Return to Orchestral Works
Return to Works

Orbital Beacons (1998)

For orchestra (reseated — see Composer's note below)

4443/5431/4 perc./2 harp/strings
Commissioned by the Louise Durham Mead New Music Fund, and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez conducting, on 27 November 1998
Duration: 27 minutes



Live concert audio recording from World Premiere is available for archival purposes only and for private listening. If you would like to review the recording please Contact Augusta Read Thomas.

Program Note

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Augusta Read Thomas began Orbital Beacons in June 1997, on a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and finished the score in August of [1998]. The work is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, four oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, five horns, three trumpets and piccolo trumpet, two trombones and bass trombones, tuba, two harps, percussion (xylophone, vibraphone, suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, tom-toms, triangles, timbales, claves, button gongs, marimba, bass marimba, glockenspiel, tubular chimes, wood blocks, tam-tams, crotales, bongo drums, bass drum, cowbells), and strings. Performance time is approximately twenty-eight minutes.

Pierre Boulez and Augusta Read Thomas

The Chicago Symphony gave the world premiere performances of Thomas's ...words of the sea... on subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall on December 12, 13, 14, and 17, 1996, with Pierre Boulez conducting.

Shortly after she finished Orbital Beacons, her new work for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Augusta Read Thomas discovered these words by Seneca, the first-century Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman:

"The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject . . . And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them . . . Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate . . . Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all."

In its concern with both the timely and the timeless — and with its juxtaposition of the everyday with the cosmic — this passage from Seneca's Natural Questions makes an ideal counterpart to Thomas's score. Composed just before the turn of the millennium, Orbital Beacons contemplates the same vast sky that has preoccupied people for centuries, yet it is, at the same time, an unmistakably forward-looking work of art. Thomas is, to borrow Seneca's word, one of today's leading investigators of the musical universe.

The youngest of ten children, Thomas began to write music when she was six years old. She eventually studied with Alan Stout and William Karlins at Northwestern University, with Jacob Druckman at Yale University, and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She has received prizes, awards, and fellowships from many organizations, including the Guggenheim (she was the youngest woman recipient ever), Naumburg, Rockefeller, and Fromm foundations; the National Endowment for the Arts; and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. A musician of great curiosity and many interests, and a teacher of exceptional dedication (she once taught in the women's prison in Albion, New York), she currently is a member of the composition faculty at the Eastman School of Music.

Orbital Beacons is the latest in a series of works to which Thomas has given powerful and inviting titles (and like several others, it suggests a fascination with light — Glow in the Light Darkness, Moon and Light, Nights Midsummer Blaze). "I always have a very strong visceral image first," Thomas says, "and it may manifest itself in a title." In the case of Orbital Beacons, in fact, the title came first. Even so, as the piece evolved, she considered changing it to Rotating Bonfires, a strong and suggestive — but also more confining — image. (She also feared that the word bonfire sounded too destructive for such a gentle work.) Then she contemplated Concerto for Orchestra — which perfectly suits the nature of this music, with its highlighting of various groups of instruments within the larger ensemble — and in the end decided that this simple generic term would in fact make an ideal subtitle to Orbital Beacons. (In a similar way, Gustav Holst's The Planets, the best-known piece of music about the universe, originally was titled Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra and was later published as The Planets, Suite for Large Orchestra.)

The idea for Orbital Beacons goes back many years to Thomas's desire to write something for an orchestra that was reseated on the stage, liberating its standard "families" — or sections — of instruments. But after a year of solid work, she put that piece aside. Then, in 1996, following Pierre Boulez's Chicago Symphony performances of her . . . words of the sea . . . , Henry Fogel asked Thomas if she had written anything else the orchestra might play. She immediately offered her "reseated orchestra" piece, and then soon decided that she wanted to write something entirely new, but based on the same concept. As it turned out, Orbital Beacons, the work she eventually composed on a commission from the Chicago Symphony, shares not a single measure with the original score (and, in fact, reconfigures the orchestra quite differently).

Orbital Beacons first took shape as a large, one-movement work that, in time, splintered into seven movements, and finally, after considerable pruning, settled into six. (Similarly, . . . words of the sea . . . started as five movements and ended up as four — the mark of a serious self-editor.) Orbital Beacons explores the idea of music ideally suited to a series of small chamber groups that sit together in semicircles around the conductor. As Thomas explains,

"The title makes illusion to rotating beams of light, implying a variety of acoustic constellations that orbit and glow. A constellation may be made up of a soloist, a small chamber ensemble, a chamber orchestra, or even the full orchestra. Their patterns, cycles, and groupings are constantly shifting, weaving a web of new sounds which move through the orchestra, transforming as they melt into the background or emerge into the foreground. Spatial and antiphonal effects are used in a bold, obvious manner as well as in veiled, subtle ways."

In Thomas's reconfigured orchestra, in addition to the two semicircles of players, four distinct groups of strings radiate outward, with rows of winds, brass, and percussion lining the back of the stage. (Thomas provides certain options to suit different performing spaces that do not disturb her essential floor plan.) As Orbital Beacons progresses, all of the orchestra's principal players are featured. (In the first movement, for example, she writes solos for oboe, cello, violin, and piccolo trumpet.)

Each of the six movements is named for a constellation, and each has its own personality — a distinctive color and sonority, and its own set of soloists. The first impression is one of clear individuality. Yet, as Thomas points out, "as one listens, it becomes unmistakable that the six movements are in essence constellations in one larger universe and very much interdependent."

Here are Thomas's brief guides to the constellations in Orbital Beacons:

Aquila represents a mythological eagle sent by Jupiter to collect a shepherd boy, Ganymede, who was to become cup bearer to the gods.

Lyra represents the harp which Apollo gave to the great musician Orpheus.

Eridanus mythologically represents the Po River, into which the reckless youth Phaeton fell when he was driving the Sun chariot and was struck down by a thunderbolt.

Cygnus, one of the most splendid of all constellations, is said to represent the swan in the form of which Jupiter once visited the wife of the king of Sparta.

Coma Berenices: When Ptolemy Euergetes, king of Egypt, set out on an expedition again Assyria, his wife Berenice vowed that when he returned safely she would cut off her lovely hair and place it in the temple of Venus. Ptolemy returned; Berenice kept her vow, and subsequently the golden tresses were placed in the sky.

Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia; Cassiopeia was unwise enough to boast that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs and thereby caused very grave offense to the sea king, Neptune, who sent a monster to ravage Cepheus's kingdom. To placate the wrathful god, Andromeda was chained to a rock on the seashore to be devoured by the monster, but was rescued by the hero Perseus at the eleventh hour.

Five of the illustrations of the six constellations represented in Orbital Beacons are reproductions of ceiling frescos in the Villa Farnese, in Caprarola, Italy, painted in 1575.

— Philip Huscher

Sketch Available

To purchase a sketch of Orbital Beacons, please visit the Online Store.

Orbital Beacons sketch
A note from the Composer about re-seating orchestras

The notion that there could or should be one comprehensive or "authoritative" format for orchestral seating is clearly contradicted by the practice of current world-class orchestras. The differences between their respective seating arrangements is in keeping with a part of music's history. Each configuration is intended to serve the repertoire appropriately, according to the music's own dictates, the acoustic properties of the performance space, and the interpretive preferences of music directors — for example, Stokowski was constantly reseating the Philadelphia Orchestra to better serve and explore the composer's intent.

Though the seating arrangement in Orbital Beacons is radical, it stems from an artistic concern to engage the collective virtuosity of an orchestra in ways which are different from the standard division into conventional "family" sections: woodwind, brass, strings, and percussion, etc.

When I was quite young, the conductor of my youth orchestra would have us play through a movement of a Beethoven Symphony in a "standard" seating. Then, after we traded places with an instrumentalist from another section (i.e. the seating arrangement became scrambled), we would rehearse it again. Suddenly, as a trumpet player, I would be sitting next to viola, flute, and timpani players. This experience allowed me to hear an orchestra differently, and Beethoven's music from another perspective.

In the past 15 years, I have composed a great deal of music for orchestra and continue to refine my thinking and hearing with each new score. What emerges at this stage of my artistic development is Orbital Beacons, a work which re-seats the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, allowing small chamber groupings of musicians to sit together in semi-circles around the conductor. This seating arrangement enhances both sonic and structural features because, by distinguishing and separating the instrumental groupings, one can more readily follow their musical transformations.

The title Orbital Beacons makes allusion to rotating beams of light, implying a variety of acoustic constellations that orbit and glow. A constellation may be made up of a soloist, a small chamber ensemble,  a chamber-orchestra or even the full orchestra. Their patterns, cycles, and groupings are constantly shifting, weaving a web of new sounds which move through the orchestra, transforming as they melt into the background or emerge into the foreground. Spatial and antiphonal effects are used in a bold, obvious manner as well as in veiled, subtle ways.

Orbital Beacons features all of the CSO principal players. In Movement One, solos from oboist Alex Klein, cellist John Sharp, violinist Samuel Magad and piccolo trumpet player, Mark Ridenour are prominent. In movement Two you will hear solos for the principal harp, played by Sarah Bullen, and contra-bass clarinetist John Bruce Yeh.

The orchestra as a phenomenon is relatively young and abounding with acoustic possibilities. Composers around the world are bursting with imaginative, musical ideas and audiences are hungry and curious for new sounds. Together, composers, orchestras and audiences are finding new galaxies of sonic possibility. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a leader, a beacon, for the future of music and I am ever grateful for the chance they have given to me to share my composition with you in November.

— Augusta Read Thomas


Conductor Pierre Boulez
Thoughts about Orbital Beacons, for Orchestra
By Leslie Dunton-Downer, Librettist to Augusta Read Thomas

The Music of composer Augusta Read Thomas generously nourishes audiences with strong emotion, selfless spirituality, and intense intellect in a world where we are all too often expected to be satisfied with far less.

In Orbital Beacons, a new symphonic work commissioned by Cindy Sargent and her sister Sally Hands, Augusta Read Thomas has reconfigured the traditional orchestral seating arrangement, involving the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a new kind of collective expression. As ever, Thomas remains rigorous in her elegance and urgently questing in her passionate plea for human engagement with higher realms of thought and feeling. But with Orbital Beacons, her fresh combinations of rootedness and innovation, reflection and exuberance, as well as seduction and searching have found an impeccably integrated voice.

It is perhaps entirely appropriate that this work punctuates the close of a rich musical millennium. Orbital Beacons at once travels back to the medieval world in which music, astrology, and philosophy were complementary facets of a beautifully integrated cosmos and, at the same time, careens daringly forward into a new era of thrilling uncertainty and promise. If Orbital Beacons captures what we have to look forward to, one suspects that this coming era will be one in which new art music, rather than being exclusively taken up with our fractured condition, rediscovers the ability it once had to fill and complete us.

The shape of the orchestra has been transformed so that two semi-circles of mixed string, wind, and brass instruments envelop the conductor. These are configured to feature soloists alternately playful and brazen, chamber groupings that may collaborate or assert independence, as well as varying degrees of full-symphonic (tutti) participation. Radiating out from these two semi-circles are four distinct groupings of strings nesting two harps; woodwind, brass, and percussion fan out across the back of the stage.

Indeed, the entire work is about constellations in many senses of the word. "Constellation" comes from the Latin for 'stella', or star, and signifies a grouping of stars. On the most concrete level, the orchestra has been regrouped into new constellations of instruments, each of which can be heard as a sound-star in its own right. By repositioning these independent stars, Thomas is able to give the orchestra a new set of acoustic patterns. While the instruments remain fixed in their position on the stage, their acoustic constellations are shifting and rotating throughout the work. We may gaze dreamily at a single constellation, or take in the whole marvelous mix of dazzling shapes, only to find ourselves suddenly delighted by a comet's blaze or enchanted by the nearly invisible pulsing of an expired star whose light still graces us.

On close technical examination, the score reveals its meditation on precise astrophysical concepts of centrifugal force, integration, spherical motion, and spatial degrees. These themes do not function ornamentally, but rather come to describe a legitimate picture of independent objects (such as stars, instruments, or human beings) and their meaning among or in unison with other objects. Furthermore, pillar-chords used in the work provide a basis for each of the musical constellations. For example, at the center of all chords are two major thirds (F-A and A-C#). These intervals form an augmented chord. Symmetrical, the augmented chord is able to resolve in many different  ways. It is ideally suited to pose us an enigma, as if asking us "Where do you think I will go next? How do you think I will resolve?" This effect pulls us into the adventures of the constellations as they transform themselves and us.

Each of the six movements in Orbital Beacons is named after a constellation (Aquila, and Lyra, for example) and each puts us in the perfume of that constellation's mythological creation. Each has a vital individuality of its own, a distinct color, sound, and profile. Each features different CSO soloists. The argument for individuality, however, is no stronger than that for connectedness. In Augusta's words: "One of the things I like most about the score is that, as one listens, it becomes unmistakable that the six movements are in essence constellations in one larger universe and very much interdependent."

Orbital Beacons, inviting us to hear our ways into the 21st century, presents us with a new map of the independent object within a collective frame: we find ourselves in an ever-changing, integrated totality after all, and that total cosmos is not unlike the night sky of one thousand years ago: meaningful, magical, precarious, but ultimately sound.

by Leslie-Dunton-Downer


MOVEMENT I: Aquila: 3 minutes, 45 seconds duration
MOVEMENT II: Lyra: 3 minutes, 30 seconds duration
MOVEMENT III: Eridanus: 3 minutes duration
MOVEMENT IV: Cygnus: 3 minutes, 45 seconds duration
MOVEMENT V: Coma Berenices: 5 minutes, 30 seconds duration
MOVEMENT VI: Andromeda: 6 minutes duration

Selected Reviews

Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe "Augusta Read Thomas composed her Orbital Beacons for Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony, a circumstance compelling ambition, a quality never in short supply with this composer. The striking acoustical result of an ingenious reseating of the orchestra was to create revolving orbits of sound, or something like the sweeping of a lighthouse beacon around the orchestra. Each of the seven movements is a response to a different starry constellation and the mythology behind it. One was struck, as always, by the composer's imaginative ear and her virtuoso skills."

To obtain examination or performance material for any of
Augusta Read Thomas's works, please contact G. Schirmer Inc..