgency in her middle range and a gleaming clarity in her high register.”

“While predominantly a dense and complex score, Absolute Ocean opens with a gesture of utter simplicity in the first movement (“The Moon is Hiding in her Hair”), with unisons from the soprano, harp and sustained strings before gradually introducing additional colors, most notably from the percussion section. “Who Knows if the Moon’s a Balloon” is a scherzo of sorts, a brilliant and athletic tour-de-force. The voice essentially becomes an instrument in a rollicking, pointillistic romp, often with a single, disjunct line tossed around between participants.”

“The third movement Interlude is relatively brief, with an extended harp solo masterfully played by Joanne Glover. The finale (“Open Your Heart”) conjures a palpable sense of urgency, using recollections of ideas from earlier movements. Kudos to both Kirov and Birsan for their vivid and impeccable performance.”


Everett Evans, Houston Chronicle Houston Symphony at Jones Hall

"Witty and original..."

"In setting three Cummings poems as Absolute Ocean for Soprano, Harp and Orchestra, composer Augusta Read Thomas has created a contemporary classical work with its share of piquant charm, engaging aural effects and. . . The new concerto was given its world premiere Thursday night by the Houston Symphony, led by music director Hans Graf. Its successful launch showcased the exacting musicianship of Paula Page, the orchestra's principal harpist, and guest artist Twyla Robinson, who brought her creamy soprano to Thomas's settings of Cummings."

"A particularly effective aspect of the work was Thomas' arrangement of orchestral forces: streamlined string and brass sections; a percussion section stressing tinkling and chiming instruments (no drums); and eight different woodwinds, including a few less standard ones (bass clarinet) with no doubling of the usual suspects."

"The result was an interesting blend of orchestral colors that enhanced and supported the solo roles and never overwhelmed the poems."

"the moon is hiding in her hair carried an air of gentle mystery. who knows if the moon's a balloon was the liveliest of the trio, characterized by an emphatic staccato attack in vocal and instrumental lines. The closing piece, open your heart, registered as the most expressive of the three, culminating in the titular phrase: "come ships go/snowily sailing/perfect silent/Absolute ocean."


Olin Chism, PBS affiliate KERA Public Television and Radio Houston Symphony Spotlights Harp

"In Houston, the HSO presented the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas' Absolute Ocean for soprano, harp and orchestra. HSO principal Paula Page was the harpist."

"Based on poetry by E.E. Cummings, Absolute Ocean is an appealing work in which two lyrical and atmospheric outer movements enclose a lively, rhythmically jerky section that forms a playful center. Soprano Twyla Robinson sang the poetry with a pleasing tone and clear enunciation. Page had a lovely turn in an interlude for harp and orchestra connecting the second and third movements. This work would be worth repeated hearings."


David J. Baker, New Haven Register "A harp, at center stage for once, asserted itself almost without interruption, no longer the back-up strummer. There was a singer, soprano Tony Arnold, while some usual supporting players — the percussionists plus piano and celesta — became frontliners...performing a 21st-century work, called Absolute Ocean, by the orchestra's composer in residence, Augusta Read Thomas."

"Thomas' music works at spinning atmosphere — two exercises in smooth, floating vocal lines with liquid instrumental effects, contrasting with two sections hammered with restless staccato figures."

"The beauty of soprano Arnold's singing, and the energetic work of harpist Jennifer Hoult, gave focus and charm to the playful work."


Houston Symphony

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