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Sonorous Earth (2017)

For percussion quartet playing bells from around the world (approximately 300 pieces of metal) and chamber orchestra

percussion quartet, Picc.2.2.2(2 dbl. bcl.).2/ perc./hp./strings
View score's detailed front-matter pages

First performance: Third Coast Percussion and The Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on 12 November 2017

Second performance: Third Coast Percussion and Eugene Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Francesco Lecce-Chong, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on 19 April 2018

Duration: 33 minutes in four movements. There is no pause between the third and fourth movements.

Movement 2, PRAYER, can be performed as a stand-alone composition which lasts 7’20”.

Co-commissioned by The Chicago Philharmonic Society and Eugene Symphony Association

Video from World Premiere is available for archival purposes only and for private viewing. If you would like to review the video please contact Augusta.


Conductor's Score and Orchestral Parts (Hire Only)
BUY SCORE (Study Score)

CD Available
Augusta Read Thomas: Bell Illuminations
Program Note

(Homage to Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky)
(Homage to Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez)
(Homage to Lou Harrison and György Ligeti)
(Homage to Edgard Varèse, Harry Partch and John Cage)

Sonorous Earth is conceived as a cultural statement celebrating interdependence and commonality across all cultures; and as a musical statement celebrating the extraordinary beauty and diversity of expression inherent in bell sounds.

Scored for four percussionists playing bells from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods, Sonorous Earth can be heard and imagined as a United-Nations-of-Resonances.

Everything that we are made of, everything that we know and love, is made from the stars.

We (like all metals) are stardust. Metals are exceptionally resonant sound sources, rich with vibrational possibilities. As such, artisans across time and earth have been inspired to sculpt metals into musical instruments. More than three hundred pieces of metal are incorporated into the instrumentation of Sonorous Earth.

Probing into bells' rich meanings and characteristics as carriers of history, ethnicity, societal and cultural connotations is a joy and wonder. Bells can be used to celebrate grand occasions, hold sacrificial rites, keep a record of events, give the correct time, celebrate births and weddings, mark funerals, caution a community, enhance any number of religious ceremonies, and are even hung around the necks of animals. As carriers of history and culture, bells, of numerous shapes, sizes, types, decorative patterns, weights, functions, and cultural connotations, enrapture and inspire. Bells are central to Augusta's music; bells permeate her music. For over 25 years, in every work for orchestra, and in many for smaller ensembles, she has been composing music frequently using percussion consisting of bell sounds (pitched metal percussion and all the mallet percussion instruments) many of which have their origins in other than Western musical cultures. As such, her new piece is an extreme extension of work she has been doing for decades.

The members of Third Coast Percussion shared these descriptions of the work’s four movements:

“The majestic and resonant INVOCATION unfolds with a bright energy that reveals the broad sonic palette that these bells provide as well as Augusta Read Thomas’s distinct compositional voice. Agile musical figures dart gracefully across a variety of bells and other resonant metals, suspended from racks and arranged on tables, as well as more standard metal keyboard percussion instruments: glockenspiel, vibraphone, and crotales. Inspired by the vibrations and callings of the bells, the orchestra responds sometimes with sympathetic accompaniment, sometimes with an intense drive of its own. Throughout the kaleidoscopic journey of this first movement (the longest of the four), twisting musical figures intertwine with a light playfulness, converging at moments of punctuation or emphatic unison."

“In the poetic and dreamy second movement, PRAYER, our quartet convenes around 26 tuned Rin (Japanese prayer bowls) and 12 crotales. The singing sonority of these meditative instruments is further enriched by the orchestra, which extends and transforms the resonance of the bells. This movement unfolds a web of long, silky sonic threads, meticulously crafted but giving the sense of floating freely outside of time. The two-note ‘fanfare’ figure, which appears in places throughout, adds a sparkle to the otherwise gentle glow of this movement."

“In contrast to the dramatic INVOCATION and meditative PRAYER, the third movement, MANTRA, has a wholly different sensibility imbued with the enchanting finesse of Indonesian Gamelan. Our distinctive color palette of 18 bronze spinning Burma Bells (Kyeezees), 8 gongs, and 10 Indian Noah bells, are answered with evocative orchestral colors including string pizzicati, harp harmonics, woodwind solos (with a sizable piccolo solo), radiant orchestral percussion, and sensitive brass playing. This ever-transforming movement starts very delicately and gradually crescendos from gentle plucked sounds to vibrant elaborations, which lead directly, without pause, into the final movement."

“Every bell on stage is struck in REVERIE CARILLON. We begin at the Burma Bells and work our way through all the previous playing positions in a purposeful choreography. Vivid, clangorous, brassy, and blazing, REVERIE CARILLON embraces a variety of intrepid and enthusiastic spirits while never losing its sense of whimsy and exuberance. The briefest of the four movements, it is continually fast-paced and dynamic."

“This work embodies everything that has made Augusta Read Thomas one of our favorite collaborators over the years: an ambitious enthusiasm, precise attention to detail, thoughtful sense of craft, and deep understanding of sonic colors. For us, this work represents a unique contribution to both the orchestral and percussion ensemble repertoire.”

Copyright © Third Coast Percussion

Augusta said:
"I treasure the opportunity to collaborate with the musicians in Third Coast Percussion because they are world-class virtuosi, visionary artists, and collegial, spectacular teammates. Involving a large battery of unique, ancient bells from around the world, our composition thus requires countless hours of refining nuances, colors, mallet choices, bell placements, and honing any number of other shadings, tunings, and gradations of the sound complexes. The musicians in Third Coast Percussion are ardent collaborators."

Third Coast Percussion said:
"Augusta is not only one of the most brilliant composers working today, she is also one of our favorite collaborators. Sonorous Earth will be the culmination of our years of friendship and close collaboration, with Augusta's singular musical voice breathing life into this rare and beautiful collection of instruments. We simply cannot wait to perform this new work."

Sonorous Earth is dedicated with admiration to The Chicago Philharmonic Society, The Eugene Symphony Association, and Third Coast Percussion.

— Augusta Read Thomas

Selected press and reviews

Bernard Hughes, The Arts Desk, London, November 5, 2022 "…Sonorous Earth, for bells and orchestra. Here the orchestral writing is colourful and subtle, the bells like a glittering decoration on top of the musical cake, …and the four players of Third Coast Percussion make a persuasive case for this unlikely kind-of-concerto."

M.L. Rantala, Classical Music Critic, Hyde Park Herald, April 19, 2022 The bells toll for thee: New music by Augusta Read Thomas
"The final work on the CD is the biggest. “Sonorous Earth” (clocking in at over 30 minutes) is scored for “bells from around the world (four players) and orchestra”. It is performed in this recording by Third Coast Percussion, and the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck. Thomas engages in various sounds created by metal and merges them marvelously into orchestral sounds that have been standard for centuries. It is music that melds traditional technique with new sounds and ideas. It is exciting to hear how she combines percussion and brass sounds, as well as percussion and winds. The sections that rely entirely on percussion are fascinating in themselves, at times almost like windup birds, at other times far more factory mechanical. And then the mechanical sounds evolve and become individual forces on their own.
This CD is an imaginative collection of music and all the more powerful that it captures so many sides of what might otherwise be called a simple bell-like tone."

“The quartet and orchestra operated as a single, expressively rhythmic unit."

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune A joyous affirmation of commonality across world cultures

"Although Sonorous Earth draws some of its musical materials and its movement titles from Resounding Earth (a 2012 piece for solo percussion Thomas wrote for the Third Coast group), so greatly has she expanded the concept and structure that it feels like an entirely new work. Here one encounters the tintinnabulations of the earlier piece in a different context. What once felt ritualistic and intimate now is big, bold and public — a joyous affirmation of commonality across world cultures.

Banging away at an exotic array of bells, gongs, chimes, Japanese singing bowls and what-have-you, the Third Coasters conjured an otherworldly carillon as their sounds — now crashing and clangorous, now delicate and shimmering — washed in waves over an orchestra that often mirrored the explosive energy of the four percussionists. Imagine myriad points of light, or multiple showers of shiny metallic objects, flashing across the cosmos, and you get a sense of what this arresting and evocative music sounds like.

Each Third Coast player — David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors — precisely timed his gestures to those of his colleagues and the responsive orchestra under artistic director Scott Speck. The audience awarded the composer and performers a clamorous ovation."

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review "Sonorous Earth" makes a heavenly noise with Third Coast Percussion, Chicago Philharmonic

"Often in works for strong solo ensemble and orchestra, the orchestra is simply a back-up band, offering little beyond rhythmic support for the ensemble in the spotlight. That was never the case with Sonorous Earth, but especially in the second movement the connection between the orchestra and Third Coast Percussion was seamlessly organic. At one point the percussionists sent forth a glowing, luminous chord that the orchestra picked up almost imperceptibly, with the winds and strings vastly expanding the chord’s radiant depth and breadth. In the jaunty third movement, the orchestra was a big-hearted playmate to the high-energy percussion. Like rambunctious boys, its burly brass and blustery double basses repeatedly darted in to interrupt the lighter, sprightly bells."

“The quartet and orchestra operated as a single, expressively rhythmic unit."

Louis Harris, Third Coast Review "Sonorous Earth selected as one of only two as the "best-of classical music" in 2017 by Third Coast Review."

Terry McQuilkin, For The Register-Guard in Eugene Oregon "A kaleidoscope of orchestral tone color."

"A musical Tower of Babel, as each bell’s resonance was eclipsed by the tintinnabulation of the next."

"The serene second movement…imparted a sense of timelessness, as the composer’s wordless poetry unfolded peacefully."

Debra Davy, Splash Magazines “Sonorous Earth” by Augusta Read Thomas Review- A premiere and concert with Third Coast Percussion and The Chicago Philharmonic

"INVOCATION called to mind the sound of zithers. It was a flourish literally cosmic in scope and sound effects, with isolated bright shimmering shapes. At times this dramatic movement seemed to stretch and then build upon itself, dying away and leaving traces in the air.
PRAYER found the members of Third Coast decisively selecting mallets and approaching the table of metal objects with a reverent deliberateness; they literally gently stirred the sound. This piece was cerebral, mystical, deliberately otherworldly and intellectual.
MANTRA ranged from delicate and intimate through lively and picturesque. The movements of Third Coast followed suit, as they seemed to pose and dance, with the Philharmonic providing a welter of complex cerebrally sensuous melody.
REVERIE CARILLON was played attacca, using all of the instrumentation of Third Coast Percussion. In their own words, they ”begin at the Burma Bells and work our way through all the previous playing positions in a purposeful choreography”. The movement is a triumphant and lyrically calibrated cacophony.”

Jane Recker, The Daily Northwestern “Consistently impressed by Third Coast Percussion's prowess for nuanced performance, deftly navigating the fine gradations of loudness and softness."


Photos by Elliot Mandel

To obtain examination or performance material for this
Augusta Read Thomas work, please contact Nimbus Music Publishing.