Augusta Read Thomas is the only composer I know who talks about the nutritional value of music. “I like music with protein and vitamins,” she says, “Quality of thought is paramount. To follow through on this metaphor, the music of J. S. Bach is a top quality multivitamin a power packed dosage, with added calcium and protein.” The pieces that Thomas is most attracted to she offers, as examples, The Rite of Spring, Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Debussy’s Jeux, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge are all high-energy works compositions characterized by an abundance of ideas, clarity of thought, a lack of “fat,” and the sheer momentum of musical discourse. “That an inevitable sense of motion naturally propels the music,” Thomas writes, “and that this motion be the result of the elegant transformations of its materials, is key to me.”
Thomas is a born composer. “To spend one’s life standing at a drafting table, imagining and notating orchestra sounds is pure joy,” she says. The youngest of ten children, she remembers as a child lying underneath her mother’s piano and listening to her play. She began to write music when she was six years old, and since then, as she once put it, composing “has always defined who I am.” She studied with Alan Stout and William Karlins at Northwestern University, with Jacob Druckman at Yale University, and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Later, Thomas taught composition herself, first at the Eastman School of Music, and then at Northwestern University.
Thomas writes music oblivious of the fads around her, which makes her particularly difficult to pigeonhole. Even her working method is refreshingly “old-fashioned”: she hears the music in her head and then sits down and writes it out, using pen and manuscript paper “and whiteout.” “These days, it is ‘unfashionable’ to say that I write by ear,” she admits, “but it is true, and has always been true.” Despite her independent musical spirit and at the same time, because of itshe has been lavished with honors and commissions, and nearly every month she heads to O’Hare to fly somewhere to hear one of her works performed. (The week before these concerts, she was in Wroclaw, Poland, for a Global Connections residency highlighted by the Polish premieres of In My Sky at Twilight and . . . words of the sea . . .)
Thomas’s commitment to composition is total (she is even married to a composer, Bernard Rands, one of our finest). “I feel blessed to devote my life to music,” she says. “Yes, it is exceedingly difficult and overwhelming at times, but deeply enriching. I am addicted to music.” The music that has influenced Thomas over the years ranges from the English Renaissance composer William Byrd through Haydn and Mozart, Schumann and Chopin, to twentieth-century giants Ravel, Bartók, Varèse, Berg, Berio, Boulez and includes the recordings of Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, “the flair and zest of big band music,” and “jazz of all kinds.” Thomas’s fascination with jazz has had a powerful influence on her own way of working: “Taking risks as an artist is important,” she writes, “and I use improvisation as an integrated part of my creative process. Often improvisation leads me to a risky decision, which I would not have otherwise heard, if I had not sung, danced, internalized the sounds.”
Tangle is the new work she has written for the Chicago Symphony as the Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, a post she has held since 1997. It follows several pieces composed with this orchestra in mind, beginning with . . . words of the sea . . . (1996), inspired by Wallace Stevens’s poetry; and continuing with the concerto for orchestra, Orbital Beacons (1997); Ceremonial (1999), the first work the Chicago Symphony played in the new millennium; and Aurora (1999), an orchestral piece with a solo piano part for Daniel Barenboim. (She also composed In My Sky at Twilight for the Orchestra’s MusicNOW series in 2002.) Like all of these works, Tangle is written with the “insider information” of a composer who has spent hundred of hours with this orchestralistening to rehearsals, attending concerts, getting to know the musiciansand, on several occasions, hearing her own music come to life in their hands.
Augusta Read Thomas on Tangle
Tangle is a colorful, bold fantasy in sound, which invites any willing listener to participate in the discovery of its “meanings.” I try to control logically its seductions and its aggressions; its obvious elements and its mysterious layers. I respond faithfully to my deepest promptings and instinct and invite the listener to do likewise.
The core of this work’s artistry is found in counterpoint not simply in its musical sense as the art of combining melodies, but in its rhetorical sense as the evocation of opposition. For me, counterpoint is much more than a matter of texture or technique it’s this music’s central metaphor. Having said that, I have always been infatuated with harmony, and much of this work unfolds rich, colorful harmonies. Color is also a fascination of mine. You will hear that this music trusts its playersthere are lots of solos and things are not doubled in the orchestration.
In the most general of terms, the three-movement form follows a Moderately active Calm Active format, which makes it very easy to follow and to know where you are in the musical argument at all times. Each movement lasts between six and seven minutes and they are played without a pause.
My spirituality and my music are totally intertwined tangled. In some way, I have always felt that the sun composed all my music, and that I “found it and wrote it down.” All my titles refer abstractly to suns, moons, stars, cosmos, orbiting lights, and/or things spiritual.
My favorite moment in any piece of music is the moment of maximum risk and striving whether the venture is tiny or large, loud or soft, fragile or strong, passionate, erratic, ordinary or eccentric . . . ! Maybe another way to say this is the moment of exquisite humanity and raw soul. All art that I cherish has an element of love and recklessness and desperation. I like music that is alive and jumps off the page and out of the instrument as if something big is at stake.
To compose a great work is one of the most difficult endeavors of civilization, and that challenge is what will keep me happily working until I die. To compose this music for the CSO brought me so much enchantment, and I am so thankful.
is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Sally Hands, Cindy Sargent, Henry Fogel, David Robertson, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The commission was made possible through the generosity of Cindy Sargent and Sally Hands as well as with support from the Louise Durham Mead New Music Fund.
Program Note by Phillip Huscher