Augusta Read Thomas, modern music composer

photo by Eugene Zakusilo




Daniel Barenboim and Thomas at rehearsal for Aurora, which premiered in June 2000


Pierre Boulez with Augusta Read Thomas in November 1998 after the premiere of Orbital Beacons


Thomas with solo cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and conductor Seiji Ozawa in April 1997 for the premiere of Chanson

photo by Miro Vintoniv



"I think of the music I compose as 'emergency music,'" says composer Augusta Read Thomas (Mu87). "Every note is imperative and has something really big at stake. It's music that's vivid, bold, passionate, colorful ... and full of electricity."

Vivid, bold, colorful, indeed. Listeners and professional musicians couldn't agree more — and Thomas' career, impressive for someone so young, might easily be described in similar terms.

In the 14 years since she left Northwestern with a bachelor's degree in composition, Thomas has won nearly every major music award and also the hearts and minds of the world's top conductors, orchestras, chamber groups and soloists who perform and record her compositions.

With the same fiery exuberance found in her work, Thomas promotes the emergence of new music from other composers in her role as composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also nurtures the careers of new composers through her teaching — for many years at the Eastman School of Music and now in a heartily applauded return to Northwestern's School of Music.

In addition to vivid, bold and colorful there are other words that can describe Thomas' success — words that define her as an individual and a well-respected professional: reliable, hard-working, personable and down-to-earth. Indeed, she possesses an endearing blend of bold originality and old-fashioned heart.

At Thomas' core, like that of any composer, is the music itself, day and night.

"I'm thrilled to be writing for the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony and the Boston Symphony," she says, "but really, other people are more aware of my résumé than I am. What I'm thinking about most of the time is how I can improve my music. You know: 'The transitions in the trumpet concerto could've been stronger' — things like that. So I don't use the word 'success' to describe what I've done. I'm too self-critical for that. I'm more concerned about getting up every morning and working diligently with passion!"

Thomas travels all over the world, but no matter where she is, she rises around 4 a.m. to compose. That way, she can count on getting in a solid five hours of work before needing to turn to other activities, be they teaching, traveling or taking care of business chores such as correspondence.

"My basic task as a composer is to get up every day, put on my sweat pants, make a pot of tea, pick up a pen and stare at blank white paper," she says. "Even though I may have several commissions pending, I work on only one piece at a time, even if it takes several months to complete. And I get so obsessed about that single piece that there's no room in my ears for another piece. So while I'm composing, I'm feeling that one piece, dancing it, tapping it, singing it, conducting it, drawing it in colored pens until I get it out of my system and notate it completely."

Thomas describes the experience of composing as both "terrifying and exhilarating," involving bursts of inspiration that are like "sparks or lightning bolts," and which, in turn, evoke musical entities such as chords, rhythms and themes and ultimately an entire score.

As for the source of her inspiration, the commissions she receives from orchestras and other performing groups provide a general framework. For example, she knew from the start that a recent work, Song in Sorrow, was to be written for a soprano soloist, six vocal soloists, a chorus and full orchestra and meant to honor the memory of the students killed at Kent State University in 1970. But actual musical details spring, says Thomas, "from abstract places very deep inside of me."

That's not to say, though, that her music isn't influenced by some everyday elements. Her music is affected in a positive way by the love and support she gets from her husband, fellow composer Bernard Rands, and her family, including nine siblings, as well as from her "huge" interest in poetry, nature and spirituality.

Of course, Thomas readily acknowledges, her music is also influenced by other music. This includes pieces that she chooses to listen to — Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Berio and Knussen, not to mention jazz and big band numbers, are favorites — but also music and other sounds that reach her ears wherever she is.

"I'm like radar for sound," she says, laughing. "I can be in a restaurant, and a distant sound can completely distract me. So composing is always happening for me. No matter how I appear on the surface, I have this unmovable center that's always composing, always listening to sound and always imagining a new sound world."

Critics, too, have joined musicians and the public in praising what most feel are the sounds of an American original. "It's music that doesn't sound like anybody else's — music that insists you pay attention," writes John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune.

Susan Feder, vice president of music publishing house G. Schirmer, and critic Elaine Guregian of the Akron Beacon Journal are both struck by Thomas' ability to make her work contemporary yet approachable. "Thomas' music is at once intelligent and intense, urgent and impassioned, structurally complex and immediately accessible," Feder says, with Guregian noting that "her modernity is organic and never tries too hard to shock."

Despite such rave reviews, Thomas remains humble. Yet she is pleased that her music is pleasing listeners because she views her work as "music that craves any listener willing to participate in the discovery of its meanings."

That urge to connect and her fertile flow of ideas have resulted in a varied body of work encompassing just about every imaginable musical concept and combination of instruments and voices.

Ritual Incantations pits a solo cello against an entire orchestra in a battle of persistence versus resistance. Orbital Beacons, an experimental "concerto for orchestra," divides up the ensemble in a novel way into 10 separate sections. Words of the Sea is an orchestral work consisting of a series of "aquatic images" based on Wallace Stevens' poem, The Idea of Order at Key West. Her opera, Ligeia, was commissioned by the legendary conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

Ring Out, Wild Bells, to the Wild Sky, an unusual work written for large chorus and orchestra and based on texts by Alfred Lord Tennyson, begins with prolonged bell sounds and erupts into choral fireworks. And Seahorse Serenade, a piece recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has been playing for many years as atmospheric music at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

Among the major orchestras and chamber ensembles that have performed her works are the previously mentioned Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony and Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Germany's NDR, the Amelia Trio and the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer. Vocalists who have performed her pieces include Elizabeth Norman, Christine Brewer, Carmen Pelton, Dorothea Roschmann and Christine Brandes.

Perhaps her most prestigious award came from the Munich-based Siemens Foundation (past recipients include Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein); however, the most timely award was a Guggenheim fellowship that enabled Thomas to devote a full year to composing early in her career.

Although she appreciates the recognition from such prestigious institutions as the Koussevitzky Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Thomas also prizes the President's Merit Award (1999) and the Northwestern University Alumnae Award (2000). "The Northwestern awards are just as important to me as the others, including the top music awards," she says. "I'm equally grateful for each one I've received."

Still, Thomas does not confuse award with reward. "Awards are nice, but winning an award doesn't help the next composition write itself onto a blank page," she says. "Keeping up a level of artistic and musical excellence is the main point. I think of each of my works as representing a 'life's work' and not as individual islands. They all connect in some abstract way, and I learn from one what to do — and not to do — in the next one."

This observation underscores a key factor in Thomas' ongoing success: her professionalism and reliability as a composer.

"One reason why she's so strong as a composer," says Northwestern music professor Alan Stout, "is her reliable craftsmanship. When a group gets a score from her, they know it will be well done and very clearly written. That's very important in the music business."

Another aspect of Thomas' career is her work as an ardent advocate for new music.

One key responsibility as the CSO's composer in residence is to write a certain number of original compositions for the orchestra. She's completed two for Pierre Boulez and two for current CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, and her contract requires three more.

But another part to the job involves choosing new music for the CSO to play and then educating the public about it. Thomas works hard on a contemporary music series sponsored by the CSO called MusicNOW. Her work in general includes reviewing new scores submitted to the orchestra, working with visiting composers, attending rehearsals of new works, advising Barenboim about future music options and giving preconcert lectures on new music that include interviews with the featured composers.

"I tell people, 'Don't assume that someone else has the only authentic understanding of a work and that you don't know enough about it to be engaged by it,'" Thomas says. "Simply open your heart, ears and mind and listen your way.'"

CSO president Henry Fogel attests to her effectiveness in this realm. "Besides being one of the world's most important composers, Augusta is a wonderful speaker who really engages the audience," he says. Asserts Barenboim, "She's a passionate and articulate advocate for the music of our time."

No one realizes better than Thomas herself that such proselytizing creates the future for new music. "I believe that contemporary music of all kinds — art music, jazz, folk music, world music and electronic and computer-generated sound — is essential, beautiful, vivid, natural, powerful, interesting and nourishing for the soul," she says. "In an environment like ours, in which we are bombarded with simpleminded pop culture, the 'quality of thought' offered by great music can be overlooked too easily — and it mustn't be!"

Contemporary composers especially championed by Thomas in recent years include many young composers as well as Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag, George Benjamin of Great Britain, David Rakowski of the United States and Frenchman Henri Dutilleux "because their music is beautiful and personal."

During the past four years of her appointment with the CSO, Thomas has flown into Chicago countless times. On the flight approaches she would always gaze down at the Evanston campus and ask herself, "I wonder if someday I'll be back at Northwestern?"

Now, the thought has become reality. Starting this fall she returns to the University as a professor of composition — even while hanging on to the rest of her busy life. And she couldn't be more pleased about it. Thomas characteristically applies the same passion to teaching that she devotes to composing and advocating new music. Her enthusiasm is fueled by the debt she feels she owes to those who helped launch her career.

Thomas grew up in a music-loving family in which she and her brothers and sisters all played musical instruments, but it was a piano teacher who encouraged her to write compositions when she was just 5 years old. As she grew up, she studied piano and trumpet and later transitioned into music theory and composition in high school. So, by the time she entered Northwestern in 1983, she knew she wanted to be a composer.

The University was an ideal place for her to grow under the guidance of Stout and composition instructor Bill Karlins and with the resources of so many performance outlets for her music.

"It was a great environment!" she recalls. "I was surrounded by an excellent faculty of experienced composers and terrific student musicians to perform my works. I got great one-on-one attention and was able to have a full recital of my chamber works each year as well as a reading or a performance of a large orchestral score — which, for an undergrad, is a lot."

Leaving Northwestern with a suitcase full of pieces, she was in good shape to enter graduate school at Yale and the Royal Academy of Music. "At Northwestern, I was very obsessed about composing — and the School of Music allowed that," she says. "I was allowed to excel."

On the Evanston campus Thomas, who taught for eight years at Eastman, will be teaching private composition students, "which means meeting with students separately one-on-one for an hour every week and going through whatever they're writing," she says. "Depending on their level, discussions will involve everything from basic to advanced technique to experimentation to orchestration to other issues that people talk about when they're writing music. A good teacher says, 'OK, bars 12 through 20 work well for these reasons, but bars 20 through 30 would be better if only you do this.' These are things that you need to learn as a young composer.'

"When I was at Northwestern, I had to write a lot of bad music first and then refine it," she says, laughing. "Bill Karlins and Alan Stout saw that I needed to do that and helped me do that, while explaining ways I might improve. So that's what I do with my students too."

Thomas' career will hardly slow down any time soon — but spending more time in Evanston will be a way for her to smooth out the logistics.

"By teaching in the Chicago area rather than in Rochester, my jigsaw puzzle of a life — which includes my living in Evanston and my husband living in Boston — is simplified because I'm cutting one city [Rochester] out of my regular travel schedule," she says. "I can dedicate myself to my CSO duties much more easily now. Reduced travel will also provide me more of the quiet, uninterrupted time that's necessary for composing. It's very difficult to compose good work when you're living out of suitcase."

Karlins notes that the music faculty members always enjoyed Thomas' winning mix of extraordinary talent and genuine modesty during her undergraduate days. "When she was my student, it was already obvious how talented she was," he says. "But, at the same time, she was always in awe of what she was learning — and was always saying how exciting it was every day to be a musician.

"As gifted as she was, she always worked extremely hard — and never gave you the sense that there was a big ego there. And she's still like that, as successful as she is. All of us here are delighted to see her back."


Terry Breen is a Chicago-based writer, folk singer and musician.