According to their statistics, Augusta Read Thomas had more of her music performed in 2013-14 than any other living ASCAP composer, and it’s hard to think of a world-class ensemble that hasn’t commissioned or performed her work. She’s an equally prolific teacher. Having taught at Eastman, Northwestern, Tanglewood, and the Aspen Music Festival, she’s now the 16th ever University Professor (one of only 7 current University Professors) at the University of Chicago. In all of this, Augusta is also notable because she never stops working on behalf of other composers and musicians, and much of her current energy is being spent on Ear Taxi Festival, an elaborate festival celebrating new music made in and around Chicago. I had the chance to catch up with Augusta and ask her some questions about Chicago, the new music scene there, and the upcoming festival.
You’ve lived in Chicago, on and off, for more than three decades now, but I know you travel nearly 200 days each year. Do you consider yourself a ‘Chicago’ composer, and what does the city mean to your work?
Chicago is my home and I love the city. When I land at O’Hare airport, I feel happy, eager to get back into my composing studio with my piano and drafting tables, and to collaborate with friends and colleagues. The Contemporary Classical music scene in Chicago is exceptionally vibrant, varied, diverse, engaging and inspiring. Likewise with Classical, Jazz and Blues and other music of all kinds. Working in such a context is invigorating.
The way I remember the Classical new music in scene in Chicago when I first arrived (at Northwestern) in 2001 is ‘virtually non-existent’. Now, though, it’s one of the most vibrant cities in America for new music, in part due to your founding and leading of MusicNOW. Could you describe how you’ve seen the city change ‘from the inside’ as it were?
Over the past several decades, long standing new music institutions such as Contemporary Chamber Players (now known as Contempo), CUBE, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and MusicNow have fostered an environment in Chicago that is receptive to the exploration of contemporary music. Their investments continue to pay off: these organizations remain strong, and have planted deep roots for the sustained growth of appreciation and excitement surrounding new music. An extraordinary crop of younger ensembles including Dal Niente, eighth blackbird, ICE, Spektral Quartet, and Third Coast Percussion have chosen to call Chicago home. This new generation has taken the initiative and carved its own compelling and distinct niche in the community.
These ensembles invigorate their audiences and regularly showcase and champion the work of emerging young composers, making a lasting impact on the musical canon of the future. Their fearlessness, boundless energy, virtuosic musical ability, and an unwavering commitment to the exploration of exciting, cutting-edge repertoire has captivated the culturally curious audiences that have come to support them. They also support one another! They go to each other’s concerts and this open, collaborative quality has contributed to an environment where the various stakeholders contribute each other’s sustainability and growth.
You spearheaded and are co-curating the upcoming Ear Taxi Festival, which features Chicago-based musicians and composers. Could you tell us a bit about your vision for this festival and what you’re hoping it will accomplish?
In October 2013, I was walking in Millennium Park, thinking about how I think our city has one of the most dynamic, collaborative, and vibrant scenes for classical contemporary music in the world. I had the idea – although at that time it was just a day dream in the park – that together we should present a massive festival to showcase Chicago as an epicenter for new contemporary classical music; providing extraordinary performance opportunities for Chicago’s new music ensembles and musicians, and catalyzing a flurry of new work by Chicago-based composers.
The first thing I did was to put together an expert curatorial board of Chicagoans. I then worked on the Festival almost every day, and after some months asked the marvelous and generous Stephen Burns if he would co-curate. As it stands now, over six days in October 2016, we’ll have 46 world premieres and 73 composers (all from Chicago or based here) performed by more than 300 musicians in 25 ensembles.
As opposed to being the ‘composer,’ working as a ‘curator’ gives you a rather different relationship to the audience. Could you tell us about the audience you see for new music in Chicago, and what you’re hoping they will get out of the Ear Taxi Festival?
I was speaking about Ear Taxi to my close friend Michael Lewanski (conductor of Chicago Based ensemble Dal Niente) last week, and he said something that perfectly summarizes my feelings about this:
My primary goal in this life is to create BETTER, RICHER, DEEPER experiences for musicians, composers, and audiences with the artworks of their time that interpret their lives, their humanity, and their culture in different ways. All of my priorities go towards that artistic goal; it governs and drives all of my other actions.
We want Ear Taxi Festival to have that sort of impact across as broad and diverse an array of concerts and installations as it can.
Even with all of this going on, I know you never stop composing. What are some recent and upcoming projects of yours?
In 2015, four major world-premieres took place: EOS: Goddess of the Dawn (A Ballet for Orchestra), in honor of Pierre Boulez, was premiered by the Utah Symphony, with Thierry Fischer conducting; SELENE (Moon Chariot Rituals) for percussion quartet and string quartet, was premiered by JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion on a “Portrait Concert” at Miller Theatre at Columbia University; Helix Spirals for string quartet was premiered by the Parker Quartet at Harvard University, and Of Being is a Bird (Emily Dickinson Settings) was premiered by Claire Booth, soprano, and the Aurora Orchestra with Nicholas Collon conducting, in Wigmore Hall, London.
I am looking forward to October 31, 2015 for the UK Premiere of Aureole for orchestra, which will be presented by the BBC Symphony, Andrew Litton, conducting at the Barbican Centre; and to February 3, 2016, when Ensemble 20+, Michael Lewanski conducting, will present the US Premiere of Of Being is a Bird for soprano and chamber orchestra; and to May 21 and 22, 2016, when Aureole and Prayer and Celebration for orchestra will be performed by the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Gunzenhauser conducting at which time I am honored to be receiving the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra’s Composer Award.