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 composer?

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 improve it?

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 of others.

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 society.

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 it again.

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 for mankind.

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 opportunities.

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 of influence.

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 deeply.

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
Nine Clarinetists!
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, soprano;
Alison Attar, harp; William Cernota, cello; and Collins Trier, double bass

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!