Proms 2021: pre-première questions with Augusta Read Thomas

by 5:4

Tomorrow evening’s Prom concert given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in addition to music by Dvořák and Ives, includes the world première of Dance Foldings by US composer Augusta Read Thomas. As preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with her programme note for the piece and an illustrative “map”. Many thanks to Gusty for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

Adjectives about my music that I have heard said and have read a great many times include colourful, energized, meticulously crafted, jazzy, kaleidoscopic, clean, well-heard, organic, resonant, nuanced, fun to play, precise, succinct, and musical.

Were I to write a clause that could be applied to virtually every composition I have made, that clause would likely include these words: “… natural musical impulse, organic, mobile, flexible, sonorous, resonant, intentional, interlaced, braided, woven, circuit, networks …”.

I think of myself, and have been described as, a poet-composer. I sculpt my music akin to how poets create, refine, and polish their poems.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I love composing. In a good way, my nerve endings for sound are always dialled up high – actually, they are on perpetual alert. If I hear one note or chord or if, for example, I play one on an instrument, I get lit up as if electric shock ribbons instantly race from my ears and fingertips to my imagination and then my creativity and craft play high-speed ping-pong! where the ball is bouncing back and forth 100 times a second.

The outcomes are unpredictable to me. I stay absolutely flexible. Everything is malleable, springy, stretchy, coil-able, colour-able, twistable, bouncing, zig-zagging, and splinter-able. It feels like I am dancing with contrapuntal flickering sonic lights that accumulate into a spinning pinwheel spawning sound and form. I slide, skate, swivel, and spin with my materials – crafting nuance and finesse – and then I sculpt, shape, chisel, fashion, and form.

At the end of all of that, I feel as if the piece wrote me – not as if I wrote the piece! My music has its own inner life. If I listen carefully, the piece I am composing will tell me what it needs next.

I believe music feeds our souls. Unbreakable is the power of art to build community. Humanity has and will always work together to further music’s flexible, diverse capacity and innate power.

The reason I compose music is to express gratitude.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

For three summers, I studied with Oliver Knussen at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, USA. Olly subsequently performed and supported my music including his programming and conducting my Violin Concerto No. 3 with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, USA; In my Sky at Twilight for soprano and chamber orchestra with the London Sinfonietta with Claire Booth as soloist at the South Bank Centre in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; Carillon Sky for solo violin and ensemble with the Chicago Symphony Music Now Ensemble; and Helios Choros with the Cleveland orchestra. Olly was a world-class, superstar composer whose music will continue to nourish our souls forever. Likewise, Olly was a luminary, generous, kind, brilliant, exemplary conductor and teacher.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

My compositions capture the spirit of improvisation. They are polished, nuanced, notated, captured sound sculptures that always spark and catch fire in my creative process as spontaneous and embodied improvisations, always starting from a blank slate.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

On the one hand, my compositional voice has been consistent for the past 40 years.  Never did I switch styles (now I am an X-ist, now I am a Y-ist). I have been ploughing, cultivating, growing, sculpting my own creative ground since I started playing music and composing as a young child.  That said, each composition is a unique creation with its own inner life, reason for being, and way of being. Each composition is made of particular musical materials carefully and organically allied to the composition’s form.

In celebration of the diversity and the mission statement of the Royal Albert Hall on the occasion of the venue’s 150th anniversary, the BBC Radio 3 commission prompt was to reflect the arts and sciences as they are now. Composers were free to choose their own subject, so long as there was a clear link to the sciences or to other art forms.

The natural world, as explored by scientists, engineers, and physicians in their laboratories and clinics, offers a wealth of opportunities to explore resonance and balance through sound. Few orchestral works attempt to capture the kinetic and emotional content of scientific topics and convey these concepts through abstract, rather than descriptive, music.
The musical materials of Dance Foldings for orchestra take as their starting point the metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms, and images inspired by the biological “ballet” of proteins being assembled and folded in our bodies.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

I would be honoured to people would visit my website: www.augustareadthomas.com.

7. What’s next?

Soon I will be boarding a flight to come to London to attend the PROM! I write you now from Santa Fe, New Mexico where I am in rehearsals for the première of Filigree of the Sun for string quartet at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Other forthcoming premieres include: Upon Wings of Words, settings of Emily Dickinson for soprano and string quartet), Dance Mobile for 13 players or chamber orchestra, Gwendolyn Brooks Settings for treble chorus and orchestra, Far Past War for large chorus and orchestra, and Magic Gardens for string quartet.

—Augusta Read Thomas


Dance Foldings: Programme note

In celebration of the diversity and the mission statement of the Royal Albert Hall on the occasion of the venue’s 150th anniversary, the BBC Radio 3 commissioned Dance Foldings for orchestra for which the commission prompt was to reflect the arts and sciences as they are now. Composers were free to choose their own subject, so long as there was a clear link to the sciences or to other art forms.

The natural world, as explored by scientists, engineers, and physicians in their laboratories and clinics, offers a wealth of opportunities to explore resonance and balance through sound. Few orchestral works attempt to capture the kinetic and emotional content of scientific topics and convey these concepts through abstract, rather than descriptive, music.
The musical materials of Dance Foldings for orchestra take as their starting point the metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms, and images inspired by the biological “ballet” of proteins being assembled and folded in our bodies. Online, one can easily find many beautiful animations which show the process of protein folding. Some resemble assembly lines, and many look like ballets; both are extremely suggestive of musical possibilities. For example, proteins are made in cells by linking together amino acids one at a time to make a linear chain, i.e., the primary structure, or unfolded protein, which is akin to a wiggling chain of beads. These chains take musical form as animated, rhythmic, and forward-moving lines of music which unfold with kaleidoscopic sonic variety. An amino acid chain gradually self-organizes into nicely lined up shorter strands of beads forming pleated sheets or helices, nestled next to each other; interconnecting strands form loops crossing over in three dimensions. Musically speaking, those three-dimensional forms are affiliated to counterpoint, harmony, flow, flux, and form. Notated on the score are indications including: “Like Chains of Amino Acids”, “An Amino Acid Chain starting to fold and become a protein”, “Brass Protein Foldings #1, Like jazz big band meets Stravinsky”, and “Another Amino Acid Chain-making Machine”. 
Protein folding is essential to life, and form dictates function. Proteins have primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures, and this make-up naturally falls into manifold musical possibilities with distinctive materials, sonorities, rhythms, counterpoint, and inner-life.

No matter what the external inspiration, Music must work as music. As such, I create music that is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, which should be played so that the interconnectivity of the different rhythmic, timbral and pitch syntaxes are made explicit and are then organically allied to one another with characterized phrasing of rhythm, colour, harmony, counterpoint, tempo, breath, 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 nuanced and allied in one holistic gestalt.

If I listen carefully, the piece I am composing has its own inner life and will tell me what it next needs. The music I create is passionate, involving risk and adventure, such that a given musical moment might seem like a surprise right when you hear it but, only a millisecond later, seems inevitable. One of my main artistic credos has been to examine small musical objects–a chord, a motive, a rhythm, a colour, an energy field, a harmonic space–and explore them from every possible perspective. The different perspectives reveal new musical elements, which I then transform and which in turn become the musical development.

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.

Dance Foldings is an example of the many synergies between science (nature) and music. I previously composed Helix Spirals for string quartet to commemorate the Meselson-Stahl DNA replication discovery of 1958. Since DNA is the blueprint for making the proteins of any organism, protein construction, folding and animation is a natural next project.

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ryan Bancroft on 8 August 2021 at the Royal Albert Hall as part of BBC Proms 2021. Dedicated with admiration and gratitude to BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ryan Bancroft and Lisa Tregale. Special thanks to the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club for contributing support to this project.

Map

The below “map” provides an under-the-hood illustration of Dance Foldings, breaking down the inner details of its shape and structure (click to enlarge).


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