12 Feb 2015

EOS: A Ballet for Orchestra

Map of EOS by Augusta Read Thomas

Map of EOS by Augusta Read Thomas

A dialogue between Utah Symphony Principal Librarian Clovis Lark and composer Augusta Read Thomas

I first encountered Augusta Read Thomas’s music in April 1996 while I was Ensembles Librarian at Indiana University.  For a concert in April of that year, we prepared her Sinfonia for chamber orchestra.  Not long after that, while in Chicago, I happened to visit the Shedd Aquarium, a wonderful location for marine life on the edge of Lake Michigan, where a feature exhibit devoted to seahorses had Augusta’s Seahorse Symphony playing as background to the displays – and a CD of the Symphony, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was for sale in the Aquarium gift shop.

My next encounter with her music was as a guest of Pierre Boulez for rehearsals and a performance of a MusicNow concert (MusicNow is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new music series which was imagined, established, led, and was also programmed by Augusta when she was Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1996-2007).  Mr. Boulez was very excited about her new work In My Sky at Twilight, for soprano and chamber orchestra that was being premiered.  I sat in on the CD recording session and subsequent performance and later discussed the work with Mr. Boulez, which I felt was quite significant.  Boulez agreed enthusiastically. It was at this concert that I finally met Augusta and began our friendship.

Shortly after I joined the Utah Symphony, we invited Cliff Colnot, director of the Chicago MusicNow series, to conduct a concert of contemporary music with the Utah Symphony.  He and I both agreed that it would be a wonderful idea to include a premiere by Augusta on that program.  Augusta composed for us a new work entitled Terpsichore’s Dream which was first performed at the Rose Wagner Theater on October 18, 2007.  Now, just over seven years later, the Utah Symphony has commissioned and is premiering EOS a ballet for orchestra, Augusta’s latest composition for full orchestra.  This premiere is the first of three premieres by American composers that the Utah Symphony will be performing during 2015 as part of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations (A percussion concerto by Andrew Norman and a new work by Nico Muhly follow in November and December, respectively).

Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony Music Director, spent considerable time over several years reviewing recent works by Augusta that I gave him before he found what “clicked” for him in her music.  This is one of the fascinating aspects of art.  One can look at many works, never getting the right sense of where one wants to go.  Suddenly, that key is found in a certain work and the rest all follow!  For Thierry, that key was Augusta’s 30-minute Cello Concerto No. 3 premiered by the Boston Symphony with Lynn Harrel as cello soloist with Christoph Eschenbach conducting.

Augusta was kind enough to speak with me about the upcoming premiere of EOS, which the Utah Symphony is performing February at Abravanel Hall February 20-21:

CL: Gusty, it is a real pleasure to be able to discuss your work, I thought we might find out about your career as a composer leading up to EOS. What inspired you to choose composition as a career and means of expression?
ART: Thank you, Clovis!  I am thrilled to be working with you, Maestro Fischer, and the Utah Symphony and look forward to our February world premiere!
From age 4 to 14, I took piano lessons and from age 8 all the way through college, I played trumpet and enrolled as a trumpet performance major in the Music School of Northwestern University.  Composing, singing in choir, and playing guitar were also part of my musical life and training.  Gradually, over about 20 years, I started to find composition more interesting than playing. I thought it was more fun to make everything up out of thin air rather than sit and play my one part. Steadily my composing evolved and bloomed.  I guess you could summarize by saying that my childhood was akin to a big, musical river morphing me into a composer as a result of twenty years of dedicated writing, practicing, performing and singing.  It was a natural, organic development into a life spent composing.  Since age 20, I have been composing every day with passion and dedication.

CL:  Certainly entering such an artistic discipline seems daunting from the outside. Did you have mentors or other composers who served as models as you refined your compositional voice?
ART: My gut reaction is to say, with a huge smile of gratitude on my face, that I have at least 1,000 mentors.  Music itself is definitely the most vital and sobering influence on my music. 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, it’s elegance, and the nobility and grandeur of its emotional spectrum. The musics of Byrd, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Webern, Stravinsky, Ravel, Berio, Chopin, Bartok, and many kinds of jazz are all important to me. Also music of many, varied contemporary composers, writing in all styles. I listen a lot and the accomplishments of these predecessors and contemporaries of mine keep me focused and humble at the same time as they inspire me with confidence to think creatively.
I have learned a great deal from Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, Christoph Eschenbach, Daniel Barenboim, and countless musicians with whom I have collaborated.
Literature, especially poetry, and the visual arts are also important sources of influence. Nature of course, is a real teacher.

CL:  You’ve written for a number of different sized ensembles. How does your approach differ when composing for a single instrument, as opposed to, say, a quartet, chorus, concerto or orchestral work?
ART: Fundamentally, to compose in any and all genres of music, 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 it’s potential must lead.  A chamber or solo work requires different materials than, for instance, an orchestral work.
When writing for solo flute, or piano trio, or brass quintet, orchestra, or chorus, composers seek musical materials that “fit” the specific instrumentation.  Harmony, counterpoint, harmonic rhythm, color, flow, register, rhythm, dynamics, and so forth are all taken into aural imagination and consideration.
When one composes for orchestra, there is an inspiringly large palette of colors and possibilities.  I love it!!  How to keep the music clean and organized (and not sounding like a jumble of ideas thrown forth in a pile) depends on the quality and clarity of the initial musical ideas, their grace, and the skill and experience of the composer/orchestrator.
One very simple example: when writing for orchestra, a composer can cast wide, vast and rich harmonies, chords that span the whole range of a piano.  Such harmony could not be played by any soloist or duo.  On the other hand, the intimacy of a duo, one person per part, has a different feel than composing for orchestra where, for instance, we might hear 26 violins all playing the same line of music in unison.
As far as I’m concerned, “it is all good.”  I love to compose music for all kind of ensembles.  Composing is my life.
One of my great joys is to be building a varied catalogue of published compositions.   I like to compose for orchestra, then to compose a work for solo piano and then one for girls choir and then a huge cello concerto and then a work for mixed quintet.  — Keeps it all very fresh to vary to genres from piece to piece.

CL: You were Mead Composer-in-Residence from 1997 to 2006.  What did that entail and how has it influenced your work since?
ART: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra inspired, helped, and influenced me and being Mead Composer-in-Residence was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Working with Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strengthened and encouraged my ever-continuing search for deeper musical understanding and sensitivity. Both men have steadfastly championed the music of our time. They seek the truth, essence, and soul of each composition, always with a supremely musical, sensitive technical skill.
While I was Mead Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra commissioned and premiered 9 orchestral works; I presented about 45 pre-concert lectures each year; and I founded, curated and led the MusicNOW Series with my friend Cliff Colnot.  It was a very busy decade!

CL: The Utah Symphony is extremely proud that you accepted Thierry Fischer’s request to write a commission, our first U.S. Commission to be performed under his music directorship. There were really no limits, other than our ensemble’s size imposed upon you. So how did EOS arise?
ART: When Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony offered me this commission, I was smiling ear to ear.  –Very happy day!!  –I had a very rewarding 10 months composing the score!
For many years I have admired Maestro Fischer and, having had the chance to work with the Utah Symphony back in 2007, when I composed for them TERPSICHORE’S DREAM a ballet for chamber orchestra, I was delighted for the opportunity to make a new orchestral composition.  EOS (Goddess of the Dawn): a Ballet for Orchestra is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to Thierry Fischer and each member of the Utah Symphony and is in honor of Pierre Boulez.
The Utah Symphony prescribed duration and instrumentation, though the concept of our new work was left completely open to my imagination, which I appreciated deeply.
Writing for orchestra has been a 35-year passion for me so this commission reaches me at my core.
I was compelled to compose a second “Greek-themed” ballet, EOS (in seven sections played seamlessly) “painting the picture” of early dawn, the sun rising, and the shimmerings of a lively day.
Speaking very generally, EOS is in the form of a 17-minute crescendo.

CL: You are calling EOS a “Ballet for Orchestra”.  How does that differ from a ballet versus, say, a tone poem?
ART: EOS is a ballet and orchestral concert work.  Most composers these days are not lucky enough to have the equivalent of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to commission large orchestral works that will be danced, staged, costumed, and lit, which compositions paint clear poetic and or dramatic pictures.
The early Ballets of Igor Stravinsky (which are mostly played as concert works) have changed my life and have affected every note I have ever composed.  EOS reflects my knowledge of early Stravinsky (and many other Ballet composers) and reiterates my desire to work with dancers.

CL: Your remarks about ballet are so true.  Next season, we do Debussy’s ballet, Jeux, with the Ballet West.  However, virtually no ballet company has the pit facilities to engage the orchestra Debussy wrote for.  So Jeux has become primarily a concert work.
Clarity and detail abound throughout EOS.  I wonder if you could elaborate how you’ve picked your orchestral colors, techniques and highlights for the various sections of the piece.  What might a listener expect to hear?

ART: Thanks Clovis! – Yes, my scores are highly detailed and nuanced, every note having a dynamic, articulation and/or adjective. The notation explains exactly what I heard.  To give you an example, if I were rehearsing with a musician I might say, “This should be majestic” or “play here with a lightness of touch…” So why not write those down on the manuscript?

I feel responsible to present a commissioner with a lucid, nuanced artwork, not an amorphous blob. If I want the crescendo on the second beat, then I should notate it there. They’ll play it and they can also feel why the crescendo had to be right there – same with articulations and other nuances. It’s akin to a beautifully punctuated poem where you know exactly what the poet wanted and meant.

I like my music to be sculpted, skillfully edited and clean.  If I can present artists with an eloquent, fluent poem, then, with their sublime expertise, musicianship, years of training, they can take the sounds to a higher level. We start our journey together with a persuasive text and, with their technical instrumental brilliance, performers can spin and weave their inspired magic and make the music theirs – ‘tis not mine anymore.  Proofreading carefully is essential.

To the second part of your question, which is a huge and marvelous inquiry but might take me pages and pages to answer, let me summarize by saying that I compose by ear and that the orchestral colors are immediately present in my hearing and are deeply integrated in my thinking.  I do not “orchestrate” after the fact.  Rather I hear all the notes, rhythms and harmonies in color.  EOS is a very kaleidoscopic score, with solos for many players, shifts in rhythmic syntax, shifts in harmony and harmonic rhythm, with distinct sections that have unique moods.  There is, for instance, a playful section full of pizzicati in the strings and related sounds.  This section could never be confused with other sections.  Likewise, each section of this ballet has its own aura.

CL: As a follow-up question: Your works are very detailed and yet sound spontaneous….
ART: Thanks!  nuance – transformation – spontaneity – gestalt are four keywords that apply to all my music.
Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled – on the spot.  As if we listeners are overhearing a captured improvisation.

My music, which is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, should be played so that the inner life of the different rhythmic, timbral and pitch syntaxes are made explicit and are then organically allied to one another with characterized phrasing of rhythm, color, harmony, counterpoint, tempo, keeping it alive – continuously sounding spontaneous.

All of this, hopefully, working toward the fundamental goal: to compose a work in which every musical parameter is allied in one holistic gestalt.

CL:  EOS is dedicated to Thierry Fischer and to each musician of the Utah Symphony.  There is another honoree, Pierre Boulez, who is celebrating his 90th birthday just 5 weeks after the premiere of EOS on 26 March.  You’ve already mentioned your connection to him while you were Composer-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  I’ve known Boulez as well since the late 1970’s, an incredible composer and visionary with an ability to absorb new music instantly.  I also remember that when you presented him with the piano etude “On Twilight – Homage to Boulez” he asked to see the score while it was played.  At the end, he flipped back to the first page, pointed to a note and said, “Shouldn’t that be a G#?”  And you looked over his shoulder, quite surprised, and agreed.  He chuckled. “I saw the pattern and knew it was a G#.”  Hans, his valet, leaned over to me and said, “He did that to Stravinsky too.” My response, “and…?” Hans, said, “He was right.” (You can see this encounter as a brief episode at minute 31 in the Stravinsky documentary on YouTube.)
ART:  This is exactly as I remember it too!

CL: Such an amazing ear and keen wit… Tell me about your relationship with Boulez.
ART:  For my whole life I have revered Mr. Boulez’s music, conducting, citizenship, humanity, grace, intellect, writings, and generosity.  He is a great person.

With the Chicago Symphony, Mr. Boulez conducted the world premiere of my WORDS OF THE SEA for orchestra; CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA “orbital beacons” for orchestra; and IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT for soprano and chamber orchestra all of which are released on commercial CD by Nimbus Records as performed by Mr. Boulez and the CSO.

He also programmed IN MY SKY AT TWILIGHT in Lucerne and he programmed HELIOS CHOROS III for orchestra with the Orchestra of Paris on a Boulez Festival.

His support of my work inspires me to keep working hard and I am forever and ever indebted to Mr. Boulez.  He is a very kind, gentle, refined, visionary, committed, and musical person.  His resolve for things in which he believes is vivid and is vastly influential worldwide.

CL: Boulez certainly has been more than a seminal composer and first class conductor.  He has always had time to mentor, teach and compassionately listen to others, offering clear, concise advice.  I note you have an extremely hectic schedule; you are on the road pretty much non-stop and we’ve been holding this conversation in between your numerous engagements.  What are your upcoming projects?
ART: Thank you for asking.  Yes, my schedule is always active and demanding.  I feel grateful to be so busy.  For the love of music, rising at 4 AM and working from 4:30 AM until 9:30 PM brings me joy each day; working vigorously for music is an honor and a privilege.
Selected immediate forthcoming projects and concerts include:

March 5, 2015: WORLD PREMIERESELENE for percussion quartet and string quartet, will be performed by JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion on a “Portrait Concert” at Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

April 10, 2015: WORLD PREMIERE HELIX SPIRALS for string quartet premiered by the Parker Quartet at Harvard University.
July 7, 2015: WORLD PREMIERE NEW WORK for Aurora Orchestra with Claire Booth, soprano commissioned by Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.
February 20, 2015: The BBC Singers are performing JUGGLER OF DAY at St Paul’s Knightsbridge in London. The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 7:30pm UK time — it will be available to stream live on the BBC Radio 3 website.
On March 22nd, National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Third Coast Percussion will perform RESOUNDING EARTH, a composition scored for approximately 300 pieces of metal, featuring 120 bells from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods.
May 8 and 9, 2015: CELLO CONCERTO #3, Lynn Harrell, cello, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu, conductor
July 9, 2015: EUROPEAN PREMIERE World Saxophone Congress – Strasbourg, France: HEMKE CONCERTO “PRISMS OF LIGHT” for alto saxophone and orchestra, Timothy McAllister, soloist with the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

CL: And you have a significant new administrative project as well…
ART:  Yes, and this really is important. I am spearheading EAR TAXI FESTIVAL.  A 4-day-long new music festival celebrating the vital new music scene in Chicago. It incudes performances by the city’s amazing new music ensembles and musicians, and features the music of the city’s composers. The festival is made possible, in part, by major support from the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University. Assuming leadership of this new festival has already consumed about 3 hours each day over the past year.

CL:  Gusty, this conversation has been a real pleasure.  And thank you for taking time away from your work to share your thoughts.
ART: Thank you!