• Augusta Read Thomas
  • Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals, for strings and percussion) (2014)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)
  • 4perc, 2vn, va, vc
  • 4perc; str (no db)
  • 17 min 30 s

Programme Note

Related works:
   Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals, for strings and percussion)
   Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals, for winds and percussion)

Augusta Read Thomas’s Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) is scored for the unusual combination of string quartet and percussion quartet, and specifically for a collaboration between two of the more intrepid and adventurous performing groups in the country today: the JACK Quartet and Third Coast Percussion. A co-commission among the Tanglewood Music Center New York’s Miller Theatre at Columbia University, and Third Coast Percussion, the piece was given its world premiere at Miller Theatre by the JACK and Third Coast as part of a Composer Portrait series concert of Thomas’s music.

Selene is a very physical piece, and promises to be a visual as well as aural treat when experienced in a live performance. Under the title on the score’s first page is the suggestion “This music should be performed along with dancers when possible.” Thomas to some degree believes this about most of her music. She is, after all, a physical composer—while working she sings, claps, plays piano, dances, and otherwise embodies the sound of what she’s writing. In performance, her music sounds spontaneous, like it was invented on the spot, in spite of the intricacy of its architecture and the delicate balance of its parts. Selene was a special challenge, combining the intimacy of chamber music writing with a hugely expanded range of instrumental timbres, rivaling or even surpassing that of a standard orchestra.

Thomas has been associated with Tanglewood since the mid-1980s, when she was invited to audit offerings for Composition Fellows. In 1989 she was a full-fledged Fellow herself, and within a few years had returned as a member of the faculty. Dividing her time between Chicago and Becket, MA, in the first decade of the 2000s, she was a frequent faculty presence; in 2009 she was director of the Festival of Contemporary Music. Oliver Knussen led the TMC Orchestra in Thomas’s Orbital Beacons during the 2001 Festival of Contemporary Music; Spirit Musings was heard here in 2003, and In My Sky at Twilight in 2005. Movements from her solo piano work Traces were played during the 2010 FCM. Meanwhile, two major orchestral works were commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra: her Helios Choros II in 2009 under Ludovic Morlot’s direction and her Cello Concerto No. 3, Legend of the Phoenix, with soloist Lynn Harrell and conductor Christoph Eschenbach in 2013. She has worked with orchestras and ensembles around the world, and for ten years was composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where her work was championed by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. One of her earliest supporters was Mstislav Rostropovich, and Christoph Eschenbach has conducted her music with six different orchestras.

Thomas has herself been a tireless advocate for other composers, not only here at Tanglewood but also as the creator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series and as a teacher. She was the youngest tenured professor in the history of the Eastman School of Music, and has also taught at the Aspen Music Festival and Northwestern University. She was appointed University Professor of Composition at the University of Chicago in 2011. Thomas has also served as chairperson of the board of the American Music Center and on several other boards. In May 2009 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which cited “an impressive body of works [embodying] unbridled passion and fierce poetry.” Recent premieres include Eos: Goddess of the Dawn (A Ballet for Orchestra), performed by the Utah Symphony in February 2015; the string quartet Helix Spirals, premiered by the Parker Quartet at Harvard University in April; and Of Being Is a Bird, settings of Emily Dickinson poems, in London’s Wigmore Hall early this month, with soprano Claire Booth and the Aurora Orchestra led by Nicholas Collon.

In classical mythology, Selene was the moon’s charioteer, as Helios was the sun’s. Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) develops a narrative arc that features the string quartet and percussion quartet as opposed ensembles; as individual personalities in solo roles against the rest of the ensemble; and as a kind of meta-quartet, the two groups melding their timbres as closely as possible. The beginning of the piece establishes frenetic, unstable energy, which levels out and calms briefly before locking into propulsive, dancing motion. Kaleidoscopic combinations of instrumental colors focus our attention alternately on rhythm or pitch, with brief moments of repose. Throughout the score, Thomas uses highly descriptive adjectives and phrases to convey clearly each small shift in character, e.g., “Bubbly,” “Ritualistic,” “Vehement,” or even “like stretching taffy backwards” and “Dancing on tip-toes.” The moon pirouettes through a starry sky.

—Robert Kirzinger


BGSU Graduate String Quartet and Landlocked Percussion



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