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Interview with Augusta Read Thomas
By Jennifer Kelly
June 30, 2010

Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964)
Interview at her home in Becket, Massachusetts, June 30, 2010

JK: Being so busy, how do you balance the work and non-work parts of your life?

ART: They’re the same. I can’t separate my life from my life. It’s all the identical integrated, holistic existence.

JK: You must love what you do.

ART: I do. It’s fun! It’s hard - very hard. But for instance, if we have family coming for a picnic, I’m not going to be at the piano. I’m going to be laughing, cooking and eating. That could seem like I’m outside of or away from the music but I’m not. I’m going to be thinking about music, carrying it in my ears.

JK: Your husband [Bernard Rands] is also a well-respected composer. Do the two of you have a sense of competition among composers?

ART: I don’t feel competitive with anybody in the world.

JK: That’s a nice place to be. Have you always felt that way?

ART: Well, I’m competitive with myself. Like all artists, I want to improve and make my pieces better - more refined -more elegant - more nuanced. To satisfy my own ears is demanding enough. I don’t think the arts are competitive in the purest sense.  Monteverdi was fabulous, Mahler was spectacular, Ella Fitzgerald was a genius. They’re all A+ superstars none of whom does anything similar to another. History has shown us that there are a lot of brilliant ways to make and shape sounds. Vision, craft and excellence are key.  Both Bernard and I want to create elegant pieces while hoping to be in good health with physical strength to compose.

JK: When you sit on the boards, judge a competition, or program festivals, when you look at new music how do you choose what is programmed?

ART: There’s a side of me that’s a 21st century musicologist because I listen to lots of current music and tend to know about what’s being written. James Levine asked me to curate the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood for the summer of 2009; I founded, and curated for nine years, the Music Now Series at the Chicago Symphony. I listen daily, always seeking excellence, asking: is the piece superlative on its own terms? The sounds could be of any style, syntax, language, duration or genre. I ask myself: is it excellent at what it set out to achieve and mean? I like to put great music on concert menus where diverse compositions start talking to one another such that there are far-reaching, interesting shifts from voice to voice. Concert programs should be like wonderful, delightfully arranged menus. In the process of looking for excellent compositions, often, one will find a score with a magnificent opening section but then it falls short of itself; or another score that worked up into something superior but it took forever to get there; or a score where the ending didn’t work, or was way too long for its ideas, or was far too compressed, or didn’t breathe musically. Then you come across a composition with stunning proportions, beautiful harmony, gorgeous notes, extremely creative hearing and thinking, plus a striking individual voice. A blockbuster! You know it when you hear it! Additionally, if we’re going to do a deep listen into the works of a composer, we’ve got to really listen not just to one piece. Any serious composer, when being reviewed, deserves to have ten pieces heard. We need to hear different genres as well as different eras from that composer. When we listen to Mahler, Stravinsky, Bach or Mozart, we listen across their lives and genres. Too often with contemporary composers, an audience member will sadly hear only one short piece.

JK: When you are creating those menus for the programs is there a sense of responsibility of being a programmer to be egalitarian about it? To make sure that certain new composers are represented, living composers, women composers, and other underrepresented composers? Is that part of the decision process?

ART: My first criterion is excellence, second is diversity of sounds (appetizing menus) and third is egalitarian balance.

JK: You were saying that when an audience hears a piece by a living composer that may be the only chance that they get to hear not only that piece but also that composer.

ART: Right. A person might hear one piece and then five years later they’ll hear another piece by the same composer but they can’t remember the first one! Three years later they’ll hear another piece, but alas it’s hard to string those memories all together in ones inner ear. Among the things composers enjoy are residencies when people invite us to visit and they perform many of our compositions on a “portrait” concert at which there’s a body of work being shared -it’s alive, it’s out there, being played, breathing, evolving.

JK: As a composer, do you compose with that in mind knowing that that may be the only time an audience member hears you?

ART: No. When I’m composing I’m just humbly seeking beautiful, integral sounds for my ears. I’m the first and most analytical, questioning, deeply listening audience member.

JK: Some people consciously want to make sure it’s accessible to the audience member.

ART: There are a lot of things in life that contain mystery such as religion, death, nature, the stars, the cosmos, trees, poetry... Likewise, music can be mysterious and does not need to be instantly accessible. If a composer has a voice and is writing music which has a richness about it, (if it isn’t just “surface-y” but rather truly has some nourishing protein in it) such as Bach, Mahler, Debussy, or Stravinsky, and so forth, then there exists a genuine artistic fortitude.  All great composers works require multiple hearings; that’s why we keep coming back to their music for centuries. The music is lavish, life affirming and teaches deeply about the universe - thus we revisit it and crave it often. No problem if someone says, “Gusty, I think I liked your premiere. It was sparkling, colorful and I loved the rhythms but...I don’t understand it all...” That’s okay! Hopefully, they can hear it again someday because fertile music has to withstand multiple hearings. Some music is instantly accessible but alas, the second time we hear it, it’s over quickly if in fact there’s no meaningful, personal, imaginatively nourishing, original content.

JK: How do know when a piece of yours is making an impact?

ART: One of the things that was characteristic of my career – I hate that word “career” -- my life – is that I wrote a piece, somebody heard it and they commissioned another piece. Then somebody heard those two scores and commissioned a third work, perhaps even as much as twenty-five years later. My life evolves as people are playing the music, hearing the music and then commissioning another composition.  I feel blessed indeed.

JK: Your catalog is quite diverse. Is that part of what keeps the curiosity alive?

ART: It is. Every composition is a new adventure. If anyone listened to the one hundred pieces published by G. Schirmer, it would be obvious that they’re all tailor-made, vivid journeys. For Absolute Ocean, I listened to 15 recordings of the soprano for months before I wrote it.  Composing for a wide variety of genres and custom-making distinct pieces is my deep-rooted passion.

JK: That leads me to ask, what would be your ideal relationship between you and a performer or conductor of your pieces? Are you very hands on and want to be there or do you give your piece and then back off?

ART: I can go either way - am very flexible. I try hard to be sensitive to how they wish to collaborate.  My scores are highly nuanced, certainly detailed, every note having a dynamic, articulation and/or adjective. The notation explains exactly what I heard and players are often saying, “These are the most articulate scores. I have no questions. Thank you.” I kind of pride myself a tiny bit on such comments from virtuosic musicians.  To give you an example, if I were rehearsing with a musician I might say, “This should be majestic, or play here with a lightness of touch...” So why not write that down on the manuscript? I feel responsible to present a commissioner with a lucid, nuanced artwork, not an amorphous blob. Proofreading carefully is essential.

JK: So on the continuum of one side being everything you’d ever want to know is in the score and on the other side the score is only the beginning, you’re way over on the first side.

ART: Way over there. Yes, I guess I’m a type triple A (laughs). It’s not vague for me. The players are awesome – super “chops-y.” They come out of Juilliard, Eastman, Northwestern, etc. and can play the entire repertoire. If I want the crescendo on the second beat, then I should put it there. They’ll play it and they can also feel why the crescendo had to be right there - same with articulations and other nuances. It’s akin to a beautifully punctuated poem where you know exactly what the poet wanted and meant. I like my music to be sculpted, skillfully punctuated and clean.

JK: Does that equate to the performer not having much interpretive freedom?

ART: Well, no I see it differently. I present artists with an eloquent, fluent poem and then, with their sublime expertise, musicianship, years of training, they take the sounds to a higher level. At least we start our journey together with a persuasive text and with their technical instrumental brilliance.  Subsequently, performers can spin and weave their inspired magic and make the music theirs – ‘tis not mine anymore.

JK: Can a conductor ever pull something out of a piece of music that you didn’t know was in it?

ART: Yes, definitely!  One instance where this often comes up is with tempos. Christoph Eschenbach has premiered many my works and I remember he took exceedingly slow tempos in one of the movements from Chanting to Paradise for chorus, solo soprano, and orchestra. I thought the whole thing was going to grind to a halt and was a nervous wreck. There are big, rich chords and Christoph wanted the chorus to be holding them in the air, like floating sunshine, just hanging in the resonant concert hall. My thinking was that the harmonic rhythm was stagnant because, although the chords were plush, when you slow it down that much...? And when he came off stage he said, “I love that – hear the space!” The next night I listened to it through his ears and thought, “It really does work well at his tempo.” It worked because the manner in which he conducted the one hundred eighty choral members as if virtually not breathing. Christoph generously taught me something. Whether I changed the tempo marking for those twenty bars of the piece is neither here nor there; rather, it’s that it taught me something for my next pieces for which I remain forever in his debt.  Ditto with all the musicians with whom I have had the luxury and privilege to work closely.  My favorite thing in life is working closely with performing musicians as they have been among my most vital teachers.  I love to hear their critique and advice and am never defensive.  When they will tell me exactly what they think, I consider it a huge gift they are granting.

JK: Since we’re dealing with certain details like articulation, dynamics, and tempo, let’s talk a little bit about creative process. You mentioned the piano earlier. Do you compose at the piano?

ART: I do use the piano daily but I don’t compose AT it. In Chicago, I will play for two hours in the morning, writing chords, notes, tunes, rhythms -- generally creating a force field of musical materials. Then I move to my drafting tables, in a different room, to compose on manuscript.

JK: When an idea first comes to you, what do you hear?

ART: It’s different for every piece as well as for every section of each composition. Some pieces start with a motive, others start with a chain link of chords, or with a color, or with a capricious rhythm. Never the same twice! The beginning of my ballet Terpsichore’s Dream is dance like with motivic materials built for pizzicati and two harps. Then there is a long section with lush chords that span five octaves, hanging in the sonic space, through which threads a long, lyrical, high trombone solo accented by bells and cymbals. There’s another section where it’s fast, punchy and jazzy. Each section is uniquely composed. In short, I try to invent a force field of plentiful, flexible materials, always transform and sculpt those materials, hopefully, creating sounds that are vivid, alive and imaginatively moving.

JK: At what point does architecture come into it?

ART: Right at the beginning.

JK: So you know the form or the architecture before you start?

ART: Well, genre and duration are prescribed.  When I know the musical materials, I draw lots of formal maps. I feel that for my music (and this does not apply to how anyone else should compose!) the form should be the reaction to the objects calling it into being. The opposite of what I describe casually as ice cube trays, where all of the formal “phrases” are predefined. The formal, block, ice cube like sections are prearranged and one pours the material into them. I’m doing the opposite by, to continue the silly metaphor, letting the water settle where it naturally settles; that’s then the form. The form is a response to the objects calling it into being not unlike a jazz improvisation.  Added to this method, then I’m constantly editing down to only the essentials. Cut, cut, cut so that before anyone hears my music I have tightened the form countless times, taking my organic field of ice, fashioning and sculpting it.

JK: I think one of the hardest things for any creator to learn is how to self-edit. Where did you learn it?

ART: From twenty-five years of wanting to create concise music. Even a tiny cut makes clarity. Removing ten seconds makes a world of difference.  I constantly ask my performers, just out of curiosity, if they think the music needs a short cut of a few bars here or there.

JK: I know that you read a lot of poetry. Your compositional process sounds like you are crafting a poem, everything is very deliberate.

ART: Crazy as this sounds, I think of my compositions as poems on fire - very precise – yet with a lot of spontaneous life and human spirit. [Gerard Manley] Hopkins poems are burning off the page they’re so hot, imaginative, creative and full of explosively gorgeous images and words. Ditto with Emily Dickinson. Every word is like a little bomb - beautiful words in elegantly crafted, blazing juxtapositions. Here are two poets whose works are vastly inspiring for their content, sounds and concision. Yes! Definitely a corollary!

JK: So when you’re writing for chorus or for voice, what’s the relationship you like to have with text?

ART: I have to love the meaning of the words as well as the sounds of the words.

JK: The way you verbally speak them?

ART: Yes. If the poem is 1 and my music is 1 it shouldn’t add up to 2 because, in that scenario, the poem didn’t need my music and my music didn’t honor the poem. One plus one has to add up to something like 27, to multiply, transform and turn into another object. Also vis-à-vis the sounds of the words themselves, I’m very aware of the physiology a singer.

JK: So you’re consciously thinking about this when you choose the text?

ART: I sing all my pieces thus am aware of a singers lungs, tongue, cheeks and throat. I’m really thinking about what they are physically doing to make this exact vowel sound right here on this pitch. So when looking for poems to set, yes, I’m already thinking about vocal mechanics.

JK: Do you feel a responsibility to use the entirety of the poem?

ART: Yes, generally.

JK: Was there a defining moment that you realized you were a composer?

ART: Gradually, over 20 years, I started to find composition more interesting than playing. I thought it might be more fun to make everything up out of thin air rather than sit and play my one part. So steadily composing evolved and bloomed from a childhood filled with singing, playing, and writing. My childhood was akin to a big, musical river morphing into a composer as a deep result of twenty years practicing, performing and singing.

JK: Did you have mentors that helped bring you along?

ART: Yes, I did. MANY! One of the high school teachers noticed how much I was composing. Consequently the school had an outside composer, Marilyn Ziffrin, come to campus to teach me. It was amazing. When I went to college I had many wonderful mentor teachers, Alan Stout being especially fantastic. I still consider him my teacher even though I haven’t had a lesson in over twenty-five years. The other teachers I’ve had, not to sound preposterous, include Byrd, Bach, Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Berio, Takemitsu, Boulez, Knussen, among many others including countless jazz artists and numerous performing musicians.

JK: So you really studied their works.

ART: Yeah I did. Mahler. Mingus. Art Tatum, Schumann. There’s a lot to learn. You don’t have to sit with a composer, nor show them your own music seeking their comments, in order to be taught directly from them.  Music by others is a mammoth, lifelong inspiration.

JK: You bring up a good point. How does one teach composition?

ART: It depends on the student but the way my private lessons were structured at Eastman and at Northwestern was with a third of the lesson as an exercise, not necessarily to go into a piece (make three chords that progress, or make three chords that don’t progress, or take this rhythm and transform it eleven times – i.e.: tiny cross-word puzzle assignments.) A third of the lesson was repertoire study and listening. (In-depth listening assignments for which students had to write what they liked, didn’t like, and what they learned from the music. This was something I learned to include in lessons from my close friend Chris Rouse.) The remaining time spent on the original music they composed.

JK: What does classical music have to do to make sure it’s still viable fifty years from now?

ART: Classical music is viable because the repertoire is excellent and performers are awe-inspiring. What Beethoven made changed the universe – same with Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Debussy, Ella, Miles, Coltrane, Tatum, Evans, etc. The early Stravinsky ballets are unbelievable and among the greatest constructs of civilization. The Goldberg Variations – transcendent!  Glen Gould plays Bach beyond gorgeously!

JK: Do you think people just find them?

ART: There are infinite amounts of great music as well as musicians who have the chops to perform it exquisitely. I don’t think the problem is on the performance or creative side, nor people fundamentally needing and loving music. People want to play and hear the Rite of Spring. It’s fun! With all of that positive energy… I get up every morning for the past thirty years and compose. We have to be optimists that people will seek and find all kinds of music.

 JK: What skills did you need beyond your formal training to prepare you for a life as a composer?

ART: OY! (laughs) Let’s any random order...time management, compartmentalizing various duties into certain sections of a given day, citizenship at large, stopping everything in one’s inner ear plus creative life to try to help a student in some small way, acting like a travel agent, disciplined diet when traveling, working on very little sleep, catching a 6 AM flight from O’Hare, which means arriving at the airport at 4:30 AM, chairing Boards, responding for requests for CDs and scores in a timely fashion, delivering pre-concert lectures, delivering on-stage lectures just before a world premiere, participating in interviews and radio shows, hiring someone to build a website, chairing faculty searches, programming the music of my colleagues, advocating for the music of my colleagues, administrating engravers’ schedules, getting to Fedex 55 seconds before the cut of time, all while being a devoted family member to my siblings, taking charge and care of a mother with Alzheimer’s for a decade....

JK: As someone who has spent many years teaching the next generation of composers, what has become important to you to pass on to them?

ART:  Earlier you asked about how I teach composition lessons and I replied: 1/3 Craft; 1/3 Repertoire study; 1/3 Creative work.  In addition to these 3 top priorities for students, it is fundamentally my passion to inspire them to be 100% honest, pure, soul-searching and iconoclastically who THEY are as artists - to be THEM to the max.

Furthermore, they need to recognize, from my teaching of the great repertoire, that spending a lifetime creating new sounds and forms out of thin air each day, for 80 years, takes the determination of a rock solid, purposeful, visionary soul. 

Teaching is a natural extension of my creative process and of my avid enthusiasm for and curiosity about the music of other cultures and artists so it is also my hope to pass along to my student colleagues the simple and humble model of my sheer daily enthusiasm for and delight about all kinds of music.  I want them to love music.  I need them to love music for me to be effective as a mentor.

JK: Who is sitting in the audiences today?

ART: It depends. For a chamber music event it’s one group; for an orchestra event it’s a different group of people. If it’s a solo violin recital, it’s again a different audience. Choruses usually have yet again a different set of devoted audience members. I don’t feel that I’m going from hall to hall, city to city, encountering the same “generic audience.”

JK: So does it come down to programming?

ART: It takes time to get to know great music, to study it and inform oneself about its contexts. These days, people don’t have a lot of time; furthermore, they can do hundreds of other things such as watch videos, movies and sports. Who is going to sit down and listen to a forty-five minute symphony when they could watch the New England Patriots, play ping-pong, or go swimming? It’s a devoted type of person who wants to read all of James Joyce. Who has read the complete Emily Dickinson? If people can get to the music, they’ll like it. Part of the problem with classical art music, especially in the large genres, is disseminating recordings. It’s a tricky thing, for instance, I never received recordings of four of my Chicago Symphony Orchestra world premieres. Heartbreaking!!

JK: That would be hard. All the work you put into it.

ART: And all the work they put into it. There’s no document - whatever it was evaporated instantly into thin air unless G. Schirmer can inspire another orchestra to play the composition. Unless we can sort out how to get new music recorded and circulated, it’s going to be problematical because, as I said earlier, most of the work composers receive is due to people hearing recordings of their music. Patrons don’t commission just because they like us. They carefully listen to previous works; hence composers depend heavily on past recordings to be offered future employment.

JK: Was there a point when you realized that you were a woman in this compositional career?

ART: Sometimes people refer to me as a woman composer. I remember The New York Times wrote a very long time ago about me as “the young woman composer.” They used “woman” but I don’t have the word female or woman on my website, resumé, nor biography. I’m a composer.  Yes.

JK: Do you think there’s still a need nowadays for things like women only concerts, festivals and CDs?

ART: What we need is excellent work by whoever wrote it, male, female, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, old, young, green, blue or purple. I teach, program and listen based on artistic excellence and grace.

JK: Where would you like to see classical art music go fifty or a hundred years from now?

ART: I would like to see it well funded. It takes a lot to write a quartet. It takes a lot to perform a quartet. It takes a lot present a quartet.

JK: It takes a lot. And more so for contemporary music.

ART: Exactly. Sports stars making twenty million dollars a year and bankers paying themselves million dollar annual bonuses when compared to a string quartet that asks for an extra hour of rehearsal space and they’re told, “No” -- is truly crazy. If the arts are going to survive, we all have to support them. I have never been an “each man for himself” type person.  Rather, it interests me to be part of an international team of musicians working together to continually elevate and fund the arts for all.

JK: Reading your biography, you consistently are part of a board or are volunteering here or there. Not only are you an artist-creator but also you’re an artist who is a citizen of art to perpetuate the art.

ART: I’m trying to be, yes. Endeavoring every day to spread positive ripples.

JK: Why is it important to you to spend so much time in volunteer positions and what do you hope to affect?

ART: There are many close mentors in my life who are sublime artist-citizen-leaders in the profession.  Far too many to list in this interview though, for your reference, a very short list would include: John Harbison, Oliver Knussen, Steven Stucky, Pierre Boulez, Shulamit Ran, Ed Harsh, Fran Richard, James Kendrick, Daniel Barenboim, Yehudi Wyner, Cliff Colnot, Gunther Schuller, Ed Yim, David Robertson, David Rakowski, Martin Bresnick, Tony Fogg, David Felder, Claire Chase, Frank Oteri, Jesse Rosen, David Skidmore, Aaron Kernis, Gil Rose, ...and the list goes on, on and on...I could spend this whole interview just listing some very small portion of the rest of these superstars!

Citizenship is important because our art form at large immensely needs numerous mentors and leaders creating broad and creative contexts in which we can all work together to further music’s flexible, diverse capacity and innate power.  So yes, for this reason, I consider it a huge honor to try, in some tiny way, to serve, hoping to make a modest effort to affect, for the better, with energy and love, our huge and vibrant profession.

All composers throughout history have needed the strong backing of great leaders, colleagues and musicians, who have depth, soul, excellence, vision, and who think, program and perform with expertise and sparkle.  Without such complete backing, composition is an impossible endeavor at which for a culture to improve.

JK: Many people would love to commission a composer but don’t know the first thing about what’s a fair price or how to go about it. Some of it would be the responsibility of the composer in marketing so that the conductors know where to find the composers and the composers know where to find the people that are looking to have commissions.

ART: Yes! True!  The history of music is a history of private individuals who took the leap of faith to commission a new piece.  Due to such vision and generosity, humanity has a treasure-trove of masterpieces.

JK: Is there a piece you’d love to write and you’re just waiting for the right commission to come along?

ART: I’d like to compose another cello concerto… I have an early one titled Ritual Incantations from 1999, of which I’m proud, though am yearning to create another. I’d also like to compose a piece for a hot big band. Every ten years I want to continue to do a substantial solo piano work. In 1989 I composed Concerto for Orchestra and then seventeen years later I created Helios Choros. Accordingly, in five to eight years, I’d like to share another extended orchestral vision.

JK: It sounds like even in your mid-forties you’re already thinking about legacy.

ART: The difference between early Stravinsky and mid-period Stravinsky is fascinating.  Early Beethoven/late Beethoven. Early Mozart/late Mozart. I’m an avid listener and I find it remarkable how artists transform.

JK: As a conductor, I’m really interested in identity, the nuance of identity and how that comes out in a composer’s work. What was going on in their lives at the time? What part of the country do they live in? What’s their first language? I see so much of that in my study of scores that comes out in the music and it changes over time. You are somebody who has been well vetted by musicians and critics, and certainly a publisher is championing your work. Are there ever periods of self-doubt in your writing?

ART: I am very grateful for G. Schirmer’s support. Every moment of my life has a yin and yang of complete self-doubt balanced, interconnected and interdependent with utter hope. As if one hundred percent full of self-doubt and one hundred percent full of hope. They flip back and forth. I ask, “Can this chord or motive be improved? It’s got to be more integrated. How can I refine it? Oh my goodness, this is weak. Oh my goodness, it’s good.” Back and forth...I torture myself daily! My core needs to design and shape things so even in periods of doubt I still invent something. The best way I might put it: I exert endless self-criticism but the creative river runs very deep inside of me so I don’t have “freakouts”.  I am too entrenched in artistic journeys, every day trying to fill silence with a graceful, personal sound.