Sound Spells: Augusta Read Thomas’s Ritual Incantations

We are always honored to collaborate with one of the most renowned composers of our time, our dear friend Augusta Read Thomas. Just before our premiere of her concerto Sonorous Earth last November, Augusta released her seventh album with Nimbus Records entitled Ritual Incantationsand we were thrilled to be included with our performance of , her most recent percussion quartet for us. The album was just profiled in La Tempestad, a prominent Mexican magazine that covers contemporary visual arts, literature, performative arts, film, architecture, and design. Thank you, Gusty, for your work with us and for your amazing contributions to today’s music!

January 25, 2018
by Jeremy Glazier
trans. Guillermo García Pérez

Ten years ago Augusta Read Thomas’s Astral Canticle, a double concerto for flute and violin, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Over the decade that followed, her stature as a major American composer has only increased: she was appointed University Professor, a prestigious position, at the University of Chicago in 2010; she has amassed significant honors, including a Grammy nomination and the Cultural Medal of Monaco; and, as the New York Times reported, her music was performed more frequently in 2013-2014 than any other living composer. Thomas has produced a body of work that speaks to our hearts as well as our minds, and that constantly surprises and delights in its range, its beauty, and its magic.

When I interviewed Thomas for the 2010 Contemporary Music Festival at The Ohio State University, where she was guest composer, she spoke about the essential alchemy of her music, which is “highly notated, very carefully worked out, but on the other hand […] spontaneous — and fun.” Her music, I noted then, was intellectual without being stuffy; it was rhythmic and colorful and clever, but never vapid. “I grew up in the Sixties,” she told me: jazz greats—such as Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk—were just as much an influence on her as modernists like Debussy and Ravel. Her newest album, Ritual Incantations, is a perfect example of that alchemy. It contains nine works, most of them from 2015 or later and seven that are recorded here for the first time.

The title comes from the album’s earliest work, a 1999 cello concerto in three movements. The soloist—call him a magician, an enchanter—seems to cast a spell over the orchestra in the first movement, gets hypnotized by them in turn in the second, and spends the third locked in a magical war of wits that produces one of Thomas’s finest and most exciting concertos. At only 14 minutes, Ritual Incantations is a compressed, tightly controlled work—Thomas herself describes it as “nuanced lyricism under pressure”—where not a single note seems wasted. (A more recent cello concerto, Legend of the Phoenix (2013), is twice as long—but, as she says in her program note, still “precise, carefully structured, […] and at every level concerned with transformations and connections.”)

Those transformations can be heard even in a small piece, such as Eurythmy Etudes for solo piano (2007), with its contrasting movements titled “Motion Detector” and “Still Life”—a dialectic reminiscent of the organic/mechanical “Dichotomie” favored by Esa-Pekka Salonen, to whom Thomas dedicated her 2003 trombone concerto, Canticle Weaving. They can also be seen in full-color display in the “maps of form” Thomas often creates to accompany her works; these sketches aren’t graphic scores but rather visual diagrams that creatively illustrate the aural connections within the piece, with different colored lines, squiggles, dots, and arrows mapping out the sonic transmutations unfolding in time.

Music has always been its own kind of magic. In Chi for string quartet, Thomas invokes “the vital life force energy of the universe […] which flows through everything in creation.” The fourteen minute work is in four movements, each of which can also be programmed alone or as a smaller cluster: one example of the caprice—what Thomas described to me as “a certain wink of the eye”—that characterizes her work. Premiered at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in April 2017 by the renowned Spektral Quartet, Chi is also a long-standing nickname for Chicago, the city Thomas calls home and which was the setting for last year’s six-day Ear Taxi Music Festival—showcasing 54 world premieres, some 350 performers, and 88 composers—which she spearheaded.

The most recent work on the piece is —another spelling of the Chinese concept of “chi.” In the program note, Paul Pellay likens this six-minute work for percussion quartet playing two marimbas to “4 interlocking gears, the players having to mesh and dovetail with the absolute precision of well-oiled gears and cogs whirring away in a fine Swiss watch.” A mechanical metaphor may seem odd for music Thomas associates with such ethereal spiritual concepts as “prana in Hinduism (and elsewhere in Indian culture), pneuma in ancient Greece, mana in Hawaiian culture, lüng in Tibetan Buddhism,” etc.—yet, as Arthur C. Clarke famous noted, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thomas’s own brand of techne, or craftsmanship, is sufficiently advanced—as is the performance of Third Coast Percussion, who are always spellbinding to watch live. (They joined with the Spektral Quartet at the premiere of Chi in a riveting performance of Thomas’s octet for percussion and string quartet, Selene – Moon Chariot Rituals.) Their recording of brims with relentless energy.

Also included on the album are a number of prayers and enchantments. Angel Tears & Earth Prayers—in an intriguing version for saxophone and organ—was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists in 2006 for use during church services. Klee Musings (2016), an ekphrastic triptych for piano trio, contains a middle section called “Cathedrals (prayer for peace)”, inspired by the painting of the German Expressionist Paul Klee—who was himself an accomplished violinist and married to a pianist. Rhea Enchanted and Venus Enchanted, two recent miniatures for solo cello, take their inspiration from Greek myth: “I wanted to try to sculpt a short piece,” Thomas writes of the latter, “but one with fertile variety of characters all woven together in a tightly integrated and organic composition.” It is part of Thomas’s wizardry that she can see a piece of music as a sculpture—or as a “ribbon of sound evoking the life-force of one of the many cathedrals depicted in Klee’s painting.”

In one of the most surprising works on the album, Dappled Things (2015), Thomas offers a gorgeous reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous curtal sonnet, “Pied Beauty,” which begins with the prayer, “Glory be to God for dappled things.” Hopkins praises “all things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).” In this setting for male glee club, the language of the poem—written in 1877—is intricately brocaded; rather than a straightforward, line-by- line setting, the words spiral out kaleidoscopically, and the repetitions of key words and images from the poem lend the song the “brindled” quality that Hopkins himself saw in the world around him and was transported by. The song reaches a breathtaking climax with the poem’s penultimate line, whose irony, that the God who creates such a dappled and ever-changing universe is himself “past change,” is simple yet mysteriously profound—and the work ends quietly on Hopkins’s nearly dumbfounded injunction: “Praise Him.” This is a work of great joy—indeed, this is a composer for whom music and joy are synonymous. In a world that all too often seems dappled by our more destructive magicks, Thomas herself deserves a great deal of praise.

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