An interview with composer Augusta Read Thomas, whose new disc “The Auditions” is out now on Nimbus Records
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Composing and spending my life working in and with music is a natural extension of who I am at the core. As such, I never explicitly decided to “pursue a career.” Rather, my “life” is the same as my “career.” I love music, am passionate about and devoted to sculpting sound. I composer music to express gratitude.
What were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Music, nature, and poetry leap to mind. Music of all kinds inspires me every hour of the day. Nature is a spectacular composition teacher. About poetry: in a poem, a dash, colon, comma, line break or a stanza break can totally shape or, when changed, reshape the meaning of the poem. If you change the order of two words, purposely interrupt a rhyme-scheme, create or remove a pause, or change the voice of the speaker, the meaning can be transformed. A micro move in a poem can have macro consequences. the same can be true in music and nature.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I wish there were more than 24 hours in a day! So much work to do composing, teaching, supporting the work of others, making recordings, traveling, attending concerts and residencies, organizing and running festivals, directing The Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago, volunteering on many Boards of Trustees…and, alas, so little time!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
For every artist, in whatever area of creative endeavour, the receipt of a commission stirs the life force. Commissioning new art is a leap-of-faith! The commissioner does not know what they will receive. I feel profoundly fortunate for each commissioner’s investments in my life’s-work. I cherish the collaboration with each and every musician and always look forward to devoting my strongest, focused efforts to sculpting a new composition.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I believe music feeds our souls. Unbreakable is the power of art to build community. Humanity has and will always work together to further music’s flexible, diverse capacity and innate power. The magnificence and energy of musical resources: soloists, chamber ensembles, choir, orchestra…is humbling and inspiring. I cherish working with solidarity and teamwork with all musicians. Musicians have given me much happiness and taught me a great deal about music and life.
Of which works are you most proud?
At age four, I started playing piano and composing tiny little, trivial fragments of music. In third grade, I took up the trumpet and played for 14 years, attending Northwestern University as a trumpet performance major, playing in brass quintet, chamber orchestra, orchestra, band, Jazz band, and I sang in choirs for many years. Throughout all of my childhood and young adulthood, in addition to playing music, I was also composing music. Since the age of about 15, I have been heavily focused on composing music, which means that I have been composing with passion for 40 years! For this reason, it is impossible for me to pick out a few works of which I am most proud.
Rather, I think of my life’s work as an integrated body of compositions which have a “voice” and yet are varied in terms of genre, duration, instrumentation, and so forth. My catalogue is comprised of works that, to me, feel chain-linked together and which offer a gestalt, labyrinth or web of sonic creativity. I have many works for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles of varied instrumentations, as well as works for band and wind ensemble, solos, opera, works for dance…It is literally impossible for me to compare works across categories, genres, decades or to pick one over the other.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled – on the spot. As if we listeners are overhearing a captured improvisation. My music, which is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, should be played so that the inner life of the different rhythmic, timbral and pitch syntaxes are made explicit and are then organically allied to one another with characterized phrasing of rhythm, colour, harmony, counterpoint, tempo, keeping it alive — continuously sounding spontaneous. All of this, hopefully, working toward the fundamental goal: to compose a work in which every musical parameter is allied in one holistic gestalt.
If you had to make one programme note for your whole life’s work, what would it be?
Words that leap to mind for such a program note include polished, nuanced, intricately notated, captured sound sculptures that always spark and catch fire as spontaneous and capricious improvisations…natural impulse, mobile, flexible, sonorous, resonant, intentional, interlaced, braided, woven, circuit, networks…
How do you work?
I’d like to reply with a graphic and a description:
Gestalt Web is one of a series of composition lesson illustrations graphically depicting a creative process in composing music with implications for other areas of imaginative thinking.
The illustration is playful, accessible, unique, sincere, and optimistic. To follow the purple line, starting from the bottom left, moving upward and then swirling through the image is to follow Augusta’s thinking about an integrated creative process. Staring with sound and ending with yellow dots of sound that climb right off the top of the page, it is as if this process creates sounds (or other things) that are able to go on forever. The yellow dots also lead to – or perhaps start from a place of silence – as seen toward the bottom of the page. The portrayal, at once whimsical and insightful, signposts that an imaginative creator passes through progressive stages: DREAM, EXPERIMENT, BUILDING MATERIALS, CREATING INTENTIONAL ORGANIC CRAFT, which lead to a GESTALT WEB where myriad parameters of music are holistically interdependent. This artwork suggests that, through such a journey, one has an opportunity to create works of NUANCE, DETAIL, PERSONALITY, CHARACTER, SOUL, and INTEGRITY.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
The list is vast so for the purposes of this answer, I will focus in on two examples. I consider JS Bach to be my most important teacher. His music underpins every day of my life. I love his music for far too many reasons to list, but for starters… its magic, sublime beauty, invention, craft, clarity, intensity, elegance, concision, perfection, technical mastery, form, flow, integration, magnetism, humanity, spirituality, empathy, power, civility and grace. Every day, when listening to Bach, I sing along whether listening to The Well-Tempered Clavier , a Brandenburg Concerto, Sonatas and partitas for solo violin, a cantata, or the Goldberg Variations.
For me, Bach’s music will always be contemporary because it is timeless – it sounds ‘fresh’ and vivid in any context or epoch.
In addition, it is clear, in all my compositions, that I have been listening to jazz for 45 years. I am not a composer of ‘crossover’ jazz pieces; rather, there is a deeply integrated and digested sense related to jazz harmonies, flexibility, spontaneity and flow.
The collaborations between Miles Davis and John Coltrane are chamber music of the highest order. They were able to link into the same sonic and spiritual wavelength as if they could hear and think, in advance, about what the other player was about to do. As well as being superb duo partners, they created iconic solos.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Success is integrity, honesty, individual voice, character, soul, generosity, passion, enthusiasm, love, and grace.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Concepts that leap to mind include:
Be true to yourself and your art; honesty, integrity, work hard, support others, listen to a vast amount of diverse music; be self-critical and always aiming to improve; allow your imagination to flourish; hone your technical craft; approach life with an open heart.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Alive and composing.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Humanity at peace with one another: all humans supporting one another in a globally interdependent, positive, communicative gestalt.
What is your most treasured possession?
My integrity and generosity toward others.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Composing music and supporting musicians and composers.
What is your present state of mind?
Augusta Read Thomas’ new disc “The Auditions” is out now on Nimbus Records
The music of Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964 in New York) is nuanced, majestic, elegant, capricious, lyrical, and colorful — “it is boldly considered music that celebrates the sound of the instruments and reaffirms the vitality of orchestral music” (Philadelphia Inquirer).
A composer featured on a Grammy winning CD by Chanticleer and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Thomas’ impressive body of works “embodies unbridled passion and fierce poetry” (American Academy of Arts and Letters). The New Yorker magazine called her “a true virtuoso composer.” Championed by such luminaries as Barenboim, Rostropovich, Boulez, Eschenbach, Salonen, Maazel, Ozawa, and Knussen, she rose early to the top of her profession. The American Academy of Arts and Letters described Thomas as “one of the most recognizable and widely loved figures in American Music.”