The Harris Theater will host the world premiere of a new work by Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas this Sunday, November 12. Sonorous Earth is a concerto for orchestra and percussion quartet that features over 300 bells and pieces of metal assembled from all over the world. It will be performed by 2017 Grammy Award winner Third Coast Percussion and the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck. (The program includes another contemporary work, Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman #5 for brass ensemble, plus Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C-Major, K. 551, Jupiter Symphony.)
Thomas is one of the leading lights in Chicago’s large and vibrant contemporary art music scene. She provided the initial inspiration and organizational leadership for last year’s Ear Taxi Festival, a six-day extravaganza that showcased Chicago’s remarkably vibrant, rich and deep contemporary classical music scene. (See preview interview.)
It’s now been a year since that profound event, and Thomas has not rested on her laurels. She was a leading advocate for the creation of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC), founded at the University of Chicago last March, which she now heads. She also continues her commitment to educate up-and-coming composers as a professor of composition at the University of Chicago.
Thomas travels extensively to teach, lecture and attend performances of her music. Recently, while she was attending a conference in Eugene, Oregon, we spoke via Skype for nearly an hour about Sonorous Earth and her overall approach to her art. We discussed several compositions from her new CD, Ritual Incantations, as well as the new CCCC, her work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Ear Taxi Festival. Our conversation ended with her assessment of the state of contemporary classical music today in our country.
Sonorous Earth is the latest in a long-running collaboration between Thomas and Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion, which commissioned and premiered Resounding Earth, her first composition for percussion quartet to feature the same 300 bells and pieces of metal. When asked what inspired her to compose such a piece, Thomas replied, “I’ve been interested in bell sounds for 25 years. In all of my orchestra works I use the bells, orchestral percussion, the crotales, the chimes, the glockenspiel, … triangles.” She recalled, “I had this idea seven or eight years ago: wouldn’t it be interesting if I just composed an entire piece for metals?—which would be a completely extreme idea, given you take away the strings, the winds, the brass, the membranes of the drums, you end up with metal. But it really actually felt right to me, in other words, to take this kind of obsession and take it all the way to the maximum.”
The outcome was certainly breathtaking, as Third Coast Percussion demonstrated in a performance last April at the Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park. It was written for and with the help of TCP. “I approached Third Coast Percussion, and asked, ‘would you guys like to go on this adventure with me, to do a piece made of metal?’ That’s where it started, and off we went.”
Sonorous Earth was initially conceived of as an orchestral version of Resounding Earth, but, as any artist will tell you, sometimes things don’t go as initially planned. “What ended up happening is, once I got into the project, which is now at least five years after the premiere of Resounding Earth, and I’m now having a full orchestra of colors,” she explained. “The original Resounding Earth kind of melted, and I ended up writing a new piece.”
She pointed to the second and third movements of Sonorous Earth as sharing similarities with Resounding Earth; there are other glimpses of the earlier work in various other places. However, she insisted, “The fourth movement of Sonorous Earth had nothing from Resounding Earth, not one note; it’s completely brand new. At least half of the first movement is completely brand new.” She made clear that, “I don’t want people to think I just took Resounding Earth and just threw an orchestral arrangement around it, which would have been interesting. But once you’re in a project, it’s kind of like taking a house that already exists and then move it to some new landscape, and then to add 26 rooms to it. By the time you add the 26 rooms, and you have a whole new landscape, a new sun pattern, new earth, and new rocks—the original house melts into this new house.”
Another new Thomas composition involving Third Coast Percussion is qì, scored for two marimbas played by a percussion quartet. Dedicated to TCP, it features wonderful interactions between the players and instruments and lasts only five minutes. It is also on her new CD, Ritual Incantations.
As a composer, Thomas is comfortable writing in many different styles for many instrumental combinations: classical and jazz; large orchestral works and chamber music; pieces for solo instruments and vocals. Her new CD demonstrates this dexterity. Klee Musings is a piano trio performed by members of Chicago’s Civitas Ensemble. Each of its three movements is based on a Paul Klee painting. Its long melodic lines were inspired by classical music great Johannes Brahms; its bebop rhythms were inspired by jazz pianist extraordinaire Thelonious Monk.
The word Thomas uses to describe her music is integral or integrated. “For instance, if I start with some material, let’s say it’s a chord, or a motif, or something like that, the pieces grow out from that, like it’s like a seed,” she thoughtfully explained. “The seed is planted and then from that, other things emerge, or evolve or transformed. I wouldn’t then later, just say, in bar 86, ‘Oh, I think I’ll just drop in some of this other material,’ because that other material wouldn’t be integrated into the entire concept. So I like to have a sense of integration with harmonic fields, of consequential ideas, transformations, … rhythmic syntaxes.”
Thomas draws from traditional classical composers such as “Bach, where everything is totally integrated, Mozart, who is completely integrated. Monteverdi, who is completely integrated, starts with something and he sticks with it, works the material out from it. He doesn’t just drop in something. Mahler’s works are big and wide reaching, but there is always a reason to his art, whatever movement or section he’s in, or the whole symphony.”
She also pointed to jazz improvisation techniques, where, “There’s a sense that musicians are integrating together, they’re listening to each other, they’re reacting back and forth to each other on the real events that truly are happening with each other at the moment. It’s not like, ‘oh, I’ll just start playing scales, or something.’” Summing up, she said, “This sense of integration is nothing new, in a way, it’s what music history has taught us.”
While Thomas’ work avoids traditional keys and tonalities, only rarely is it unsettling, and it often ends in an uplifting, positive space. She draws inspiration from basic human grace, “people who are generous and give back to society, and to their friends and family.” She reflected a moment and added, “Basically, humanity and grace inspire me, and a sense of understanding that every human being on this planet is truly valuable.”
A numinous consciousness is often close to the surface in Thomas’ music. “I think that there’s a deep spirituality in this universe,” she said, pausing, “There are many religions that point toward that in different ways, but essentially they’re all pointing toward this kind of deep profound sense of spirituality. There are different practices, different religious services, different texts, and so on and so forth. But, at the base of it is humanity seeking a kind of cosmic truth or God, or whatever you want to call it. And so, when people are really tuned in with that grace, the cosmic grace, that inspires me.”
One piece that demonstrates this, also on Ritual Incantations, is Chi for string quartet, a work commissioned by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet and the Rockefeller Chapel, where it received its premiere in the same concert where Third Coast Percussion performed Resounding Earth last April. The word “chi” refers to the ancient Chinese concept of a vital life force that pervades every living thing.
Chi’s four movements alternate between fast and slow. The opening movement, which takes the same name as the overall piece, features uplifting, vibrant lines that, with its use of pizzicato, seem to frolic. These are broken up by slow, moments of wonder. The second movement Aura is very soulful, with long notes forming colorful chords that end with a loud climax. In describing this movement, Thomas referred to French coloring reminiscent of Maurice Ravel. The third movement Meridians is racing, with fast moving phrases interspersed with moments of tension.
The quartet climaxes with the finale Chakras, a meditation that is supposed to be played from memory with eyes closed. Thomas described it “as a spiritual cleansing.” She noted that, “They’re just almost—I don’t want to say prayer, that might be too strong a word—but there’s definitely this sense that they’re all gravitating together, and they have to listen really deeply, and each note changes only by itself; nobody changes with anyone else. It has a sense that, when each note moves, when one person’s note moves, then the other person kind of reacts and their note moves.” Upon listening to it, one might think it is improvisational, “But it’s all notated. It’s not free,” she explained. “At the end of that movement after all of its rich harmonies that are held in, it just melts down to a wide-spaced perfect fifth—like it’s a really, really clean, ultra pure interval. And it’s just held and then fades back into elegant silence.”
Thomas also takes pride in a certain “precision of thought” in her music. “Sometimes the pieces end up being half an hour, sometimes they’re 20 minutes, sometimes they’re 18 minutes, sometimes they’re 14, but in every single case, in every single bar, there’s precision of thought. I’m not wandering around, padding it out with a bunch of junk. It is definitely like, what’s being said is being meant, and what is meant is said—and then it stops.”
In the case of Chi, she observed, “It’s short. But in that limited amount of time, there is so much in there. We have this sort of very fast past thing, then there’s a really warm-hearted second movement. Then you have this kind of jangly, bebop-like third movement, and then you have this really spacious, spiritual fourth movement. And all of that is in 13.5 minutes!” QI for percussion quartet is only 5 minutes.
Thomas pointed to the title work on Ritual Incantations, her second piece for cello and orchestra. “It’s an entire cello concerto in 13 minutes! It’s not that long, but it has all these different sections, and cadenzas, and slow music adagios.”
This recording of Ritual Incantations features David Finckel and the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Felix Chiu-Sen Chen. Finckel, a wonderful cellist who premiered the work, was a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet. He is now a co-director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “It was commissioned by the Aspen music festival, and David did a wonderful, really stunning world premiere and loved it,” she recalled. “After that, he commissioned another piece from me for solo cello, called Bells Ring Summer. He premiered the solo cello piece as well.”
Thomas has been part of the classical music scene in Chicago for almost 35 years. Born in New York City, the youngest of 10 children in a musical family, she studied composition with many notable instructors at various prestigious institutions around the world, but locally at Northwestern University from 1983 to 1987, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music in trumpet performance and composition.
From her first day at Northwestern, Thomas was attracted to Chicago. “When I first moved here in 1983, I loved Chicago,” she recalled. After graduating, she went to Harvard, Yale, the Royal Academy of Music in London, and other venues. She returned to become the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1996. “I’m devoted to the city. I try to be active in the community of artists that are here, in particular the musical artists. I think it’s a great city. It’s so optimistic, clean, beautiful Lake Michigan, nice people, great orchestra, great operas, great ensembles.” She was even complementary of O’Hare International Airport, through which her busy schedule takes her on a weekly basis.
Thomas welcomed the opportunity to be the CSO’s Composer-In-Residence, where she worked with Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez from 1997 through 2006, the longest tenure anyone has served in that capacity. After describing her complete enthusiasm and attention to the post, she fondly reminisced, “I had great experiences with Boulez, great experiences with Barenboim, great experiences with visiting composers, great experiences with the MusicNow series.” This last item is a series of contemporary music concerts that the CSO hosts every year. When she started with the CSO, she was a leading voice and trailblazer for the foundation of MusicNOW. The CSO also premiered several of her works.
Today Thomas is one of only five University Professors at the University of Chicago, only the 16th person and the first woman ever to hold that title. In addition to teaching and composing, she is the executive director of the new CCCC, an organization formed to advance the creation, performance, and study of new music. It will offer students postdoctoral fellowships, research opportunities, and graduate student-led projects. There will be a space for visiting composers and ensembles to perform, teach, record and collaborate through concerts and workshops. Starting in 2018, it will schedule new music concerts through of the university’s Contempo series and will incorporate the Chime Studio space for electronic music.
“The center is made of 10 component parts, and the parts are integrated,” Thomas explained. “Famous composers are being invited, but we also have a post-doc who could work with the famous composer. We also have an ensemble that they all can work for. It’s not just one part, but we built a center where all of the ten parts and all of the levels are there.”
Of course, our conversation touched on last year’s Ear Taxi Festival an event that still has lasting reverberations. “Due to the energy and effort of all the artists that were part of it, all the composers, it really made it clear out in the world that Chicago really is rocking with new art music in a way that can’t happen if we did a single concert here, or a single concert there. It does have repercussions.”
She gets many emails and submissions from people wanting to participate in the next one. However, that amazing six-day event required three years of intense preparation. When people approach her, “I have to explain to them that my whole position was that I could do it only once, and that it was a three-year ramp up to getting it done, etc, etc. … In retrospect, I was so exhausted from it, and it was very, very distracting for so many years.” A year later she’s very proud of it, although the whole experience left her completely spent.
Thomas lives downtown near Grant Park with her husband, Bernard Rands, who she met in 1988, first at the June in Buffalo, a contemporary music festival and conference, and later at the Aspen Music Festival. They were married in 1993. Originally from Britain, Rands is a noted Pulitzer-Prize winning composer in his own right, having, in a career spanning over 60 years, published two operas and many fine works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, voice, solo instruments and choral ensembles. “He’s a great composer, and he’s very well read. He’s read every book I can think of,” she said, adding, “He’s very articulate and well spoken, and he writes well. He has lots of knowledge from literature, as well as profound music knowledge.”
We talked about the state of classical music in general. In many ways, it seems to be strong: music schools have proliferated and are packed with students, the number of ensembles has grown, and there are many active composers. Yet, I noted that the audience seems to be aging and shrinking. There is very little to no presence on commercial American radio and other media. I asked how she addresses this challenge.
Her response was quick: “I think that if I had to give it in one word, it would be coragio! … Have courage, exclamation point, because, I really, really believe in this music.” She paused for a moment to reflect. “I spent my entire life making it myself. I’m an active composer, I work every day. I’m not like just somebody making concert programs as a presenter. I’m active in all the layers of the process, and I believe in this music and in the people who make it. And I also believe that, if you have a big vision, and if you do it really, really well, people will come to it.” She admitted, “I know that sounds blindly optimistic, but I really, really believe, fundamentally, there is not a problem. Music is progressing, music will continue to progress. It will find its audience, and it will blossom. In the bigger scheme of things, I’m 100% all-in that I believe that this is possible.”
Ultimately, Thomas recognized, “It’s just a question of how do we make this financially viable for everybody, so that the tickets are affordable, so that the artists can eat. … I do a lot to support it by trying to help fund it or find people who believe in it and help fund it.” She confessed that she doesn’t have the answer. “The whole question would take two books to explain, it is so complicated, the economics of it. I wouldn’t purport to know all of the answers to that, but I’m an optimist.”
I also related to her a recent conversation I had with a musician friend of mine who expressed concern about the omnipresence of atonality in contemporary music, a general aversion to traditional keys and tonality. “It’s not very tolerable to anybody who is not a musician,” he said.
She thought for a moment before answering. “It’s interesting. When you analyze the work of Bach, just for dissonance, there’s more dissonance in Bach than anyone else is talking about.” Referring to the conference she was attending, she said, “Here in Eugene, Oregon, right now, they’re playing a piece of mine called Aureole for the orchestra, they’re also doing Tchaikovsky [Symphony no.] 4. The sturm and drang, and the emotional ups and downs, and the kind of strident use of dissonant chords to paint a picture in Tchaikovsky 4 is way more than in my piece, if you actually analyzed it. Somtimes people don’t realize that Bach is full of sturm and drang.”
I then noted that those more traditional composers start with tonality, end in tonality, and modulate into fairly familiar related keys in between. A lot of modern music doesn’t do that. It is not hummable, as someone might say. To which she responded: “Not all music is everything. It’s hard to hum Beethoven, sometimes. It’s familiarity. People have to familiarize themselves and then things become clearer. If you just drop into one new piece out of the blue, it will sound modern and dissonant.”
As one would expect, a busy composer like Augusta Read Thomas has several other ongoing projects. Within a month following the world premiere of Sonorous Earth, two additional works will receive world premieres. Only six days later Joel Fan will be performing a new work for solo piano, Two Thoughts about the Piano, at the Open Source Music Festival in New York City. Back in Chicago on December 1, soprano Jessica Aszodi, accompanied by violinists Qing Yu and Ni Mei, violist WeiJing Wang, and cellist Ken Olsen—all members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—will perform the world premiere of Plea for Peace, a vocalise for soprano and string quartet at Mandel Hall in Hyde Park. She has been commissioned by a consortium of opera companies, led by the Santa Fe Opera and San Francisco Opera, to compose a new work to be performed in Santa Fe in November 2019.
Sonorous Earth will be performed by the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck, and Third Coast Percussion, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Sunday, November 12, at 3pm. Tickets are $10-$75. The new CD by Augusta Read Thomas Ritual Incantations, can be purchased at Amazon.com.