Augusta Read Thomas - Drums, Bells and Eternity

Augusta Read Thomas - Drums, Bells and Eternity

  Photo by Michael Lutch Readers of this newsletter may have noticed that in the public eye, Augusta Read Thomas has been relatively quiet. If you have spent time with a composer, you know that a period of public quiet typically precedes a period of extremely fruitful creativity within the composer. This is exactly the case with Thomas who will receive three major and totally divergent premieres in the coming months. Each project presented unique challenges and opportunities which Thomas has faced head on.

Earth Echoes, a homage to Gustav Mahler one hundred years after his death, is scored for chamber orchestra, mezzo-soprano and baritone. The composer emblazoned “Earth laughs in flowers” on the front cover of the score. This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson sets the tone for the piece that Thomas has written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and which they will premiere on October 11 with Sasha Cooke and Nathan Gunn. Thomas painstakingly selected texts for Earth Echoes from 14 poets, written across 1,285 years and representing 10 countries. It is no mistake that the composer utilized the words of Wang Wei, one of the same poets Mahler set in Das Lied von der Erde, and weaves those words with the poetry of Basho, Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Li Po, Khalil Gibran and others to evoke Mahlerian themes such as transfiguration, resurrection and eternity. The resultant libretto is a reflection on earthly beauty coupled with an acknowledgment of mortality.

Next we come to Resounding Earth. A collaboration between the composer and the Third Coast Percussion Quartet, this composition features over 120 bells from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods. Resounding Earth highlights the exceptional resonance and vibrational possibilities of metals and is conceived as both a cultural statement celebrating interdependence and commonality across all cultures; and as a musical statement celebrating the extraordinary beauty and diversity of expression inherent in bell sounds. The piece probes into the rich meanings and characteristics of bells as carriers of history, ethnicity, and societal and cultural connotations. Bells can be used to celebrate grand occasions, hold sacrificial rites, keep a record of events, give the correct time, celebrate births and weddings, mark funerals, caution a community, enhance any number of religious ceremonies, and are even hung around the necks of animals. As carriers of history and culture, bells, of numerous shapes, sizes, types, decorative patterns, weights, functions, and cultural connotations, enrapture and inspire. 

And indeed the composer has been inspired: “I treasure the opportunity to collaborate with the musicians in Third Coast Percussion because they are world-class virtuosi, visionary artists, and collegial, spectacular teammates. Involving a large battery of unique, ancient bells from around the world, our composition thus requires countless hours of refining nuances, colors, mallet choices, bell placements, and honing any number of other shadings, tunings, and gradations of the sound complexes. The musicians in Third Coast Percussion are ardent collaborators.” Resounding Earth will be premiered on September 30 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame.
Harvest Drum premieres on December 20 with the National Centre for the Performing Arts Symphony Orchestra at the National Arts Centre in Beijing, China. In the fall of 2011, Thomas was invited by the National Centre for the Performing Arts on an extensive tour of China, intended to inspire a composition reflecting her experiences. “Drums reflect many of the unique social and historical patterns that evolve throughout a culture,” Thomas says. “The rich array of artistic expressions from the Chinese drum culture, often with several drummers dressed in colorful and ornate clothing, gives expression to the vitality of their nation. The verve and strength of the Miao people in Southern China inspired Harvest Drum for orchestra.” The 13-minute score for full orchestra consists of four contrasting movements: Shimmering Sunlight on Harvest, Sowing Rituals, Invocation to Nature Spirits, and Dragon Fanfares, and includes four Dagu Drums (a large Chinese drum played with two wooden sticks) arranged in a semicircle surrounding the back and sides of the orchestra.

Watch this space for more information about the cello concerto Thomas is currently finishing up for Lynn Harrell and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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