Sunday 26 July 2015

Improvising, sculpting, freezing - my encounter with Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas - photo Jason Smith
Augusta Read Thomas - photo Jason Smith
Now based in Chicago, the American composer Augusta Read Thomas has built up a strong and consistent body of work in her 30 years of composing, but so far has not the exposure in the UK and Europe which her finely crafted music would seem to deserve, though there have been a number of UK performances in recent years, including her violin concerto for Frank Peter Zimmerman at the Proms as well as a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra. I met up with her when she was recently in London, to talk about her music and her series of CD’s on the Nimbus Alliance label. She was in London for the premiere of her new Wigmore Hall commission, which was performed on Tuesday 7 July by soprano Claire Booth with the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Booth is a soprano with whom Augusta has worked before, and when I asked her how the premiere went she said that she felt fortunate to work with Claire Booth again, and was full of praise for the Aurora Orchestra, and Nicholas Collon. 

She describes her music as optimistic,
radiant, colourful, elegant, very personal, naked (no pretence), rhythmically animated

As a composer she is American but has been influenced by European composers. Her music does not sound immediately recognisable as belonging to a particular grouping. In fact she tells me she regards herself as a ‘nothing-ist’, going on to add that she feels you have to hear her music as her voice is her own style. This style has been developing over the 30 years of her composing career, and she talks about herself as a blender, merging all the different strands which come from her internal listening into a distinctive style. If you listen to her music, she feels that you can tell she has heard the work of a composer such as Boulez, but that it does not sound like Boulez. She is a composer who does not believe in pretence, and refers to her music as naked; music is her life and her life is music.

When I ask her to describe her music, she comes up with optimistic, radiant, colourful, elegant, very personal, naked (no pretence), rhythmically animated. The music is concise, she assumes you are listening and does not repeat herself in a work.

Reading the title of her compositions (see list on her website - ), I was struck by the fact that apart from the concertos, all the other pieces had rather distinctive titles. She splits these into two, but later admits the two areas do over lap. One is Spirituality and the other is Nature. Her sense of spirituality is non-specific, and her music is not dark but optimistic. At one point she talks about cosmic spirituality, which neatly overlaps with the nature theme in some of the works. All this might sound rather new-age-y but in person, Augusta gives an aura of highly personable practicality. Though her works might have intriguing titles, she says that she doesn’t write music about specific things, and that to programme it you have to listen to it.

Improvising, sculpting, freezing

The titles, concertos apart, give no hint of the form of the works and this is perhaps because of her distinctive attitude to form. She seems to have an instinctive dislike of external forms, and prefers the form of a piece to develop from the musical material. At various points in our discussion she talks about sculpting the material into a particular form. She likes a sense of improvisation in her music, but pairs this with musical material that is notated in a high degree of detail. This paradox can give rise to music which isn’t amorphous but can feel spontaneous and highly characterised. She wants the listener to feel that every 15 seconds she is sculpting the material, and she calls it well argued (in the platonic sense) yet with a sense that you do not know what is going to come next. The three words which crop up in describing the process are improvising, sculpting, freezing.

But she does start with a plan, creating messy maps which she processes and disregards. This is said with a smile, and it has to be admitted that what could be an intense and deep conversation about her very personal attitude to form is conducted with a great deal of charm and in a very relaxed manner. The whole process of creating a work his highly detailed, she is a careful, slow worker and she works for up to 16 hours a day. She needs to feel that a piece is as perfect as she can make it. She knows a piece is finished when she can sleep at night and stops obsessing about the details. The intensity of the detail means that going back and changing things is almost impossible, and that later changes are often little more than ‘sticking plaster’. When she first started composing she would have to go back and do major surgery on pieces, but she feels she has learned more about form as she progresses and not rarely, if ever, feels the need to do major re-constructive work on a finished piece.

The final image she gives of her music is a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle, where changing a single element can have repercussions in multiple directions. Altering just one thing, might cause the whole to unravel.

Creating a recorded legacy

There are around 55 to 60 CD’s out with something of Augusta’s on them, but for most she has little control of the recording or the process, though she feels incredibly blest to have such exposure. The series of CD’s of her work on Nimbus with five already released, a sixth ‘in the can’ and a seventh planned, are a way of creating a recorded legacy over which she exercises control. She wants to be able to document the work in the way she likes it. So when there is a good performance of her music she tries to ‘grab it’. The recordings on the discs are intended to be accurate documents of what she made, clear and well produced.

The most recently recorded is of recent work including music for string quartet and percussion quartet. The other discs are thematic, such as a disc of music for strings. Three works which she would love to get recorded are the Violin Concerto No. 3: Juggler in Paradise, Cello Concerto No. 3: Legend of the Phoenix and the ballet Helios Choros. These are large scale works, and represent what she calls ‘big chunks of consciousness.

Augusta was born in New York state and studied composition with Jacob Druckman at Yale University, Paul Patterson at the Royal Academy of Music and at Northwestern University. She has played the piano since she was tiny, and started the trumpet in third grade. In fact at college she was a trumpet performance major, though she did compose and sing in choirs. It was through playing that she got to composing and to listening to new music, but she remembers being taken with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy when she was eight.

Bach is a favourite composer, and she listens to some every day and feels that he can do so much in 3 minutes, his pieces are just the right length for the materials. Others include Debussy, William Byrd, late Haydn, late Beethoven, late Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, early Stravinsky, Oliver Knussen and she adds that there are so many more.

She would love to write a piece for big band

New work coming up includes a piano trio for a chamber music society in California and a big string quartet which will be a co-commission between three different quartets. Looking further ahead she would love to write a piece for bells and orchestra, she has a collection of bells from all over the world and wrote a piece, Resounding Earth, for bells and percussion quartet and she would like to do an orchestral version. Another work which is bubbling away is one for the unusual combination of four percussion players and four harps, there is no commission for this but she is hoping that it will appeal to someone. The combination of percussion with other instruments is clearly one that appeals to her as on July 25 at the Tanglewood Festival her octet for string quartet and percussion quartet, Selene, receives a second performance (it was premiered by the Jack Quartet and Third Coast Percussion in March this year).

For 30 years everything she wrote was to commission and she is now starting to do things for herself.

She would love to write a piece for big band. It would have to be fully notated, but then they would swing it in performance. The music would have the rhythmic elements and chords from jazz, but it would be Augusta Read Thomas and she says it might end up sounding like Varese crossed with Stravinsky. An intriguing prospect indeed.

I finish by asking her what music she would take on a desert island, and she says Bach or Byrd and one of her pieces, the one she was writing at the time.

This interview first appeared on

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