Uncommon Interview: Augusta Read Thomas

Renowned composer Augusta Read Thomas will be the sixteenth person to hold the title of University Professor, when she takes the post next year.

By Madalyn Frigo

Composer Augusta Read Thomas was announced as the University Professor of Composition on November 8. It makes her one of five current professors with the title, University Professor, which signifies “potential for high impact across the University,” and the 16th ever to hold the title, according to a University press release. Formerly a composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, Thomas is known for improvisation-inspired music, which avoids traditional forms and styles. Thomas will take the post next year. She spoke to the Maroon about her plans for the U of C, her love for music, and the voices in her head.

Chicago Maroon: When did you start composing music?

Augusta Read Thomas: I started making up little songs—I wouldn’t call it composing—when I was seven, eight, and nine. The first big piece I wrote, I was in ninth grade. It was a piece for two trumpets and band, and it won a little competition in my hometown.

CM: What is your writing process like?

ART: I write on paper with a pen, and I stand at three very large drafting tables with the music surrounding me in a circle on very large manuscript pages. I have all sorts of sketches of the pieces that I’m working on on my desk, or pinned up on the wall or around me, and I have a piano on which I improvise and play through harmonies and constantly touch the music. When I compose I’m always singing and conducting and tapping all the rhythms, because I feel that it’s my responsibility to really be in touch with all of the sounds before I pass it on to the performers that will be performing it.

CM: Do you hear the music you write in your head?

ART: Absolutely, and sometimes I just wish I could get it to stop, if you know what I mean. I’m just going over and over things nonstop in my mind. I get very obsessive about every last little tiny, tiny, tiny detail.

CM: Why did you join the University of Chicago?

ART: The faculty in the department of music is stellar, exceptional, internationally renowned, very, very civilized, cultured, elegant, refined human beings. I had the good opportunity to meet with many of them one-on-one in the course of making my decision, and with each new faculty member that I met, I was just astonished and thrilled to find that everyone was just so exceptional. Additionally, there are composers on the faculty already, Marta Ptaszynska and Shulamit Ran. Another major attraction to me was to be able to work with them, those two particular people, because they’re composers of the highest order.

CM: What classes do you hope to teach?

ART: The thing that I’m very, very passionate about is being able to teach and follow that up instantly with a performance, or, if not a performance, a reading, or a workshop, or a laboratory, or something where the sounds are made right in front of the composer. One of the courses I’d like to teach is a course on living composers…very, very recent music. And I will be teaching a course in the Core. One more [class] I’m going to be teaching, which is every week, it’s for composers or people interested in composition—I will be giving very detailed weekly assignments. Every single week the composers will write a small exercise that’s absolutely tailor-made to my assignment, and [they will be] performed every week. One way to think of this course is as a kind of interactive laboratory of sound and its nuance.

CM: Would you like to write music specifically for the University ensembles?

ART: Nothing would give me more joy than to write for every single one of the University of Chicago ensembles. If anyone asks me…any of the ensembles knocks on my door and says ‘Would you write a piece for us?’, the answer would be yes.