Augusta Read Thomas
• Born 1964
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"The desire to make music comes from very deep inside. The urge to make and share music . . . is a volcanic eruption throughout one's body . . . I write music that craves a listener."
Augusta Read Thomas is, in the best sense, an artist thrice obsessed. First, she must compose: writing music is no vocation, no following, but a physiological need. She's been doing it since she was four, and at this point it sustains her being as much as breath and sleep. Second, Thomas must communicate: her music is only one side of a story involving two parties, and in its lucent colors and brazen gestures one can almost sense what kind of listener she has in mind.
But another obsession fortifies Thomas and her work, a consistent, burning vision which seems to materialize in that space exactly between making and sharing music, in "the music itself." And this vision is perhaps best articulated not by musical discussions, but by the words of one poet on another. In a beautiful essay on Shelley, W.B. Yeats imagined that "voices would have told him how there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life." Yeats' imagined scene was meant to invoke a certain literary temperament, the lyric poet, but his words give a near-perfect portrait of Thomas' art as well. Her one scene is a wordless process; and her images aren't pictures, but objects-turned-timewards. Nonetheless, she follows a musical "light of one star," and does so with a small cosmology of intense images (voice, bell, sun, spirit) which she ever-purifies in work after work.
Augusta Read Thomas was born in Glen Cove, near New York City, in 1964, into a musical household; she recounts a childhood overflowing with sounds, the Beatles in one room and Bach in another. Beginning to compose early, she also studied trumpet and eventually enrolled at Northwestern University, studying under William Karlins and Alan Stout. She continued at Yale with the late Jacob Druckman, and then in England at the Royal Academy of Music. Since returning to the United States, her career has enjoyed consistent growth, including a professorship at the Eastman School of Music and an extended tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Some of Thomas' most brilliant orchestral works -- Words of the Sea, Orbital Beacons, Ceremonial, the piano concerto Aurora -- were all composed for the CSO, and she has done wonders for the city's new music scene.
What is Thomas' "some one scene"? Like most good music, hers tends to elude description, but if one had to take a leap, one could describe it as a soliloquy which splays into the light and line of many voices, or an imploring recitative -- that musical tone which insists "I must speak" -- that draws on its own implications and echoes until it kindles its own vigorous polyphony. In this process, the violin concerto Spirit Musings is an ideal archetype: its opening violin line, spidery and liquid, gradually enlists and entangles the entire ensemble in a volatile venture of expansion and contraction, elastic and intensely lyrical. The work's sound is also characteristic of Thomas' music: a swirl of thirds, sixths, and tritones envelopes the ensemble in the most radiant tintinnabulation, betraying Thomas' devotion to French music (Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez), but also to the great contrapuntalists (Bach and Byrd). But in their "finite infinity," the concise, intimate breath of her gestures confess great sympathy with Mahler and her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.