5 Questions to Augusta Read Thomas (composer)

As we approach Augusta Read Thomas’ 60th birthday, my memories of her visit to our undergrad composition seminar shortly before her 50th birthday are still quite clear – and it’s that fond, joyful kind of clarity: after all, the ebullience of her physical presence, her intelligence and sense of color, and her incredibly high output of works for a wide range of instrumental combinations have made her a living legend.

She introduced us to several works from her immense orchestral oeuvre (her website lists 68 pieces), and she showed us not just the finished scores, but several drafts from earlier stages in her composition process. In her photos, you’ll often see her posing with her hand-written scores, which are complete artworks themselves: they’re massive and often colorful; markers and highlighters in myriad shades depicting the grand arches and nadirs of her work’s internal architecture. The shimmer of jazz flavors, the brilliant sunbursts of color, and the wide, meditative landscapes of softer, deeper shades speak to an incredible intimacy between a composer and her work. And she’s always smiling as she speaks about the kaleidoscopic menagerie created from thousands and thousands of notes and choices.

Among her 60th birthday festivities is the creation of a new work for saxophone and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Sejong Here and Now Festival. Haemosu’s Celestial Chariot Ride depicts “panoramas seen and experiences incited” while taking a ride alongside the titular Korean Sun God. It will be premiered on Friday, May 17 by saxophonist Steven Banks and the Sejong Soloists, conducted by Hannah von Wiehler at Zankel Hall. In advance of the premiere, we asked Augusta about her impressive catalog and career.

Augusta Read Thomas -- Photo by Anthony Barlich

Augusta Read Thomas — Photo by Anthony Barlich

In your nearly baker’s dozen of concerti, how have you approached the relationship dynamics between soloists and ensembles, and how do they interact in this newest concerto?

Composing concerti has been a kaleidoscopic, fun adventure! The magnificence and energy of instrumental resources is humbling, inspiring, and offers a broad sonic palette with which to highlight the exemplary teamwork by the musicians.

My compositions revere the spirit of improvisation. They are polished, nuanced, precisely-notated, captured sound “sculptures” that always spark and catch fire in my creative process as spontaneous and wholly-embodied improvisations. Thus, each concerto, and each section of each concerto, unfolds different kinds of relationships between soloist and ensemble. Sometimes the soloist is a protagonist, other times a dance partner, other times a spiritual interlocutor.

Over the past forty-five years, I have composed many works whose titles point to natural and celestial radiances: sun, earth, moon, galaxy, light, dawn, illumination, etc., and several compositions specifically with reference to mythological figures such as Sun Goddesses and Sun Gods, among other Goddesses and Gods. From Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures, my works have been inspired by, among others, Eos, Selene, Arcus, Re, Helios, Apollo, Aurora, Theia, Venus, Rhea, Terpsichore, and Laetitia.

In each of the six movements of Haemosu’s Celestial Chariot Ride, the soloist-to-ensemble relationship changes. The composition imagines panoramas seen and experiences incited when taking a ride with Haemosu through sparkling, empathetic, and radiant adventures. The composition is inspired by six Korean Sijo poems. The Sijo present beautiful scenes, energies, and moods. The saxophone soloist steers the flying chariot, escorting us across those auras, offering views from the vantage point of the sky.

Your music tends to connect with audiences on a deeply emotional level. Can you tell us about a memorable premiere where this synergy between you, the ensemble, and the audience was especially striking?

Premieres of Terpsichore’s Box of Dreams and Dance Mobile by The Grossman Ensemble, with conductors Timothy Weiss and Stefan Asbury, were some of the most exhilarating experiences of my creative life.

It is difficult to express how grateful I am to the musicians, the audiences, and the many extraordinary friends and colleagues who made it all possible. It is pure magic, deeply rewarding, fun, and sincere when creative and emotional synergies are kindled and then sparkle with radiance. I am grateful for our intersecting and intertwining lives of creativity and discovery.

How have your composition processes and routines morphed from what they were when you were a teenager or later in college to what they are now?

I have been plowing, cultivating, growing, researching, sculpting my own creative ground since I started playing music and composing as a young child. Each composition is a unique creation with its own inner life, reason for being, and way of being. Each composition is made of particular musical materials, carefully and organically allied to that specific composition’s crafted form.

Over the past forty-five years, my processes and routines have always aimed to improve as a composer. The accomplishments and experiments of our predecessors keep us focused and very humble at the same time as they inspire us with confidence to think creatively about infinite possibilities. Thus, artists, including myself, spend an enormous amount of time sculpting details and nuances – polishing something to completion, researching, collaborating, stopping then starting over, and growing. Then, each single work becomes its own unique and distinctive galaxy, which then offers a window into our collective humanity. We experience each single work, with its exclusive shadings and gradations.

In your catalog, which piece do you feel is closest to a “self-portrait”?

While I am not trying to dodge your thoughtful question and while I mean this reply in the most respectful manner possible: honestly, I do not feel that any of my works are “self-portraits.” The truth for me is that the music is just the music; it does not have to be something else. I feel deep gratitude to be able to spend a life in music and creativity. If people find the way I lead my life and/or the music I have created to be expressive, that is profoundly beautiful and humbling. I leave it to others to decide how they want to engage with my music.

Augusta Read Thomas -- Photo by Anthony Barlich

Augusta Read Thomas — Photo by Anthony Barlich

Though composition tools and the expectations placed on composers have changed dramatically over the last several decades, is there anything you would redo in your artistic life, or anything you’d urge young composers to be especially cognizant of as they go about building theirs?

I would urge everyone, including young composers, to be kind, true to yourself, humble, creative, sensitive, empathetic, present, and to do many things for others, to work hard, and never to take anything for granted.

Countless people in my life exude these values, to name just a tiny few in alphabetical order: Clarissa Bevilacqua; William Boughton; Leslie Dunton-Downer; Anthony Fogg; Members of the Grossman Ensemble; Stefan Hersh; Ardith Holmgrain; Vimbayi Kaziboni; Tania León; Ken-David Masur; Melinda Lee Masur; Nicole Paris; Paul Pellay; Phil Pierick; Maria Savannah; Members of Third Coast Percussion; Timothy Weiss; Cody Upton; Countless Collaborators, Colleagues, and Composers; My Family and Friends; My Students.


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