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Augusta Read Thomas

The following interview appeared in 21st-Century Music in June, 2000:

Augusta Read Thomas (born in 1964 in New York) is a professor on the composition faculty at the Eastman School of Music, and she is currently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through May 2000. She studied at Northwestern University with Alan Stout and Bill Karlins, at Yale University with Jacob Druckman and at the Royal Academy of Music. Seven years after graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, she was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM, honorary degree). In 1998 she received the Distinguished Alumni Association Award from St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. In 1999, she received the Award of Merit from the President of Northwestern University. Her work is currently self-published by A.R.T. Musings Publishing Company.

She was recently named winner of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 2000, which will be presented at a ceremony on June 20 by the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts at the Cuvilliés Theater in Munich, Germany. In addition, the Chanticleer album "Colors of Love," containing two works by Ms. Thomas, won a Grammy Award at the February 2000 ceremony in Los Angeles for "Best Recording by a Small Ensemble, with or without conductor." Recent and upcoming premieres include "Invocations" for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Miami Quartet (March 19, 2000); "Aurora: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" for Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic (June 10, 2000); Oboe Quintet for Alex Klein and the Vermeer Quartet; "Ring Out Wild Bells to the Wild Sky" for the Washington Choral Arts Society (February 25, 2000); "Fugitive Star" for the Caramoor Chamber Music Festival and the Avalon String Quartet; an as-yet untitled new work for orchestra and chorus commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra (June 2000).

I spoke with Augusta Read Thomas on February 10, 2000. Much of the conversation concerned her new string quartet "Invocations," which was to receive a performance by the Miami String Quartet on March 21, 2000 in Orange County, California. She was kind enough to consent to this interview despite the fact that she had spent much the week jetting back and forth between her home in New York and her family home near Boston to visit her father, who was in the final stage of a terminal cancer.

DB: I was looking over the works listed on your website ( and noticed that there's a piece that the Philadelphia Orchestra played called "Glass Moon" that's not among the list. Are those just the works that you have self-published and not your complete repertoire list?

ART: Correct. Basically, what I did is I just picked my best works. "Glass Moon" I like, but I wrote it when I was about 27, so I figured I would try to promote other orchestral works instead because "Glass Moon" was played a lot. Dallas did it. Seattle, Long Beach, L.A., Philly and some other places. So I figured I'd go for different pieces.

DB: Oh, L.A. did it? L.A. Philharmonic did it?

ART: I think they did.

DB: My impression was that we had not really heard a lot of your music here in Southern California. It's been played a lot elsewhere.

ART: I think L.A. did it with Hans Vonk in 1990. He did Dallas and then L.A. and Seattle. He was on a tour and took the piece with him.

DB: Has your music been exposed much out here?

ART: No. Unfortunately not.

DB: Any speculation as to why that might be? Why you get exposure on the East Coast or pretty much everywhere else but not Southern California?

ART: Well, in part it's because I being self-published, I don't do any promotion. I don't send scores out. I don't write letters asking people if they'll do my music or anything of the sort. So I guess unless people were to contact me, then - Basically, I'm just not known that much out there.

DB: That's curious because I thought your reputation would draw people to you like a magnet. People out here, that is.

ART: I do get lots of calls every day, lots of interest in lots of performances. Things have been done out there, but I haven't had a big performance of my music or a big feature in any way or a big commission from L. A. or San Francisco or Seattle.

DB: Oh, the whole West Coast not just Southern California then.

ART: Yeah. Or Washington state or Arizona.

DB: That’s a strange regional disparity. This seems to be true of Los Angeles that composers who are well known and much more often heard in the East don't seem to get a lot of play out here. The L.A. Philharmonic tends to be more directly connected to Europe than it is to the East Coast.

ART: Yeah. That's right.

DB: Are you interested in getting into this market?

ART: Yes, very much. I'd like to work with Esa-Pekka Salonen because I really respect him. I admire him as a conductor and a musician and a composer. And also, I think my music and his music are on the same page. We’re in similar worlds of sound. You know what I mean by that - in the most general sense. Therefore, I think there would be a natural sympathy if he ever met me or heard my music.

DB: So you never met him then?

ART: Well, no. And I've never sent him anything either. I’m not saying anything negative like, “Why hasn’t he played my music at all?” I’ve just never sent him anything.

DB: What about some of the other locals? Obviously, JoAnn Falletta is a champion of your music. How about Carl St. Clair at the Pacific Symphony or Jorge Mester in Pasadena?

ART: Nope. I've met them but really quickly. We don't know each other at all, and I've not sent them anything, and they've not requested anything.

DB: Well this new piece that the Miami String Quartet is playing may be the first piece of yours that's being performed in Orange County for all I know. Can you tell me a little bit about the piece? How did it come about and what’s the meaning of the title "Invocations."

ART: Marc Neikrug, who’s the artistic administrator of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, called me and asked if I would consider receiving a commission from them to write a string quartet for the Miami Quartet for a very specific date and what not. I said, “Yes, I’d be completely honored and delighted,” of course. And then I set about writing the piece, so I knew all along what to expect. You know, sometimes you get commissions and you don't know what the ensemble will be or when the premiere will be or what not. But this one I knew everything all along. They had said they wanted a piece in the 8 to 10 minute range because they knew also what the rest of the program would be. I started composing the piece not necessarily knowing how many movements it would be - it turned out to be a two-movement work - but I did know certain things about the piece. The writing in the piece is very contrapuntal, if you will. There's a lot of bouncing off of each other. One instrument will play something and then somebody else comes in with something else and then somebody else is doing something else. It's very athletic in a way. But there's always the sense of calling toward something or invoking something, and what gives it that sense for the most part is the strong sense of line. You can really hear a voice speaking through this one line in the piece as if it was calling out to you or calling across a canyon screaming the message to you or sending you a message in a bottle, so to speak. It's music that’s very dramatic and it's very intense. It’s very passionate. It's very hot. It starts with all sorts of passion and never stops. It just keeps going until it ends, and there's an immediacy about that passion that's required in the playing. The first movement - and I don't have the score in front of me because I'm not home at the moment - but the first movement largely features the solo violinist who soars above the ensemble, pulling the ensemble again with this passionate line which is almost ecstatic or illuminated because it's in a high register. It’s just fluttering and moving forward, and the rest of the Quartet supports that in the most general sense. Of course, they’re also picking up on the first violinist’s lines and moving them into different places. And then it comes down to a very quiet and elegant reflective coda. The second movement takes right back up with the same energy - in fact with the same lines - but it's in a lower tessitura and the line is broken out all the time between the four instruments, so it's in a tighter cluster that this line is condensed and as I said rather athletically and passionately passed around until it reaches a moment where they fall into this kind of rhythmic perpetual motion. I can hear it running through my head right now - something like zhom-pom, pe-pom-pe-pom-peee, zha-pa-pa-pee, zha-pa-pa-pee. You know, just going, going, going, driving all with a sort of chromatic line and then these chords that spill off that are pizzicati. It just picks up momentum until it has nowhere else to go but return to something resembling the beginning of the second movement. It's not necessarily an ABA form, but it's sort of an ABA’ form. So you sort of come back to this other - this line again, if you will, and then that just quickly winds itself up. The piece ends with a sort of gesture, a very bold gesture where essentially there's a chord and they all sort of throw it into the air. It's a loud ending.

DB: So invocations - we're not talking about something in the spiritual sense or a quiet message in a bottle.

ART: Well, no I think it's very spiritual. I'm a very spiritual person or a very religious person in the general sense. It's almost like - well if I say this, it sounds so ridiculous, but let's say you can almost hear a person screaming out from their stomach what they need to say. Maybe they're screaming to their god or maybe they're screaming to the universe or maybe they're screaming their faith. But it's very centered music. It's very integrated. It's very self-reflective. It's very carefully built. It's not just a spewing of emotion, and yet at the same time, it should sound completely alive and passionate as if you could hear - I think of it as a screaming voice coming out of someone's stomach or out of their heart and in that sense, it is religious to me in that way or very spiritual.

DB: Now, have you heard the guys (Miami Quartet) working on this piece?

ART: No.

DB: You mean you just turned over the score and off away they go and whenever comes out is what comes out?

ART: Exactly. That is, my scores are really clearly located. It's very, very straightforward. I notate everything.

DB: So you have not heard rehearsal tapes or anything like that.

ART: Nope. Basically, we were going to try to meet, but my schedule is completely crazy and theirs is too, and we couldn't find a city that made sense to meet in. So I asked them about a week ago in an e-mail if they felt that they could send me a cassette tape of just a rehearsal. I told them just something informal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. They could stop and start. I'm not going to do anything with this tape, just maybe suggest a few tiny little tweakings or something. And they said they would, but I haven't received it yet.

DB: I wondered how much different is the finished work or the finished performance from the concept in your head. What's your experience? Is it pretty much right on or do you sometimes gets surprised by balances and tonal colors that emerge that you might not have had in your head or had a little differently in your head at the time that you wrote it?

ART: I would say that when I go to rehearsal or a concert of my music - let's say a rehearsal - there's a tape going through one of my ears of the piece that I wrote in my inner ear, and likewise, there's the tape of them playing it live. And I would say that they’re 99 percent identical.

DB: And as they rehearse, they’re asking you if this is how you want it played?

ART: Right. Or I might say, “Well actually, I heard that with an up bow.” And they might say, “Well, I like it with the down bow.” Things like that, but nothing big or structural. I can actually hear my music extremely clearly. I think that's one of my best strengths.

DB: And you hear it while you're composing or before you sit down to write the music, or do you use a computer?

ART: Oh, no. I hear it all in my head, and then I write down on paper. I use pen and paper and whiteout. And I sit at a desk in a silent room and write it out. I don't use computers at all.

DB: And you don't sit at the keyboard, either?

ART: Nope. It sounds highfalutin’, but it's really easy when you've done your whole life. That's definitely the way I do it. I'm sure that what they will play and what I wrote and heard are 99 percent the same. I might tweak by .5 percent or they might alter by .5 percent.

DB: Why did you become a composer? How did you come to make that choice?

ART: Well, I think that I really didn't make that choice. And again, this may sound highfalutin’ like I didn't choose composition - it chose me - or something like that. I don’t think that it chose me, but for all as long as I could remember - since I was three years old lying underneath my mother’s piano listening to her play or even further back than that - I was completely attracted to music my entire life. I would be attracted to a piano like a magnet. I was always playing, always wanting to go to music classes or music lessons or what not. My composing was just a natural extension of who I am. And of course, all of a sudden I was composing, and then I was composing more, and then people were playing it. Then all of a sudden I was a composer. But I never really made that big choice. It just is who I was.

DB: You've always even as a child been writing?

ART: Yep. Even since like age 6.

DB: And even at age 6, what you’d call pretty sophisticated songs?

ART: No, it was garbage. It was child's play. It was poking around and writing things down. I think, though, because I did that, by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade, 12 years old or something, then things were perhaps more sophisticated than average.

DB: Where you writing in the style of Mozart or were you off in some other corner?

ART: No, I was in some other corner. I had good teachers who would encourage me to write things down, and one of the pieces I did in 8th grade was in F minor, and it was very beautiful quote-unquote in a sort of lyrical and interesting kind of way. It was an F minor song, basically. It wasn't any earth-shatteringly original thing. But it was skilled, though, because I had been writing for all those years before that and I’d had good instruction.

DB: Let me ask you something. I don't want you to take offense by this, but the program that the Miami Quartet is playing also contains music by Clara Schumann. Was it their intention to showcase women composers with this program?

ART: You know, I really don't know. Marc Neikrug would be in charge of that department. He put the program together and he would've had the vision for what that should be. I was never given the impression that that’s what the agenda was. They simply commissioned me to write the piece.

DB: Understood. In your case, your career certainly hasn't suffered for your being (a) a woman and (b) a living composer. In your experience, have you ever had your works ghettoized in these so-called women's concerts where the whole raison d’etre for the concert is to present music by women?

ART: I don't really market myself that way at all. If somebody's put a piece of mine on some concert like that, I wasn't there and am not aware of it. I purposely and aggressively do not - well, I don’t market myself anyway, as I told you. I’m not sending stuff out. But if I were to, I wouldn't market myself that way because first and foremost, I'm a composer. I've been with music my whole life. I will be with it. It is my whole life. I have no other life. It is who I am. I happen also to be female. But for me, it’s not primary in my mind because the passion to make music is so burning hot inside of me and it’s so real. It's much more powerful than my gender or my age or my resume for anything like that. So I tend to, I don't try to get on women's concerts. For example, in my bio or anywhere on the website, it doesn't say anything about gender. The word “woman” is not even on it. And nothing I’ve ever put out has ever had that word on it. I mean, I am a woman. But you don't go to a website of a male composer and find, “John Adams, male composer, wrote 75 commissions.” So why should it say, “Augusta Read Thomas, female composer,” etc. I know a lot of women would disagree with me and tell me that I should be doing things differently, but that's just the way I do ‘em.

DB: Obviously, what works for you has worked for you pretty well up this point.

ART: I care deeply that people think of me as a composer. Period. That's actually the best testament I can be for the art or for my gender or for the human race. I mean, I'm a composer. You know how everything comes in these nice little boxes nowadays.

DB: Right. This is the era of identity politics and identity art.

ART: Exactly. And I don't want play into that. And certainly, people who know my music, it doesn't pander at all. It's hard-core. It's passionate. It's very gutsy. And so it all ties in together to me.

DB: I'm curious about your Chicago Symphony residency, which I guess is coming to a close in a few months. This has been three years?

ART: Yeah.

DB: What have your duties been? Are you perusing scores that come in or are you doing strictly writing and advising?

ART: I have several duties there. First of all, I write music for them. There have been four pieces. The "Words of the Sea" I did before my residency. Then "Orbital Beacons". Then "Ceremonial." And now "Aurora." So that's what I’ve been writing for them. On top of that, I'm always there when we have visiting composers, and we have a lot of them. Last year, I think we had 11 to 13 weeks with visiting composers. So I was there hosting them, going to rehearsals with them, doing the pre-concert lectures with them, radio shows, all of that. And that's an enormous amount of work and time and energy and effort on behalf of other composers, which is a great pleasure. I've had such a wonderful chance to meet all these fabulous composers and spend a week with them. Also, I go through - anything that’s sort of new music will come to my office. I have a full office there which is packed full of scores. I listen to the music and bring things to the attention of the artistic staff and Mr. Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. Things for commission. Things for performance. Things to consider for future commissions or performances or what not.

DB: So, for instance, you look at the unsolicited manuscripts.

ART: Oh, yeah! I look at all of them. Actually, I believe that that's my job and I’m paid to do a job and I would do it anyway because of that. But I love to listen to music, and I'm very, very curious about what people are doing, so I’m actually one of the few that actually listens.

DB: So you listen to their MIDI scores? They send a lot of MIDI scores?

ART: Whatever gets sent in. I listen to or I read the scores. I can read scores really clearly. So I don't always drop a tape in because sometimes they don't come with tapes or CDs. I've learned so much because I’ve listened to an enormous amount of repertoire, and repertoire that isn't necessarily out on CD. So that's been amazing. That's been a great part of the job. Then I also meet with the orchestra members and speak to them about things. And the board of directors.

DB: When you look at new score, say, from your Eastman students, how do you recognize when it has the spark?

ART: Well, there are several things. First of all, I look for musicality. A good ear is what I look for. I want to know that they’re hearing when they’re writing. The second thing I look for is honesty. You can tell when somebody's really putting their own soul out there, their own stomach, their own guts, when they're really going for it in their own honest way. It's not just another kind of regurgitated X, Y or Z piece. You know you can fill in the X, Y or Z with minimalist or 12-tone or movie music, whatever. You can tell that there’s a real voice in there somewhere. Thirdly, I look for imagination in all facets whether it's imagination of a line or idea or motive or color or density or form, etc. And when all of that's together, you're already dealing with something pretty good. It’s rare to have all of those in a piece. Especially by a young composer. But that's what I look for.

DB: What I hear in your different answers is what I might call artistic integrity in your own personal work ethic or the way you sit down to compose. I’m not sure about the best way to ask this next question. I’ve heard it asked at composer-audience forums and seen it fall flat, but here goes. When you sit down to create a piece of concert music, do you feel a certain weight or gravity or sense of seriousness in writing a work for the concert hall, theoretically a work for the ages, that might not be there if someone were writing music for film or commercial consumption?

ART: You know, I'm not sure. I think I'm too serious of a person to answer that question. I take everything seriously. Even if I’m cleaning wine glasses in my sink, I want to do it right. I'm a perfectionist in that sense. I can't imagine anyone wanting to do anything not seriously. I know it happens. It's just, for me, we live once and if we’re given talents or energies, we ought to try to make our best of them. And I feel like if you give something, that the energy that goes out comes back - like what goes around comes around but in a very cosmic or religious sense. If I give my best to something or to someone - if I spend a week with another composer - all of a sudden a tulip will come up in my garden that I hadn't expected. It doesn't come back directly. But there's a sort of cosmic energy, and I think that has to do with the seriousness because I feel like if I address everything and do my very best to it and give all that I can to it whether it's teaching or giving a lecture or speaking to the Board of Directors or you name it, I take it all very seriously. I think music and art and culture - but especially music - are the most beautiful things in the world. I think music deserves to be caressed and loved and cared for and respected as you make it. In other words, I just don’t want to slap-shot off anything. It doesn't mean the pieces are good. It doesn't mean they’re bad. It doesn't mean quality or not. But it does mean that at least they've been made with a real honest dedication.

DB: Do you write only on commission or do you write simply because you've got this symphonic tone poem in your gut welling up inside that you've got to get out?

ART: It's definitely the latter. I write because it's burning inside my body and I just have to get this music out. But coincidentally, everything I've done for the past at least 10 years has all been commissioned. Some composers say that if they didn't have a commission, they’d stop writing. And I want to be very clear that I'm going to write music until I die. If someone commissions me, great. But if they don't, I'm going to write it anyway.

DB: Okay, you're not a Sibelius or Copland.

ART: No. It's definitely my whole life, and it's not my profession, it's not my job. It's my life. There is a difference. I’m very close to my music. I’m very tied up in it. You feel like when you have your piece played, your soul is on the stage. Not just your piece. You get very close to this. But I have tons of commissions in the past and tons in the future, and I’ve turned down a lot of commission offers, so I feel very, very lucky that coincidentally I do make a living off this.

DB: When you talk to your students at Eastman or other college residencies that you may have, do you speak with them strictly about theory or do you discuss the business of how to market yourself as a composer?

ART: Pretty much everything. It depends on what their questions are. Sometimes they wanna know how you built your tune or what the harmonies are. Sometimes they wanna know should do make their own publishing company. Sometimes they want to know how to write a cover letter. Or they may be asking should they go on for a degree. Students are great because they’ll ask you pretty much anything that's on their mind. So in my composition lessons at Eastman, which I give weekly, we pretty much talk about the music. Their ideas, the integrity of them, their lines, their chords, their harmonies, their thoughts, what they’re hearing, etc. And I don't really spend a lot of time on the business side because I think the time to talk about music is so valuable. But often they’ll ask me and we’ll spend an extra hour on another day and go through how to write a resume, should they enter this competition or whatever they might have on their mind. And I do do a lot of university residencies, and people ask what is it like to be composer in residence for the CSO. They ask a lot of different things.

DB: The sorts of things I’m asking, I suppose. Here’s a question it has never occurred to me to ask a composer. Let me know if you feel uncomfortable answering it, but I have often been curious, as a frame of reference, what does a composer make on an average commission?

ART: I think this is a frame of reference for an average composer who is working in the profession. Now I'm not talking about an exceptional one or somebody who's got tons of commissions and is turning them down right, left and center. But just an average person whose got a degree and has made 10 or 12 pieces and I'm not talking about a student. I would say, on average, you’ll probably find that they’re being paid about $500 a minute for a chamber piece and about $1000 a minute for an orchestral piece. Of course, that's average. There are differences - for instance, are they paid travel and accommodations or not? Or are they paying the copying costs or not? It depends on the level of the composer. When you get into above-average people or people who are perceived as extremely successful - you know, way above-average people - the fees go up. My fees are higher than the ones I just quoted.

DB: Like Placido Domingo coming in to do Cavarodossi.

ART: Right. Exactly. A lot of average people might think, “Hey, maybe I should commission a piece!” and therefore, the numbers I just gave are fair on all sides. If somebody wants to commission a 10-minute chamber piece, it costs $5000, and that's something that one spouse could give to the other for an anniversary or a special occasion or what not. These things are affordable, and I think the average person should be commissioning more. They just don't think they know how to or can't. Someone in the audience who’s comfortable and loves music, they probably would love to commission a piece but they probably never realized that they could. Suppose you had $5000 disposable income 20 years from now and wanted to give it as a tax deduction to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival for a commission. It's tax-deductible do you. They get to use it as a commission, and the artist gets supported and culture goes forward. I think the average audience member ought to be informed that those are the kinds of fees that are out there.

DB: I’m glad I asked. If you look over your orchestral repertory - the things that you've written - obviously there are going to be some things that have greater difficulty, some things with less difficulty. Are there any works that you would say are playable by an amateur group, let’s say a good high school orchestra or say an average community college orchestra.

ART: Well, I have two pieces that fit that bill. One is the violin concerto called "Spirit Musings." And the orchestral parts, which is a very small orchestra - just a tiny little orchestra like one-to-a-part type of thing - are very, very easy. But the solo violin part is extremely hard. To the audience, it looks like this really wonderful, magical, sparkling concerto. All the colors are flying around, but technically it's very easy and it was built that way so that an orchestra could do it on one rehearsal as long as the violinist is great. But to find any community that has a good violinist is pretty easy, and violinists love concertos. That would be one. The other is also a concerto which is the piece "Eclipse Musings" for solo flute, solo guitar and again a very small orchestra. Those parts are easy. For both of those pieces, you need a very good harp. But most harpists are either good or they don’t play anymore. Those are really doable pieces and they're both the right length. One is 12 minutes and the other is 13 minutes. They’re for an average audience that isn't used to new pieces. And then you have the excitement of the soloists, which is always nice for an audience. But all the rest of my music is sort of written into a very, very high market like sort of New York Phil, Chicago, Philly. They’re very technically difficult.

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