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Augusta Read Thomas

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Absolute Ocean (2008)
Work Notes
Alternate parts are used for Mezzo-soprano performances
Text Writer
E.E. Cummings
G Schirmer Inc
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Soprano, Harp
Alternate Orchestration
Mezzo-soprano, Harp soloists
Programme Note
Augusta Read Thomas Absolute Ocean (2008)
Three poems by E.E. Cummings

Composer note:

Lasting for a duration of 22 minutes, the four-movement composition has the following characteristics. First, this work is for a relatively small orchestra, in which there is only one of each wind type: one piccolo, one flute, one alto flute, one oboe, one English horn, and so forth. Second, six players are playing from the very back of the orchestra, arranged in a semi-circle in this order: Perc. 1, Perc. 2, Celesta, Piano (lid off), Perc. 3, Perc. 4. They form a “wall” or “screen” of sound that surrounds the rest of the orchestra, and they often play with the harp obbligato part, as if to take the harp’s music and amplify it, like a spiraling helix, through the orchestra. Third, generally only pitched percussion are used. And finally, the notation is highly detailed and nuanced.

Perfumes of my “grandparents” can be smelled in the music—Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Mahler, Berg, Berio, Brahms, American Jazz, Knussen, and so forth. But it is not “stolen Debussy” or “paraphrased Stravinsky;” rather, it is all personal musical invention.

The wide variety of characters in the piece—graceful, majestic, spacious, spry, jazzy, resonant, elegant, playful, lively, rhythmic, punchy, and lyrical—imply a great deal of color and motion. Everything is an organic outgrowth of something else, and transformation is key.

The closing image of the final poem, “Absolute ocean,” became the title for the entire composition.

—Augusta Read Thomas

View Full Score: Mezzo-soprano version

  • Ensemble
    New Haven Symphony
    William Boughton
    Nimbus Alliance:
  • 27 FEB 2014
    Wind on the Water
    New Haven, CT
    New Haven Symphony
    Frederick Hemke, saxophone; Toby Arnold soprano; Elm City Girls' Choir; William Boughton, conductor
  • 02 FEB 2011
    New Haven, CT
    New Haven Symphony Orchestra
    Hana Park, soprano; William Boughton, conductor

    Other Dates:
    3 February - New Haven, CT
  • 07 MAR 2009
    New York, NY
    Camerata Notturna
    Jonathan Yates, conductor
  • 22 JAN 2009
    Absolute Ocean World Premiere
    Houston, TX
    Houston Symphony Orchestra
    Paula Page, harp and Twyla Robinson, soprano; Hans Graf, conductor

This group included only one violin, one flute, one oboe and so on — no departments, just individuals. A harp, at center stage for once, asserted itself almost without interruption, no longer the back-up strummer. There was a singer, soprano Tony Arnold, while some usual supporting players — the percussionists plus piano and celesta — became frontliners. This quasi-guerrilla outfit performed a 21st-century work, just 1 year old, called Absolute Ocean, by the orchestra’s composer in residence, Augusta Read Thomas. The piece flaunts its unconventionality, starting with the use of three coy poems by e.e. cummings, with lines like “see the luminous leopards (on wingfeet of thingfear).” Thomas’ music ... works mostly at spinning atmosphere — two exercises in smooth, floating vocal lines with liquid instrumental effects, contrasting with two sections hammered with restless staccato figures. The prevailing tone colors are high-pitched, sometimes jarring in their dissonance and mechanical quality. The beauty of soprano Arnold’s singing, and the energetic work of harpist Jennifer Hoult, gave focus and charm to the playful work.
David J. Baker, New Haven Register,06/02/2011
In Houston, the HSO presented the premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Absolute Ocean for soprano, harp and orchestra. HSO principal Paula Page was the harpist. Based on poetry by E.E. Cummings, Absolute Ocean is an appealing work in which two lyrical and atmospheric outer movements enclose a lively, rhythmically jerky section that forms a playful center. Soprano Twyla Robinson sang the poetry with a pleasing tone and clear enunciation. Page had a lovely turn in an interlude for harp and orchestra connecting the second and third movements. This work would be worth repeated hearings.
Olin Chism, PBS affiliate: KERA,26/01/2009
Witty and original, the poetry of E.E. Cummings is also terse, cool, a tad detached. In setting three Cummings poems as Absolute Ocean for Soprano, Harp and Orchestra, composer Augusta Read Thomas has created a contemporary classical work with its share of piquant charm, engaging aural effects and a certain coolness at the core. The new concerto was given its world premiere Thursday night by the Houston Symphony, led by music director Hans Graf. Its successful launch showcased the exacting musicianship of Paula Page, the orchestra’s principal harpist, and guest artist Twyla Robinson, who brought her creamy soprano to Read’s settings of Cummings. In truth, and perhaps inevitably, given the format, Robinson’s vocal role seemed to dominate much of the time, her singing distinguished by its composure, command and clarity. As written, the harp’s role often seemed a matter of punctuating the vocal lines — at times with a touch of embellishment, though even that was restrained rather than the showy display some may have expected. Perhaps a case of Thomas matching the music to the poetry’s form. Page responded with delicate, distinctly defined chords. An all-instrumental interlude between the second and third poems, for harp and a small group of solo instruments, gave Page more latitude in this work’s equivalent of a cadenza. Here, she nimbly executed some lushly flowing arpeggios and glissandos. A particularly effective aspect of the work was Thomas’ arrangement of orchestral forces: streamlined string and brass sections; a percussion section stressing tinkling and chiming instruments (no drums); and eight different woodwinds, including a few less standard ones (bass clarinet) with no doubling of the usual suspects. The result was an interesting blend of orchestral colors that enhanced and supported the solo roles and never overwhelmed the poems. the moon is hiding in her hair carried an air of gentle mystery. who knows if the moon’s a balloon was the liveliest of the trio, characterized by an emphatic staccato attack in vocal and instrumental lines. The closing piece, open your heart, registered as the most expressive of the three, culminating in the titular phrase: “come ships go/snowily sailing/perfect silent/Absolute ocean.”
Everett Evans , Houston Chronicle,23/01/2009
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