For Augusta Read Thomas, composition is an active, physical process. She doesn’t sit down to write music; she stands at a drafting table that has an electronic keyboard just below it. As Thomas composes — with pens, paper, rulers, white out, and other old-school tools — she sings, hums, and plays through the music she’s creating.
It’s a product, she said recently from her home in Chicago, of the path she took to composition. The 10th of 10 children in a music-filled home, Thomas grew up playing piano and trumpet — the latter in a variety of ensembles. Two decades of experience playing music amid others were crucial when, as she put it, she began to “morph into a composer.
“I feel strongly that my experiences of playing — not only in a room by myself but in large ensembles and counting rests and tuning to others — all those physical experiences have really come to the table for me as a composer,” she said. “What it is that I’m making is an outgrowth of how I came into it. . . . It’s a situation where I’m sort of engaging [the music] as I’m writing it.”
Her newest work is a cello concerto, her third, titled “Legend of the Phoenix.” It was commissioned for cellist Lynn Harrell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who will premiere it next week under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach. It is the third Thomas piece that the BSO has premiered, the most recent being “Helios Choros II,” of which the orchestra gave the first American performance in 2009.
When she found out that the piece would be written for Harrell, she delved into his work — recordings, interviews, master classes. What she found was a performer for whom lyricism was paramount. “He’s always talking about singing through his cello,” Thomas said. “Not that he doesn’t have lots of other capacities — muscle and elbow and athleticism.” In fact, Thomas wrote sections of the piece that involved extensive pizzicato (plucking the strings) and spiccato (bouncing the bow on them), because of Harrell’s proficiency in those areas.
“But it’s always got a singing quality to it,” she continued. “I really wanted to write a piece with lots of different kinds of voices — sometimes it’s punchy, sometimes it’s jazzy, earthy, sometimes it’s bright and shimmering. All those different sound worlds that [Harrell] generates and inspires in the orchestra, and he’s still singing.”
That this is her third cello concerto is, to some extent, a matter of chance, since they came about through commissions. But, Thomas said, “the commissions very much hit me in my center. I didn’t feel as if I was taking a commission that I was doing for any other reasons than musical ones. It really felt very organic, like [it was] the right piece for me to write.”
The word “organic” came up repeatedly as a kind of ideal to which Thomas strives in each piece. Her works have structure and organization, often meticulously worked out. But in contrast to composers for whom music details are generated by some external system, “I feel much more that my music is bubbling out of my stomach, much more naturally than that I’ve got some tone row or chart that I’m allying my music to.”
That drive toward spontaneity, though, sits in tension with the exacting detail with which Thomas writes her scores. “I tend to think of my works as extremely sculpted,” she said, “as if I had made them and then chiseled them and made them even finer, and then I took out the finest sandpaper and just scraped down all the little edges and transitions.” One of the ways you can (literally) see that is in the plethora of instructions she writes into a score. “It tells you how the sound starts, what the bowings are, all the dynamic shades, where you lift the pedal on the vibraphone, for example. . . . I think I won’t be impolite if I say it’s extremely articulate. I never get any questions from anybody.”
So how to reconcile those two impulses — precision on the one hand and naturalness on the other?
“It is a really interesting balance,” she answered. “I never want it to be stiff. But on the other hand, I sort of feel like the music has its own river running through it. Once you get on the train, the train is moving. It isn’t like you have to push it along.”
She added that with “fabulous musicians” like Harrell, Eschenbach, and the BSO, “they can play it. And so what you tell them, they can do it. So I usually find that they thank me for kind of sculpting their part, so that you get a fuller, more dynamic set of relations, depths, fabrics, whatever they may be.”
Like the titles of most of her works, “Legend of the Phoenix” is meant to be evocative yet unspecific, a spur to a listener’s imagination rather than an object being represented in the music. She noted that the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes is at its essence a hopeful one, something that dovetailed nicely with the general cast of her music.
“Life is short, and when I come to my drafting tables, I want to express a positive spirit outward,” she said reflectively. “I feel like my music is colorful and whimsical and full of sunshine and light flickering and percussion and bells and high tessituras and this kind of illuminated sound. So images of skies and lights and orbits and aurora — they feel really right to me, even though I don’t have to tell the audience that this is that particular legend or this particular phoenix. It’s much more like a metaphor for an optimism in life.”