• Augusta Read Thomas
  • Of Being Is a Bird (soprano and ensemble) (2015)
    (Emily Dickinson Settings)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)

Commissioned by the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann, president of the Foundation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.

This composition requires six crotales (all from the lower octave of crotales except the D7) and 4 brass mallets. The crotales can be suspended on strings from the music stands or mounted on a small racks near the players. [If a percussionist or extra musician is available to play the crotales parts, they should be engaged to do so. NOTE: Any musician can play the crotales parts, which are easy and sight-readable.

  • S + 2(II:pic,afl,perc).1(perc).1(bcl,perc).0/hn(perc)/hp/2vn.vc(perc)
  • Light Lyric Soprano
  • 17 min
    • 6th May 2023, Church of Our Saviour Epsicopal, San Gabriel , CA, United States of America
    • 30th May 2023, Meany Hall, Seattle , WS, United States of America
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Programme Note

I. Of Being is a Bird
   interlude: flock of birds
II. The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met

Augusta Read Thomas has walked a path – or flown – with Emily Dickinson before, in Sunlight Echoes for youth choir and youth orchestra (2002) and Gathering Paradise, a song cycle for soprano and symphony orchestra (2004). This new piece is a pair of bird songs – bird songs that indeed have to do with bird songs, with the songs that birds themselves make, but more, as the title poem indicates, with bird being, with how birds are and also with how birdlike – in flight – being is. After all, the singing here is done by a human being, and by a specific human being, for, the composer tells us, she ‘listened to every recording of Claire Booth I could find and took note of the colour of every pitch in her vocal range.’

Those colours wind through constantly changing textures of instrumental hue in the opening song, where voice and instruments are forever echoing one another, though only the voice, for the most part, has the long line. If any of the instruments is to the fore, it is perhaps the harp, which, to quote the composer, ‘provides a kind of golden thread throughout the piece in counterpoint with the solo soprano’. The harmonies, too, are constantly on the move, adjusting to the vocal line while keeping the music afloat and luminous. We might be hearing the clouds of which the poem speaks, or the easy breeze, or the ‘Wake of Music’, all with a snatch of bird song.

Contrastingly fast, and without the singer, the interlude moves from human time to avian, suggesting bird song but perhaps more the darting of birds in motion – birds mimicked by instruments veering off in response to loud ensemble attacks. ‘The music is built in contrapuntal lines,’ the composer points out, ‘like two lines of birds in a flock that merge and separate and flow and flux together across the sky.’ Principal flier at first is the flute, but quite soon everyone takes to the air in virtuoso vertigiousness.

The second song recalls the first, but only briefly before the music gains speed and dynamism, as well as some jazzy exuberance. Thomas here, as she notes, ‘shows off a different side of Claire Booth’s voice and vocal agility’. The singer participates in the triumph, along with the bird triumphing in life – with life triumphing in itself.

— Paul Griffiths