CUBE -- Articles for May and June 1998
Interview with Augusta Reed Thomas, Part 2
Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and
CUBEAdvisory Board member answers questions from the CSO (final part of an
interview in our previous Calendar) and from Janice Misurell-Mitchell,
co-artistic director of CUBE
JM-M: It is frequently acknowledged in the popular and musical press that the
symphony orchestra as we know it is under threat economically and also
culturally, in both smaller and larger cities in the United States. Do you have
any comments on the future of the symphony orchestra, and any ideas or
constructive changes that might be made in order to bring in a greater number
and variety of the listening public?
That is a very complex question for which there is no one simple answer. There
are many factors which account for the complexity -- shifts in cultural
preferences, economic burdens, changes in art-music itself, federal and state
subsidies (or lack of them), traditions and a burgeoning pop culture, etc.
However, despite the difficulties, I am an optimist about the future of the
symphony orchestra. I believe that the repertoire it has accumulated will help
keep the orchestra alive and well. Similarly, I can not imagine a time when
Shakespeare's works will become obsolete or disappear, or one when space
exploration will cease, for example. There are certain things which appear to
be necessary to nurture and satisfy human curiosity. Music is one of them.
Personally, I am devoted to spending a lifetime composing music for the
orchestra -- so I guess I have to be an optimist.
It is not just a question of the survival of "the orchestra" as a phenomenon
but rather one of the orchestra's role and function in society. Certainly the
repertoire places inflexible constraints but the orchestra must be willing to
be flexible in its programming, acceptance of contemporary musical thought, its
performance configurations, and its willingness to perform many community
services. I would suggest that the new Symphony Center in Chicago has begun to
address these issues and hopefully more orchestras across the country will
follow the example.
JM-M: You mentioned earlier that several composers, i.e. Stravinsky, Bach,
Bartok, etc., have been major influences on your compositional thinking. Is
there also a particular work (the "aha!") which inspired you to become a
Yes, Bach! -- but also Mozart, Haydn, Byrd, Debussy, Mahler, Berio, Rands,
Boulez, etc. In addition, it may be worth mentioning that I find deep
inspiration in nature. Nature has many answers to many questions.
JM-M: In the Winter, 1998 issue of the International Alliance for Women in
Music Journal there is an article by IAWM President, Deon Nielson Price, which
discusses the programming of symphonic works by women in major orchestras in
the U.S. for the 1997-98 season. Of the fifteen listed, four (the Seattle
Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the
Pittsburgh Symphony) are programming works by women; the other eleven are not.
Do you have any comments to make about this situation, and any suggestions to
I have not read the article in the IAWM journal and I am not up to date with
any specific programming statistics. It is worth mentioning that the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra has had three Composers in Residence and two of these have
been women (Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read Thomas). Over the years, the CSO has
also programmed works by women and this is true of all the major orchestras.
Additionally, off the top of my head, I know for a fact that the Cleveland
Orchestra also programmed works by Women in the 1997-1998 season. However, a
greater sensitivity to this issue and the determination to address it are
necessary to make for fairer representation.
My thought about programming is that only music of excellent quality, (whether
it be old music, new music -- no matter the "category" of the composer) should
be presented to the public. In doing so, over a period of many years, a greater
number and variety of listening public will become engaged because the music
ITSELF will give to the public things which human beings NEED, for example a
beauty which is at once both immediate and mysterious. This does sound Utopian
but, since music has changed my life, I know it has and will change the lives
The difficulty lies in setting up mechanisms that can identify many different
kinds of quality music. I believe that women are composing music of first- rate
quality which should (MUST!) be heard and given an equal consideration when
making programming decisions. Gimmicks, compromises of quality, and expensive
marketing tricks are not the answer -- only a genuine concern and effort by
those professionally involved will result in a vital life for the orchestra in
CSO: How important is it that music be accessible on first hearing?
One of the most beautiful things about music, whether a Byrd Mass, a Mozart
Symphony, a Beethoven quartet, a Mahler song, Stravinsky's Rite, is the element
of mystery these works contain. No matter how familiar we are with them, each
time we revisit Bach's Goldberg Variations or Carter's Piano Concerto or
Boulez's Pli Selon Pli we can always find new qualities, experience new
awareness, enjoy new pleasures of discovery. So, when you ask how important it
is for music to be accessible on first hearing, I have to say that the
psychology of listening is very complex. I do believe however, that all music
of substance should have an immediacy about it. It should convey an aura of
significance, which is different from accessibility. If it has immediacy, an
impressive presence, access can follow with effort and with great reward.
Instant gratification is only a small part of music's great treasure trove. If
you got everything out of it at first hearing, you wouldn't ever need to hear
Well, there is great comfort in familiarity, no doubt, but the things in life
which we can easily digest -- that are self evident- are usually not those
things we want to spend a lifetime thinking about. We are attracted to
enigmatic things such as nature, gravity, the cosmos, space travel, God and
religions, advanced math, myths, love etc. I believe we find such mysteries in
art. We shouldn't panic -- it's not all bad to be baffled!
In short and in conclusion, let me say that music evolves--nothing in
Mahler's music resembles anything in that of, say, Palestrina. It will continue
to evolve but it's support mechanisms must afford it the opportunities to do so
and, not withstanding the socio-economic, political and cultural dictates of
contemporary reality, failure to do so will be catastrophic for music and thus
Used by permission of the author
and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Portions first published February 1998 in Notebook, the program book of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Part One of Interview with Augusta Read Thomas,
Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Advisory Board member of CUBE
(From the CUBE Calendar, March/April, 1998)
Are the 1990's a good time to be a creative spirit?
When the muse strikes, it strikes and in that sense, making a piece of art is a
timeless enterprise. Historically the fundamental creative process (interaction
of intellect, imagination, emotion and materials) appears to have remained
constant -- challenging each successive generation of individuals to respond in
their own distinctive way. The act of conceiving and technically executing a
musical idea of substance is no easier now -- if anything, it may be more
difficult in the absence of a common practice.
Do you think these are difficult times for young composers?
To face a blank piece of manuscript paper is difficult for anybody at any time.
The artistic process is complex and arduous. If one addresses the creative act
in an honest and impassioned manner, it is quite terrifying to create music --
terrifying and exhilarating!
A composer's life, now as always, is a crazy balancing act between creative
intensity (and the precious time needed to devote to it) and the mundane
day-to-day activities of survival. Stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time are
more valuable than anyone could imagine.
We live in a time when the arts are undervalued and underestimated by the
masses. Art music, whose chief value is the quality of its thought, is
overwhelmed by the bombastic rituals of pop culture and their commercial
exploitation. Surely not the easiest context in which to work... but you asked
about young composers. I have to say that despite some negatives, these are
positive times for talented composers in terms of professional opportunities.
When one thinks of the many composers whose distinguished contributions to the
art were ignored beyond their lifetimes, one should be appreciative of today's
How do you compose? Do you sketch?
The truly creative act springs from deep necessity. That welling up, inside, of
musical ideas is so urgent. The first sensation is like a spark or lightning
bolt -- like lighting a match -- and suddenly, poof, there's an illumination,
an inspiration, if you will. This glitter of energy might evoke a chord, a
rhythm, a motive of a tune which I will sing and ponder in relation to
structure, form, synthesis, etc. From there a macro-image and plan starts to
emerge and one must understand how the musical idea unfolds and where its
potential must lead.
To aid in this mysterious process, yes, I do sketch. These take several forms
and fulfill several functions. One is to notate and accurately preserve
decisions already made. Others may be more speculative -- an exploration, a
feeling-out of ideas whose role is not yet determined. Sketches help keep track
of the emerging ideas when interruptions of time and mood would otherwise be
disastrous. However, these are not blueprints of the final music. I do not
write a short score and then orchestrate. I like to compose the full sonic
event and to have the entire score in front of me.
When I give the finished score to the conductor and orchestra, I rarely change
much afterward. Having already gone through so many gut-wrenching revisions, I
feel quite convinced about what I have made.
What would you say are the most important influences on your music?
Music itself is probably the most vital and sobering influence. By that I mean
that music of many periods and by different composers has fascinated and
nurtured me since I was a child. I love deeply the music of J.S. Bach for its
precision, amazing invention, its elegance and the nobility and grandeur of its
emotional spectrum. The musics of Byrd, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy,
Webern, Stravinsky and Bartók are all important to me. Also that of many
contemporary composers. I listen a lot and the accomplishments of these
predecessors keep me focused and humble at the same time as they inspire me
with confidence to think creatively.
Literature, especially poetry, and the visual arts are also important sources
In what way does a visual artist impact your music?
Whether one composes in the aural or visual domain, qualities such as shape,
density, balance, direction, transition, synthesis, integration, flux, light
and dark, form are common concerns. So, I am fascinated by how a painter or
sculptor handles or employs materials toward the final effect of an art object.
I make analogies between the "still" world of objects and the temporal world of
sound. I have never composed a work which attempts to correspond to a specific
picture, but I do see in the work of Klee and Picasso, for example, imaginative
and creative decisions which can find correspondences in sound.
Of recent poets, the work of Wallace Stevens and Louis Gluck engage me
Do you consider the audience when you're working on a composition?
The desire to make music comes from very deep inside. The urge to make and
share music (communicate, if you will) is like a volcanic eruption throughout
one's body. Implied in this passion to express is a recipient of the expression
-- someone, anyone, who is a willing listener. I write music that craves a
listener and believe that if one composes music that is deeply honest,
personal, human and is technically and imaginatively elegant in its
articulation, it will find its audience -- whoever or wherever they may be.
What do you say when asked to describe your music? Is it easy to write
verbally about your work?
I'm most articulate in music and convert exactly what I am hearing to notation.
There is a smooth transmission between my ear and the manuscript paper. If
asked to write a paragraph about my music, it's as if there's this huge
wall between what I'm thinking, what I want to say and getting it into good
prose. I am not a natural writer of words. However, communicating vocally with
audiences, large or small groups and teaching about music is more immediate and
comfortable for me.
Remembering the adage -- "music takes over where words cease" -- I am aware of
its truth. One can, through technical vocabulary, describe musical phenomena --
but that doesn't help the curious but uninitiated. Equally unhelpful is to say
"this is how it feels," since that is an attempt to describe one's own private
reaction. All I can usefully say is that my music is a colorful, bold fantasy
in sound, which invites any willing listener to participate in the discovery of
its "meanings." I try to control logically its seductions and its aggressions;
its obvious elements and its mysterious layers. I respond faithfully to my
promptings and instinct and invite "the listener" to do likewise.
Used by permission of the author
and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
First published February 1998 in Notebook, the program book of the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Clarinet Summit: The New Virtuosity and the Third Stream
Larry Combs, John Bruce Yeh and J. Lawrie Bloom (Chicago Symphony);
Julie DeRoche (DePaul U.); Douglas Ewart and Mwata Bowden (AACM);
David Keberle (U. of Pittsburgh);
Richard Nunemaker (Houston Symphomy); and Christie Vohs (Chicago
Chamber Music Collective)
with the members of CUBE and special guest artists Barbara Ann Martin,
Alison Attar, harp; William Cernota, cello; and Collins Trier,
works by Elliott Carter, Douglas Ewart, Mwata Bowden, Janice Misurell-Mitchell,
Shulamit Ran, Howard Sandroff, Gunther Schuller and Stefan Wolpe, and new works
by David Keberle and Patricia Morehead
Monday, May 4, 1998, 7:30 PM
The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario, Chicago
Admission $15 ($8 students, seniors) - For info call(312) 787-3997
Valet parking $7 -- CUBE Birthday Reception follows the concert!