Music by Women on a Mission

Interview with Augusta Read Thomas

Recorded April 20, 2020

April Angilletta: Hi everyone, and welcome to Choral Arts. I’m April Angilletta, and I’m here with our Artistic Director, Scott Tucker. And our guest today is Augusta Read Thomas. She was writing a commission for our friends over at the Cathedral Choral Society. So, she’s actually not one of the composers on Music by Women on a Mission, but because there has been so much music in Washington and we’ve all been trying to feature women composers, we wanted to make sure that we interviewed some of the composers on our friend’s concerts as well. And it’s really exciting that she was writing a new piece that was going to be premiered at their performance, March of the Women. So Scott and Augusta- “Gusty”- welcome.

Scott Tucker: Thank you. Thanks April. Well, Gusty, how great to see you and to talk to you again. We were just chatting, before things rolled, that we first met through our good friend Steven Stucky (who has since passed away) from Cornell back in 2005. And you wrote a couple of things for the groups at Cornell. I don’t know if you remember the short pieces back then, but one was for the men. You did a piece of …who’s the poet?

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Augusta Read Thomas: It was it was called the The Rewaking, by William Carlos Williams.

Scott Tucker: The Rewaking. Right. A wonderful piece. And we did it not just at the premiere, but we did it a couple of times. I think that you have also rescored it as SATB, is that right?

Augusta Read Thomas: That is correct. Yep.

Scott Tucker: Yeah, that’s wonderful; such a great piece. And also for the women, you did an Emily Dickinson piece a couple of years later, Juggler of Day. [It’s] also acapella, a very challenging piece, but a wonderful soundscape. I’ve heard you talk before about how fascinated you are with sound and I guess I’m wondering, when you approach a poem and you’re so fascinated by sound, how are you marrying those two things, exactly?

Augusta Read Thomas: Well, let me start by just thanking you, Scott, for including me in this podcast. It’s incredibly nice of you and I am so happy to see you and really grateful for this opportunity to speak with you and about my work, especially at a time when so many people are dealing with incredible health issues and other issues, financial issues and so forth. I feel very blessed, so thank you. And I remember our collaborations at Cornell with great pleasure. And I have this weird thing when I write a piece- I just memorize it. So like, when you say the name of the piece, it just pops, right? Like it just goes right back into my brain. And I remember the beautiful men’s voices. It was just so beautiful and that piece is so simple.

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I loved it. And then to write the Juggler of Day was super fun on the Emily Dickinson. That’s basically a poem about a sunrise and then a long sunset. And so I tried to set it really bright at the front end of the piece with the women’s voices in kind of chords, sort of bell like structures. And then as the sun fades, it turns into this multi-part counterpoint that just continues to weave its way all the way back until the very last line that “the juggler of day,” meaning the sun, is gone.

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Augusta Read Thomas: It’s just like typical Emily Dickinson. I just love those texts and thinking about the images, you know; what does the sunrise sound like, and what does this long denouement [sound like] because most of the poem is about how the sun is setting, right? And most of the lines of the poem on that side of the moment.

And then the William Carlos Williams is basically a love song. It’s just about this incredible love. It’s just so, so beautiful. So I like to really try to set the poem because I think if the poet has said something and then I just like add music, like one plus one, [then] it equals two, it’s not enough. It has to be like the poem is one and I have the music one and then the chorus and the conductor and everybody, and then it adds up to 28, you know. It can’t just add up to two. You have to kind of make something of it. And I love writing these short choral works- they’re just so much fun- and really carefully picking the texts. So yes, I remember the whole Cornell collaboration with you with immense, immense joy actually and it was so helpful to me that you reached out and supported me in my life’s work at that time and like helped me to have these wonderful projects. It was great.

Scott Tucker: It was a time that I think you were making a transition right then. You had been teaching, but I think at the time you decided you were going to stop teaching. And just devote yourself to composition just around that time. But I wanted to say, I think one thing I remember when you visited and we talked, and maybe you were talking to a bunch of our composers at Cornell at the time, but I just remember being so impressed and fascinated how much poetry and literature was in your mind that you had at the tip of your tongue. And I don’t know if you remember that, or whether people have remarked on that before, but it’s something I noticed right away. You know, some musicians are so immersed in only music that they almost forget about texts, but it seems to be such a big part of who you are. And I’m wondering if you could comment on that and where that came from.

Augusta Read Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I love poetry. I love it. And it’s sort of a side area of interest for me. For instance, I have walls of poetry books and I’ve purchased all the recordings of every poet reading their poem. So I’ve started to memorize the poems by the sound of how the poet reads it and the tempo and the color of their voice. Like Wallace Stevens in “The Idea of Order at Key West”. He does it so slowly. So it’s like, “She sang … beyond the genius of this, the water … never for”.

Like, it’s like music, you know. You can memorize it because it’s a piece of music basically. And I’m totally obsessed. I listen over and over again to The New Yorker poetry podcasts. I’ve heard all of them five, six, seven, eight times. And I read poems every day. So it’s just the one thing that kind of has captured me, and I love to think about line and image. And for instance, if in a poem you add a dash, like an Emily Dickinson dash, the whole poem changes. You have a stanza break, you put a period, you invert one word in a different way, and the whole meaning changes. The great poets are of enormous inspiration to me. I was thinking also that with poetry, you can read a 20 word poem and it can describe the whole universe.

Now if you had to describe the poem in 20 words, you couldn’t. You’d need paragraphs or pages or an essay, like “here’s what this poem is doing”. And the poem is only 20 words, and they’re the perfect 20 words that say the whole thing. That really appeals to me. And in my own music, I like short forms and I like to sculpt every single sound and polish it, and right down to the dash, the dot, the decrescendo, the harmonic rhythm, the rhythmic syntax, all the things that I’m working out every day, the counterpoint- I definitely come to it with a poet sensibility. Even though I do write long works vocally, it’s all the little poems that are all worked out. So it’s not just my interest in poetry, but it’s an interest in concision, clarity of thought, having something to say, and saying it, and stopping, you know. That’s all you need to say. If you look at one of the Bach preludes or, let’s pick anything. Let’s take a prelude. It’s two and a half minutes. One of the Well-Tempered Clavier ones; pick any one. It’s like a whole universe in it. The thing is two and a half minutes long, maybe three minutes. Or a Goldberg variation is 45 seconds and it’s got an entire universe. So that that really appeals to me as an artist and I think it can be heard in all of my work. I believe that kind of sensibility. So yeah, the poets have continued to be just a deep source of inspiration.

Scott Tucker: That really answers the question I was getting at. I was trying to figure out this relationship between sound and poetry and you’ve really articulated it beautifully. Let’s talk a little bit about this piece you were going to write for the Cathedral Choral Society, because I know a part of the text, at least, is by your sister Cammie. I know you’re one of 10 siblings, is that right? You were the 10th of 10.

Augusta Read Thomas: Tenth of 10.

Scott Tucker: Amazing. So, how much did you learn from your siblings and how much influence are they on your life?

Augusta Read Thomas: Well, I love my siblings. They’re fabulous and they’re a huge inspiration to me. I learned a lot from them. I still learn a lot from them and I love to be with them. They’re all very bright and smart and engaged and engaging and artistic. You know, they’re all just really interesting people, what they’re doing with their lives. And I treasure having them in my life. And [for] the piece for the Cathedral Choral Society, my eldest sister, who’s the oldest, who’s a published poet, her third book is forthcoming. And I’m the youngest, so we’re like the bookends. I thought it would be fun to set a poem of hers or two, especially because this whole project was about women, and the march of women, and women working together. And I thought, “what better way than me to work with my sister?” Like at the fundamental level that just gets right to the point of the matter.

And so I asked her to write a poem about peace, a plea for peace essentially, but that had imagery to do with the sun and the moon. And that I wanted a lot of open vowels and that I did not want it to be too long, like maybe 20 words each. So 40 words total or something. I didn’t want to be setting the phone book with like pages of words because I like melismas, and I like building chords on open vowels that the chorus can like build around. And so those were the only things I said, I think. And I didn’t want anything to be dark or ugly because my music is sort of radiant and sort of positive. And then she wrote these gorgeous, gorgeous, stunning poems. Beautiful. Just absolutely beautiful. And so then, off I went in and made the piece and of course, when we are able to do the premiere, she’ll come and her whole family will come.

It’s really nice to have a living poet there, at the pre-concert lecture, or like on a podcast like this. Like, what is the poet thinking about when some composer calls you up? And so anyway, it was super fun with our first collaboration and I’m really excited for whenever it is re-premiered. I feel very grateful to the artists, because they practiced for so many months, like from January to February, and then suddenly, like 10 days before, it gets canceled. But they already learned the piece.

Scott Tucker: I know. And that’s a tough situation. I didn’t realize that she actually wrote the poems for this occasion. I thought maybe they were prewritten, but that’s really interesting.

Augusta Read Thomas: I commissioned them from her, I guess you would say. And so it was fun. Partly I commissioned them because I wanted very specific things, such as those I mentioned.

April Angilletta: David from the Cathedral Choral Society asked if there’s any anywhere specific in the music that the audience might be able to hear the collaboration with your sister.

Augusta Read Thomas: I might not be understanding your question. I’m sorry. But it seems to me that the whole composition is the collaboration, because I set very much the imagery of her poems in the music. And so I think of the entire thing as a collaboration. I see it as very integrated and very holistic, and at the fundamental level, you know, braiding from her words into my music and out into the voices and into the orchestra and into the beautiful space of the cathedral. So to me it’s all a very integrated network.

Scott Tucker: I saw the questions he sent, and he asked an interesting question about acoustics. The acoustics of the National Cathedral are particularly live and resonant. And a more general question would be, where do acoustics play in your thought process?

Augusta Read Thomas: Yes. With that piece I was very much thinking of the acoustics because I’m aware that there’s a five second delay. And in a setting like that, if you try to do very fast Hawkins, for example, it just turns into a cloud. On the other hand, if you have a piece with a slightly slower harmonic rhythm and these big chords that kind of unfold in an organ-esque way, like playing the organ and letting it sound so that if an A natural is still ringing in the cathedral and then the next chord comes in on whatever pitch it comes in, you hear that relation across over what would be a bar of rest. But you know, the sound is not a bar of rest. So yes, I do have a lot of lift in the composition where I’ll build up to this huge chord and then have like two beats and then we’re back.

But the two beats are actually full of resonance. And I did that on purpose. I tried to sing it and conduct it and feel it like, “Alright, how is this going to feel in real time?” And I think I put something in the front matter that if the piece is done in an extremely dry acoustic at some point that one just has to take that into account, that it was built for a piece of a very round acoustic. So for instance, in a dry acoustic, you might do the piece at a slightly faster tempo, as one example.

But I love the idea of writing for that acoustic and I’m very sensitive to acoustics always. Like I always want to know, “Which hall are we doing this in? Where’s the audience sitting, and which side are the violins? Are they divided or are they together, and are the brass centered, or are they off to one side and where’s the percussion?”

Like, I want to know everything. I was writing them saying “Are the bass singers near the double basses or the double basses on the other side?” Like things like that. I asked a bunch of questions like that so I knew how to orchestrate essentially. And so I get very attached to tempos and the acoustic mise-en-scène around the piece. Definitely. And typically I don’t love dry concert halls. I like halls that have a little bit of resonance. Although, to make a recording of course, working in a dry hall is great. You can hear a pin drop and you can get every nuance just buttoned up. So it depends on what the activity is.

Scott Tucker: Were there any other questions from the singer, April, that you had?

April Angilletta: Well I have one more from David, which is also right along the lines of what you’re talking about with the orchestration. And he was asking if you could talk about some of the major differences between composing for instruments and instrumental ensembles versus composing for voices and vocal ensembles, and if there are any unique challenges in writing for voices.

Augusta Read Thomas: Well, first of all, let me thank David for his three excellent questions. That’s super nice of him. And yes, I do approach every instrument as a unique object for which I’m composing. Not only every instrument, but every specific player. So for instance, am I writing for a violinist who’s very bravura, or am I writing for somebody who’s playing a lot of early music and is more interior? Are you writing for a young, young girls chorus? Are you writing for the Berlin Philharmonic? I mean, you really have to think of not just orchestra in general, but which orchestra, and who’s conducting and what the concert hall is. So I try to tailor make my pieces. That’s the best way I can put it.

For instance, in Scott’s chorus up in Cornell, those unbelievable men that I just completely, and the women; oh my God, it was unbelievable! But anyway, Scott had told me several of them don’t read music. You know, they’re learning partly by going through and just learning it. And, that’s just such a beautiful thought. I just love that, that some young man can be part of this chorus and maybe doesn’t read as well as the person standing next to him. You know, that’s a certain thing that’s just gorgeous. And then, on the other hand, writing for these ensembles or things. So, I just try to tailor make what have been asked to make. For instance, for the big choral and orchestra piece that we were talking about, it was a very specific occasion. And what fits that occasion? I mean we’re talking about the 19th amendment and women’s suffrage and, you know, where does that go out to and how do we follow the paths where that leads to today? And really not just writing some random piece like, “Oh I’ll set Emily Dickinson. Why not?” You know, cause that doesn’t really address the commission.

And so I like to tailor make things, actually, because it really is very focusing and yet on the other hand, if you write a piece for chorus and orchestra, you want another chorus and orchestra to be able to do it. So it has to have a certain universality to it. But I do think it’s also important to honor the musicians that have taken the risk to commission you. They’ve asked you for something specific. They’re supporting your life’s work and so forth. To really do my best to address that specific thing.

Scott Tucker: I love your last point. And it reminds me again of something that strikes me really about you, and working with you, is your sense of gratitude to performers particularly, but to really to everybody that you’re working with. A lot of us miss that message of gratitude and what an important part of life that is. And I’m wondering, where that comes from? Does that come from your upbringing? Does it come from experience? Where does that sense of gratitude come from?

Augusta Read Thomas: Well, I guess I would say very bluntly that the reason I write music is to express gratitude.

Because I love music. I love it. I’ve loved it since I was this little girl. I used to lie under the piano, and then when I was like four I started making up songs that had like two notes in them, like plank plunk, and that would be a whole song, and stuff like that. And then I was lucky to have piano lessons and sing in choir and play guitar and play trumpet all the way through college as a performance major. So I have such an empathy for players because that was my whole side of it all for so long. Although I composed all the way through that also. But I feel like to be able to get up and write music for somebody that’s invited you to do that and that’s going to perform it; it’s unbelievable. It’s something to be so grateful for.

And also to be able to be healthy enough, because these pieces take a lot of work, or at least it takes me a lot of work. Maybe I’m slower than others, but I like to make everything really tailored and totally polished and sculpted and proportioned and all of this. So I mean, it’s hard work, so you have to have good health and a sort of an intense work ethic to get all this done. But it’s still so fortunate; I feel so fortunate to be able to do that. And you know, when I listen to music, I’m so grateful for the players who played it. And like, if you hear somebody do any Bach,  I just am so happy, deeply happy, cause it happens to be my favorite composer, or Mahler, or Ravel, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Mingus, or Miles or any number of people, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. And they spent their whole life impassioned about music. And a lot of them just made music till the till they died basically. Literally. And I probably will be exactly the same, on my death bed, writing down, you know, two little notes or something cause it’s just such a joy, but it’s also hard.

Like I’ve spent my entire life actually devoted to music. I don’t have children, you know, I just work all day long about everything. That’s all I do. I’m obsessed with composing music and also helping other people with their music in lots of ways. But you know, it’s, it’s a pleasure to be able to do it. And there’s a lot of things, I’m really bad at. Like really long lists of stuff I’m really bad at, like I can’t cook, you know, et cetera. It goes on from there. All the basic stuff- I can’t do of it. But if you just like sit me at a piano and say go, then that’s the one little thing that I actually am starting to get good at. Like, I can do that. So, you know, it takes an enormous focus to get to that level. And then when you finally, after 40 years of hard work, you start to get better, you know, then you want to do it.

Scott Tucker: You know, it’s funny to hear you talk because you had earlier a success than most people. Most composers and most people. You were you were already a great success in the music world at age 23 or so as a composer. Is that not when you began as the composer in residence at Chicago Symphony or am I conflating things?

Augusta Read Thomas: I’m trying to think. Let’s see. I mean, I was just an obsessive writer, just since I was such a young child, it’s hard for me to even remember which year was which. I probably shouldn’t admit this, because it’s totally not a bad thing, but I don’t have a master’s degree and I don’t have a doctorate. I, in other words, just went straight into writing. And in a way, I do have a master’s degree and about 10 doctorates because of learning from the musicians. If you stand in front of a great chorus and you spent eight months making a piece, that’s a very good education. You know, it may not be a degree, but to be able to work with those musicians is like a degree. Like a life degree or something like that.

So I just was so in the mode of doing it so young and I was very fortunate to have people support, give me the chance to do it, and give me a chance to improve at it. But I also didn’t spend many years getting a master’s and then six years getting a doctorate. I just went straight in. So I guess I was really very young and very fortunate. And also, I worked really hard every day, all day. But it’s not really work cause it’s what I love to do. So it’s just living.

Scott Tucker: And so now, you’ve been in this world of composing concert music for a while now. And how has your attitude toward teaching evolved or changed over time? You were a teacher at a pretty young age and now you’re teaching again. How has that philosophy changed or attitude toward teaching?

Augusta Read Thomas: I did start teaching very young at the Eastman School of Music, which I loved. I was an assistant professor there, and then I was an associate professor there. A great school. And then I taught at Northwestern. And of course I teach in the summers at Tanglewood and at Aspen and other festivals. So I feel like I’m teaching all the time. And now I’m, of course, at the University of Chicago. So I love to teach, but I think of it as three circles that interlock. So like the first circle is Gusty the composer and then, if you can put the second circle in the first one, that’s Gusty the teacher, and you can’t really separate them. Because I’m making work every day and then I’m talking to people who are making work and I can talk to them about it because I’m doing it all day. It’s just sort of the same thing. I like it. I love it, actually, and I love my students. It’s super natural to share. I really enjoy teaching.

And then the third thing I would say, in terms of those two circles, is a third circle (which I can’t do with my fingers) which is what I would call something like citizenship, because I’ve done a lot of things like working for the Chicago Symphony for a decade, and starting the Music Now series. And I was the Chair of the Board of the American Music Center, which is a huge job. And I serve on the Copland board and the Ditson board and the Koussevitzky board. And I’m the vice president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And I run a center, and I founded an ensemble, and I ran this huge Ear Taxi festival.

So, in short, that third circle, I’ve done an enormous amount of that. I’m not just sitting here doing my own work. I’ve tried to be really generous, like, do this and do this and then do that. But the way I see it, it’s sort of all one circle; they all feed each other. If I’m going to write, and then teach someone, then I want to help them get their piece played, and then I want to get them a commission, and get them a performance, and make a festival where everybody can have their pieces, and so on. You can’t really separate those because I just live all of those, if you know what I mean.

Scott Tucker: Well, before we wrap up I wanted to ask you, how are you doing now, with this a pandemic upon us? Has this changed your life in any way? How’s it going for you?

Augusta Read Thomas: Well, I’m very sad for people who are losing their lives and for people who are very sick, because this is just not nice and I want them to all get better. And I hope that we flattened the curve, as it were. I believe in science. I believe the scientists are working overtime all around world to find medications that work and we’ll eventually find a vaccine. So I’m an optimist for sure. How long that will take? I don’t know. And then in terms of my own personal life, I didn’t know life was like this actually. I didn’t even know this was a thing, because my life is usually like, get up, race, go teach, run to the airport, get to the airport, get somewhere at midnight, get up, run, go to the rehearsal, go to the board meeting, get back, go there, do this, come back, put makeup on in the car, do phone calls. It was like this for 30 years.

I mean trips twice a week, going somewhere, concerts, preconcert lectures, post-concert events. Another project here. And so all of a sudden, 30 years of that just goes like, STOP. And at the first month I was like, “What is going on? I don’t even know what to do.”

Like I told you, I can’t cook, I can’t do anything! All of a sudden I’m sitting there going, “what am I doing?” But you know, of course I’m teaching full time, which is great, by Zoom, and I run a center and I run an ensemble. So I’ve got plenty to do. But it’s like a body shock. I don’t think I’ve ever been home this long. Certainly not in about 30 or 35 years. So, but now a month.

So I hated it. But now a month later I’m like, “Oh, I can actually like have breakfast” and you know, whatever. I mean, it’s just like these things that just seemed so normal. I think they weren’t normal. Then, in terms of composing, every minute I’m not doing all the other stuff I do, I’m composing nonstop. Like every day. So I feel very lucky and fortunate. But you know, one has to be really mindful of the whole society, the whole culture and making sure everybody comes through this okay. And we can restart. And I hope we all come out of this a lot stronger. I know a lot of composers are like, “why should I write? I don’t know if anyone will play it. I don’t know if I’ll get a commission for it. I don’t know if they’ll ever do it. I mean, I’m not going to write it. Why would I work that hard?” I’ve heard a lot of people say that and I understand. I get it, this is not a normal thing. But I am like completely the opposite. I’m writing like there’s no tomorrow. I’m just going, because it’s what I do and you know, then when this is all over, we’ll just see what happens. But I want to keep making the pieces.

Scott Tucker: And we’re glad that you do. I think you you’re such an extraordinary composer and person. And so, what a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.

Augusta Read Thomas: Thank you. I mean, it’s so generous of you to do this. Thank you very much.

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