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Augusta Read Thomas

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Of Being Is a Bird (Emily Dickinson Settings) (2015)
Work Notes
This composition requires six crotales (all from the lower octave of crotales except the D7) and 4 brass mallets. The crotales can be suspended on strings from the music stands or mounted on a small racks near the players. [If a percussionist or extra musician is available to play the crotales parts, they should be engaged to do so. NOTE: Any musician can play the crotales parts, which are easy and sight-readable.
Text Writer
Emily Dickinson
G Schirmer Inc
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
17 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Light Lyric Soprano
Programme Note
Augusta Read Thomas Of Being Is a Bird (Emily Dickinson Settings) (2015)
I. Of Being is a Bird
interlude: flock of birds
II. The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met

Augusta Read Thomas has walked a path – or flown – with Emily Dickinson before, in Sunlight Echoes for youth choir and youth orchestra (2002) and Gathering Paradise, a song cycle for soprano and symphony orchestra (2004). This new piece is a pair of bird songs – bird songs that indeed have to do with bird songs, with the songs that birds themselves make, but more, as the title poem indicates, with bird being, with how birds are and also with how birdlike – in flight – being is. After all, the singing here is done by a human being, and by a specific human being, for, the composer tells us, she ‘listened to every recording of Claire Booth I could find and took note of the colour of every pitch in her vocal range.’
Those colours wind through constantly changing textures of instrumental hue in the opening song, where voice and instruments are forever echoing one another, though only the voice, for the most part, has the long line. If any of the instruments is to the fore, it is perhaps the harp, which, to quote the composer, ‘provides a kind of golden thread throughout the piece in counterpoint with the solo soprano’. The harmonies, too, are constantly on the move, adjusting to the vocal line while keeping the music afloat and luminous. We might be hearing the clouds of which the poem speaks, or the easy breeze, or the ‘Wake of Music’, all with a snatch of bird song.
Contrastingly fast, and without the singer, the interlude moves from human time to avian, suggesting bird song but perhaps more the darting of birds in motion – birds mimicked by instruments veering off in response to loud ensemble attacks. ‘The music is built in contrapuntal lines,’ the composer points out, ‘like two lines of birds in a flock that merge and separate and flow and flux together across the sky.’ Principal flier at first is the flute, but quite soon everyone takes to the air in virtuoso vertigiousness.
The second song recalls the first, but only briefly before the music gains speed and dynamism, as well as some jazzy exuberance. Thomas here, as she notes, ‘shows off a different side of Claire Booth’s voice and vocal agility’. The singer participates in the triumph, along with the bird triumphing in life – with life triumphing in itself.

Paul Griffiths


“Although only setting two poems, Of Being is a Bird itself and The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met, Thomas has crafted a cleverly miniaturized scena in two contrasting sections. The first, slow, part depicts nature filtered through human wonder, in open, improvised-sounding harmonies, high plucked harp and instrumentation lines that followed Booth’s pellucid soprano. The second part is woman as bird, Dickinson’s “intimate delight” taking flight in rapid syllables and flickering textures. It’s a crowded market depicting birds in music but Thomas has found room in the nest.”
Neil Fischer, The Times, London,09/07/2015
The first song, based on the title poem, is strikingly effective, with the smoothly contoured, long-limbed vocal lines given a shimmering halo of sharp instrumental attacks and splinters, and...the second, 'The Most Triumphant Bird I Ever Knew or Met'...the sense of a beautifully shaped and effective triptych remained.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,09/07/2015
“Pleasurable and invigorating was Augusta Read Thomas’s brand-new Emily Dickinson-related Of Being is a Bird, giving Claire Booth further opportunity to display her intense yet beguiling soprano.… we had open-throttled energy, brisk curiosity and drama…culminating in a swinging transatlantic swagger.”
Kenneth Carter,,08/07/2015
“Of Being is a Bird: Emily Dickinson Settings is certainly true to its title. This three-section work for voice and ensemble cleverly evokes avian imagery in the twittering flute, the swooping voice part, and the lines that converge and separate like a migrating flock. Read Thomas knows how to handle the orchestra and.... it off the radiance of soprano Claire Booth.”
Hannah Nepil, Financial Times, London,08/07/2015
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