Photos by Michael Lutch
WALKING PAST GOODSPEED HALL, it isn’t unusual to hear the cacophony of musicians at work in the first-floor practice rooms. Fortunately, composer Augusta Read Thomas is inspired by a little noise.
Thomas, who will join the Department of Music as a University Professor of Composition in July, grew up surrounded by music. Most of her nine older siblings were into music, “so the house was rather loud!” she recalls. “I would hear the Beatles from one room, then Simon and Garfunkel, and then from another room someone might be playing classical music.”
A native of Glen Cove, New York, Thomas began taking piano lessons at age four. By the time she began high school at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, she had already begun to compose music. She went on to study at Northwestern, Yale, and the Royal Academy of Music, where she completed postgraduate training in composition, and at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.
Now a Grammy-winning composer, Thomas has made her mark on the world of contemporary classical music. Her work has been performed by ensembles worldwide, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she was Mead Composer-in-Residence from 1997 to 2006. In June, her latest violin concerto will premiere at the Kennedy Center.
Thomas’s nuanced work is known for its passionate, improvisatory quality, and its singular sound-world. “Ms. Thomas's compositional idiom is one of modernist complexity, yet the sheer delight she takes in exploring instrumental sonorities proves infectious,” Steve Smith wrote in the New York Times in 2006.
Thomas is the sixteenth person—and first woman—to hold the title of University Professor, an honor given to scholars who have achieved eminence in their field. (As part of a broader plan to expand the faculty, Chicago hopes to create ten new University professorships by 2014.) She spoke to Tableau about her decision to join the faculty, her compositional process, and her early musical experiences.
Why did you want to teach at the University of Chicago?
The opportunity to work with Professors Shulamit Ran and Marta Ptaszynska and the ethnomusicologists, historical musicologists, and theorists on the faculty, who are really exceptional, was one I wouldn’t turn down. I’ve always admired the music department at the U. of C. I think it’s the best department of music in the country. Every single member is a superstar. I know that working with these particular colleagues would be very enriching to me.
Tell us about your creative process.
One of the things I’m interested in is the way things are argued, in a Platonic sense. In mathematics, you have a conjecture, and then, spinning out, the next logical conclusion, and then you might have a theorem of 87 pages. It’s the same with sound—what is the first sound? How do we break silence? What would be the next logical step? It’s baby steps: it might be one more note, or one more beat. I start at the beginning of the piece, and I work through to the end, so I’m writing in real time. The pieces are about what they themselves are about. In other words, the piece has its own inner logic and inner magic.
Do you have any superstitions or habits when you write?
I stand at a drafting table with pens and rulers and White-Out. I’m very attached to this system. There’s a comfort in the things that are the same, because every piece I make is a brand new entity. We composers have to create something out of thin air every single time. That’s extremely hard, so the consistencies are kind of comforting.
One of your pieces premiered at the New York Philharmonic when you were just 24. How did that happen?
I applied for a grant called the ASCAP Student Composer Award. One of the jury members was the composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, and they had an opening at a festival called Horizons. They called me up and said, “We loved your piece for ASCAP. Do you have parts for the orchestra?” I was in shock. I said, “Yes, I do.” Of course, I had no parts! But it was such a huge opportunity.
Do you ever need a break from music?
I am really into music. I think it would be fair to say I have an insatiable appetite for it. I can get up and proofread, and then write for eight hours, and then listen to two hours of music, and then I can go to a concert, and then I can go out and talk more about music …. I feel very honored and lucky to be able to saturate myself in music every day. I hate vacations. I’m hopeless. After four minutes, I start shaking and looking for my manuscript paper. Music really is, for me, the deepest passion.