Augusta Read Thomas: Perfect Clarity
Descriptors like “extremely specific” and “incredibly nuanced” become touchstones when speaking with Augusta Read Thomas about her life and work and the inspiration that drives it all.
at the American Academy of Arts and Letters
New York, New York
May 18, 2010—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Condensed and edited
by Molly Sheridan and John Lydon
Filmed and recorded
by Trevor Hunter
Presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
When asked what defines her artistic journey, Augusta Read Thomas doesn’t hesitate even for a second. “Those are probably the ten words that leap to my mind about this 30 years of writing music so far,” she says.
Later, I go back and count them. Ten.
I have no idea how she did that, but after a few hours in her company chatting about her life and work and the inspiration that drives it all, this level of attention to detail and clarity of purpose are not surprising in the least. Descriptors like “extremely specific” and “incredibly nuanced” become touchstones as we talk. Like her music, Thomas speaks in clear, concise paragraphs that reveal her voracious appetite for sound, both consuming it and creating it. Perhaps most fascinating are the warring tensions inherent in her own work: she is prolific yet perfectionistic, a composer of carefully notated music but also one seeking the energy of spontaneous creation.
Thomas possesses a sharp musical intellect but also a remarkably unjaded perspective on the value, need, and potential of concert music in 2010. For her, music has always been the pulse driving her life, and though she is also a committed educator, standing at her drafting tables and creating scores one after the another remains the unrelenting core instinct. “I have all sorts of things I want to make,” she says. “So I do it, I just get up and do it. No matter whether anyone likes it or not.”
Augusta Read Thomas: One of the things I’ve tried to do is to write music for lots of different genres. So for instance, I’ve written quite a lot for large orchestra, but I also write for children’s choir, for high school band, for opera, and so on and so forth. And I find that when one writes in one genre, let’s say an orchestra piece which is followed by a solo piano piece which is followed by something for 12-year-old girls to sing and then followed by a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra, it’s so invigorating to move from one to the other. So I’ve really tried to have a wide reach for the music that I’m making.
MS: What keeps you coming back to the table again and again? Where do you look for the inspiration and the motivation to keep creating?
ART: When I was really little, I used to lie underneath the piano and listen to the sounds coming over my head and I just fell in love with it. And that desire to make sound or the curiosity for the sounds that other people are making is so alive in me, as if I was still a child. So the thought of being able to get up in the morning and go to my drafting table and make a new symphonic piece or a new solo piano piece or whatever it might be, it comes from that original love affair. I think that’s what brings me back to the table every day.
MS: Growing up, was music a whole family endeavor then?
ART: My mother supported the family—she taught kindergarten—and music was a big part of the household. I come from a really large family, actually ten children, and I’m a twin. So I’m number ten and my twin brother is number nine. And inside of the ten children, there are a lot of people involved with the arts. For instance, I have one sister who’s a poet; one sister who spent a lot of time dancing; my brother is a ceramicist, and he’s actually a dean of fine art at a university; I’m a composer; another brother plays rock and roll drums. And in addition to composing, I also paint as well. So there was a real emphasis and interest in the creative arts.
MS: You must have been able to put on quite the family talent show.
ART: I remember growing up, one of my older brothers would be playing the Beatles and my sister would be playing Simon and Garfunkel, and then my father would be listening to, like, the B-minor Mass of Bach. There was all this different music in the house all the time, and it really affected me. Of course, I was playing an instrument the whole time, as well. I started very young playing piano, and then I was playing trumpet.
When I was little, I also used to just make up tiny little songs that would be, like, two bars long and really bad—really, really, really bad. But I would make them up and my piano teacher would say, “Oh, that’s good, write it down.” And I started to learn how to write down the notes and things. I mean, I must have been five or six, but I was constantly making sounds up or painting, making things. And little by little, that developed and by about ninth and tenth grade, when I was in high school, I became very involved with composition. I began to find that really enriching and challenging. I went to college as a trumpet performance major actually, but ended up graduating as a comp major.
MS: Clearly you’ve come a long way from writing in two-bar chunks. What is your working process now? I know that you like work at a drafting table, but what happens once you are at that table?
ART: For me, to get up and get to my drafting tables and to make up, let’s say, a whole new symphonic piece, it really has to come from a desire to create things—a deep, deep-down inside passion or vision of something that has to be said. And without that kind of pure love and passion for it, it’s very hard to keep going for years or for decades. It really starts with that kind of creative spark, I think. And then from there, I work into the pieces. I usually improvise quite a bit at the piano, actually, and sing quite a lot, and try to create for my pieces different arenas of material. It might be chordal ideas, or motivic ideas, or character ideas, colors, timbres, whatever it might be for a particular piece. I usually sketch these out on different pieces of paper. So for each piece, I’ll have several sketches and maps of the piece. And then I actually write the pieces standing at a drafting table. I have three very high, large drafting tables, and I stand at those drinking tea, usually in sweatpants with my hair sticking straight up early in the morning. I just go right into creating things. And I basically work from my sketches into the full scores.
You get very attached to the paper and to the physicality of doing it. I’m really picky about my pens. I have certain pens that the tip is very soft, and harder, and harder, and fine lines, and my rulers. If somebody comes over and they’re like, “Oh, I’ll borrow your pen to write down that phone number,” I leap, you know, because I have them all lined up exactly where I know where they are. There’s a certain Zen about it, in a certain way. To constantly just spend your whole time standing there in total silence making up big sound worlds.
MS: How many pens do you go through when you write a piece?
ART: Well, I press too hard, so I buy them by the box. I think there are 16 in a box. So I probably go through 32. Maybe more. It’s hard because they get moved around and then some get broken, but yeah, my drafting table is basically an array of pens, rulers of different sizes, Wite-Outs of different types, you know, the brush one, or the nib one, and tea.
MS: Your music does sound very clean and precise. It’s not sharp, but it’s very specific, at least to my ear. Do you do a great deal of self-editing or is that just how you think and that’s how it comes out?
ART: I’ve always admired composers with clarity: the idea was clear, the conception was clear, and the execution was clear. In my own work, there’s this balance between clarity and complexity. If things get complex, I don’t want them to become muddy and unfocused. They should always be crystalline and clear. Even if I have different objects interwoven or crosscutting one another or in a certain kind of contrapuntal configuration, the clarity is really important to me. I like it clean.
One of the things that interests me a great deal is for the music to be very nuanced. So the notations are extremely specific, and I think that lends itself to a clear and crisp execution of the piece. Yet on the other hand, I want the pieces to sound really spontaneous—”There it goes! The orchestra’s playing, and the train has left the station! Or a pianist can sit down and play my piece Traces, and it almost sounds as if they’re improvising but it’s incredibly nuanced in the notation. That’s something I’ve been working on for about 30 years to refine and refine and refine.
MS: I’m interested what you found to be the solutions to getting some of those outcomes, because they seem like they’re at opposite ends. How do you have extremely detailed notation that still allows performers to appear as if they are spontaneously creating?
ART: Performers these days can play anything, and that virtuosity really excites me. So I feel that if I can give a player a very particular text that says this is what I want to hear, they’re like, “Okay, that’s no problem.” In a way, giving them an articulate poem, or an articulate sentence, allows them to then deliver it with their own sense of it and take it one step further. Then it becomes a little magical, like what I made plus what they made becomes something else. And I like that synergy and that kind of—poof!—when the sound comes out just right.
MS: It seems like that’s maybe one of the things you take the most pleasure in—exploiting virtuosity and seeing where that can take you.
ART: I’ve always been interested in exactly how the sound is made, what the player is physically doing: where is the finger on which harmonic; what kind of bow speed is being used; exactly how much air is being passed through the instrument; that kind of thing. I’m very sympathetic to what it is they have to do because I spent so much of my life practicing to learn how to do it, and I think that’s very characteristic of my work. I grew up as a player, and I think you can hear that in the compositions to a certain extent.
MS: Are there particular things that you’re mindful of because of that? Are there little pet-peeve things that you’re careful about because you come from that performer’s experience?
ART: I like my music to be fun to play, so that people go, “Oh, I love this bar here,” or “That was such a groove. I really thought that was great.” When players tell me things like that, I can see that it was fun. In a way, I feel that a lot of my work has sort of a whim about it, or a caprice, or a certain kind of wink of the eye, or sunshine. It’s not dark, heavy, somber; it’s not at all.
Another thing I’ve been working very hard at for about 20 years is to make my works very concise: to say a lot in four minutes; to say a lot in two minutes; to be very articulate in what I’m saying. So the pieces are generally short, very colorful, and capricious.
MS: You keep mentioning what the music “says.” And since I have had at least a handful of conversations with you and have a sense of your personality, I’m curious if there are things that you say in music that you wouldn’t or couldn’t say in words.
ART: Although this sounds kind of corny or hokey, when I’m writing my music, I’m writing it from the heart. I really am. Like somebody might not like a particular piece, but I feel incredibly naked. I feel like I’m completely exposed. There’s no artifice. I feel that when I’m writing my music, I’m able to reveal some little glimpse of what’s really happening in my heart. I’m aware that this sounds corny or it might sound a little bit odd, but it’s the only way I can really express what it is that I’m trying to say in the music.
MS: Because you have had so much conventional success, does that make it any easier to be vulnerable in that way, or not really?
ART: It’s really interesting, because sometimes when people hear a piece of mine on the radio, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s Augusta Read Thomas. I’m sure that’s Augusta.” You know, so there’s some kind of signature sound. On the other hand, I’m not writing the same piece over and over again—all kinds of different genres, sizes, durations—and every piece for me is a new adventure. And as such, I feel completely vulnerable. You have to just have the courage to break the silence and to make up a sound and try to make a form that’s very organic and has a beauty and also a deep honesty and character about it. That’s such hard work. So I think that being creative every day, the vulnerability or the honesty is definitely there for sure.
MS: Do you get emotionally tougher as the years go on? Is there a point where you had to come to terms with the fact that you have a creative life in the public eye, and this is a piece of it?
ART: Throughout music history, I’ve always loved the composers who really put themselves on the line. They absolutely were who they were to the maximum. So when you think of Mahler, or Bartok, or Debussy, or late Beethoven, or early Stravinsky, or whoever you would like to pick, there’s just no turning back—these artists showed us complete iconoclastic vision. I really like it when composers are able to dig deep and come out with who it is that they are: highly characterized music that isn’t derivative; that has a personality; that invents its own kinds of risks. And for me as a creative person, those role models are really important. And of course, we all have had pieces that people don’t understand, but you have to really dig deep and believe in what it is that you’re searching for and what you’ve been working at for a long time. In a way, I think of my works as kind of chain-linked. So you maybe make a string quartet, and then the next piece you make might be a piece for orchestra, and then the next piece might be for oboe and six players, or whatever it is. They’re all independent pieces, but you learn from one how to improve for the next. And in that sense, it’s a chain link of growth: a search for “excellence” or a search for “clarity.”
MS: Are those the words that you use to describe the journey that you’re on: excellence and clarity?
ART: I think the journey I’m on has to do with integrity and soulfulness, the attempt to make things of beauty, of great proportion or beautiful form, elegance, a certain kind of grace, balance, flexibility, spontaneity. Those are probably the ten words that leap to my mind about this 30 years of writing music so far.
MS: It is almost never easy to put artists into camps and categories, but where do you see your closest kindred spirits in the music that you’re writing?
ART: I’ve always loved the spontaneity of jazz. And jazz is a big word, I’m aware, but there’s a certain kind of turn on a dime flexibility and instant creation that’s going on that I’ve always tried to retain in my own sound even though my music is highly notated. I’ve always loved Debussy for this refined, very velvety sonic palette, harmonically and timbrally. And of course, those are very much related. I love Varèse for his colossal kind of industrial sound fields. My favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. I listen to Bach every day. He’s always inventing, and his concision and the deep spirituality of his sound and the immense imagination that’s taking place everywhere—that is so enriching and beautiful to me. And there are so many others. I mean, it just goes on and on. I love everything Brahms wrote, and, boy, the early ballets of Stravinsky have directly, clearly influenced everything I’ve ever done. So there’s a million grandparents.
One of the things I feel really strongly about is that we should really be looking at somebody’s exact music—the exact piece, the exact sounds. I think we tend to put people in boxes too much. Okay, this one is a such and such and that one is a something-ist. You know, I have young composers saying, “I’m a such and such-ist,” and they’re, like, 18 years old. From my point of view, one can easily grab something from a vocalization of Ella Fitzgerald and have it make complete sense in relation to, let’s say, a Debussy prelude. And they’re very different musics, and they’re both fabulous, but they can both enrich someone who knows that music. So I really don’t like boxes and categories, and I always listen carefully to what it is that the piece is saying.
MS: With all the lessons you’ve taken from listening to music, what’s the “equation,” if you will, for how this then shakes out to equal music where people would say, “That’s Augusta Read Thomas. I’d know that sound anywhere”?
ART: I just had the chance to work with the Juilliard Orchestra, and the fourth movement of my piece is this kind of mad gambol or some kind of like bebop-meets-Varèse kind of thing, you know, just very jazzy with all these weird hits and things coming in and out. Yet when you put it in a big orchestra, it starts to sound like, oh, a little bit Stravinskian, but then it’s kind of like rock and roll, but it’s not—the harmonic fields are more chromatic than rock and roll. So where do you draw the line? Where can you say, okay, there’s the bebop bit, and then there were the jazz harmonic fields. It’s also extremely concise. So then it’s kind of almost Webernesque. This huge orchestra playing this romp that’s only four minutes long. The transformations that are happening inside of it actually come from listening to Bach. So there are all these kind of weird rivers and grandparents of different kinds of music that are all being digested. And, hopefully, what pops out is this movement of orchestral music by Augusta Read Thomas. It’s completely its own honest thing, but it does clearly understand or have the perfume of other kinds of music in it.
MS: Can you point to what is the Gusty part, or are you too close to it to know?
ART: There are certain things that are very characteristic of my work. One is that I love pitch—I love the notes. I spend enormous amounts of time at the piano playing for every piece. And if you change a note, or if you hit a wrong note, my ears catch it instantly. So I think that’s one thing. I think another one has to do with rhythmic contexts and rhythmic syntaxes. Not that everyone else should do it—everyone has to do it their own way—but for myself, I’ve always liked rhythms where they are slightly unpredictable. I’ll set something up [sings], and right when you think you know where you are, you’re interrupted. You can actually feel the groove, definitely, but then there’s a hiccup. And I like those little spontaneous rhythmic twists and turns. I stand at my drafting table and I tap, I conduct, and I sing the whole thing out and feel exactly where the rests should be, or exactly how long that note should be before the next thing comes in. So basically I’m singing it and feeling it, and so that certain kind of rhythmic syntax comes up in a lot of my works. And sometimes that’s related to the meter. It depends on the context and the particular piece, so it’s not just the actual rhythm, but the metrical structures as well. I think that in general I’ve always liked a colorful palette. I think of certain painters like Van Gogh or Matisse or Picasso or Turner, their different use of color. It’s very interesting to me, and I think in general one would say that my palette, the big palette, is colorful.
MS: What is on that palette? When you speak about that, what are you thinking of? Instruments? Timbres? Rhythms? All of these?
ART: If I could try to describe the way I think of music, I would draw a big circle. Then inside of it, I would put a lot of words, such as counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, harmonic rhythm, pitch, flow, flux, density, tessitura, balance, and so on and so forth. For me, it’s a big huge gestalt. So you can’t actually separate it out and say, okay, this could be moved, because if you’re talking about harmony, you’re also talking about pitch. And if you’re talking about pitch, you’re also talking about tessitura. And if you’re talking about tessitura, you’re talking about instrumentation. If you’re talking about instrumentation, you’re talking about color. They’re all connected with this beautiful web, and so while I could talk about rhythm independently, or I could talk about harmony independently, for me, they instantly plug back into that gestalt.
MS: When you’re at that drafting table, is there an imagined audience for this music in your mind at that point? Have they entered that into the equation at that point?
ART: It’s a very difficult question to answer because so much of this is about this very internal process of making things. You’re standing alone with your drafting table for months on end with paper. No one can hear it, except for yourself. Then all of a sudden, 3,000 people are in a huge concert hall. I’m aware that there is an audience out there, but when I’m creating the pieces, I’m really trying to listen deeply and make up the sounds for my own ears. It’s a very tricky thing to balance because it’s commissioned, let’s say, by the New York Philharmonic, or the Chicago Symphony, or the LA Phil. I know there’s going to be thousands of people that will hear it. So I already can project that audience. But at the moment of creating it, for me it has to stay more private.
MS: When you came on with Schirmer, you already had some 400 works in your portfolio, but I read an interview that you gave around that time in which you said that you reviewed them all, selected about 25, and withdrew the rest. Now, you’ve gone on and created quite an impressive catalogue of music since then, but I want to dig around a little bit in what the motivation was for pulling back so many works.
ART: When someone goes to Schirmer and they say I’m interested in Augusta Read Thomas, I want that person to find a piece—a string quartet, or an octet, or a piece for chamber orchestra, or large orchestra, or chorus, whatever it might be—that at least I like. There’s a certain kind of Gusty quality control that’s going on so that I feel the pieces are something I really stand by. I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time with a piece that I didn’t even like. It doesn’t make sense in this day and age. But also, if they then decide, “Oh, we didn’t like it,” at least I liked it. In other words, it just keeps it a whole lot cleaner. For me, it’s very important to keep my catalog at G. Schirmer what I would call clean and organized and very much edited, as it were.
MS: Do you still pull things out?
ART: I would like to have the option to withdraw some very early works. I think probably all composers would like that, but before I went to Schirmer, I pulled back tons of the works that I had written really early and then all through college because I felt that they weren’t strong enough. Like, one piece might have had a nice idea here, but the whole piece didn’t work. Or another piece might have had a really cool harmonic field there, but the piece didn’t work. What’s interesting to me now is that the whole gestalt works. The form is the right length for the materials and the character shifts within the piece, the balance, the sense of flow, the inevitability of sudden shifts. Just getting it all right, you know, and that’s really hard to do in any art form. So the works that I have with Schirmer, I’ve been trying over many, many years to have them be as refined as possible.
MS: It seems like that’s something that would be even harder to do going forward—maintaining complete control over access to anything that has been published in the digital age.
ART: It’s really true. I’ve always admired Brahms, because he only left exactly what he left. He pulled back everything else and burned it, or threw it out, and he leaves us just a blockbuster piece after blockbuster piece. I thought, “That’s a smart man.” Usually composers are pretty good judges of their own work. A tailor knows how well he or she made the suit, how beautifully the lining was or wasn’t done. And the same with the composer: You know how beautifully you made that symphony or not. At least, I think so. There’s a huge Gusty self-editor. Major. Very often, for instance, I’ll write a piece, let’s say the piece is 15 minutes or something for orchestra. I’ll write 19 minutes, and I trim myself down. Is this absolutely essential? How can I make it tighter, so that I really have this chance to pull my listener’s ear through the piece in a way that’s logical, but that isn’t self-indulgent? That really has something to say at every moment? I’ve always liked articulate music.
MS: Let’s talk about the orchestra, because that was clearly a big part of your career establishment. Was that sound palette already a central focus of your internal musical imagination? Were your ears already focused in that direction, or did that come with the opportunities?
ART: I grew up with two different kinds of experiences: playing piano alone and practicing, practicing, practicing for years, and playing trumpet in an ensemble, in a chamber orchestra, in an orchestra, in a big band, in the church brass quintet, in various large ensembles. As a composer, it was very useful for me to have both. And here, fast forward 30 years, I’m still writing for solos and for large ensembles because I grew up in that, and I can feel exactly how it feels. So writing for orchestra, really, is a natural outcome of having played trumpet for so long and falling in love with the repertoire as a trumpet player. And the inspiration of what, let’s say, early Stravinsky made and how one can move forward or sideways or in any direction from that seemed very natural to me.
I think also when you grow up playing an instrument in an ensemble, you learn a lot. For instance, when I was, like, 16, I probably knew a lot about clarinets and oboes and flutes and snare drums because all of my friends were playing those and I heard them every day. So you soak in like a sponge all of this knowledge without realizing it. And therefore, when you start to write for an oboe, or a bassoon, or a euphonium, or whatever it might be, there is ten years of stuff that’s already in the ears. I found that very useful.
I’m still madly in love with writing for orchestra, and I can’t wait to write my next orchestral piece. It’s very labor intensive, obviously. Most of my orchestral pieces are about 150 pages of hand-written, very large manuscript. It’s very physical. That’s why I have bad posture. But I still want to get up and make the next orchestral piece. Definitely. It is a certain art.
MS: And a lot of pens.
ART: A lot of pens, a lot of Wite-Out.
MS: You do have this amazing insight into the world of the orchestra as a composer who was a performer, who worked intimately with both the administration and musicians of a powerhouse orchestra in America. So if you were asked to kick in your ideas, as this person who has all this experience, are there things that you see that orchestras might do differently? If you could take any risk with such an ensemble, what would you like to see tried or implemented?
ART: For an audience member at an orchestral concert with a world premiere—let’s say the piece is 20-minutes long, and they’re hearing it performed once—there’s an enormous amount of information that’s being transmitted. It’s almost like reading an entire novel in 20 minutes. And it’s a lot to digest, even for the specialists. Even for the performers. I mean, there’s this big, very thoughtfully created work, and it takes some time to get to know. As such, I feel that we really need recordings. If orchestras could literally record everything they do and get it up on radio, make it accessible, make it downloadable, allow people to hear it many, many times, I think if you multiply that out by 30 years, 50 years, it’s going to make such a huge difference to the education of the audience, and the enjoyment and the beauty of the art form. For instance, let’s say a composer has a premiere in a certain city: no one can hear it unless they happen to be there. So even great pieces are being made that nobody ever gets the chance to hear. I mean, that’s just crazy.
The other thing that’s interesting to me is how much music people are listening to. I have a ton of nieces and nephews, and they’re all plugged in. They all have their handheld. They know how to get the music off the Internet. They know how to steal it off the Internet. They’re listening to it nonstop, maybe three hours a day. On the way to school. On the way back. On the bus. At the gym. Listening, listening, listening. So you have these young people listening to hours of music a day—not minutes, hours. And yet, how do we get to them this new orchestral piece that was just performed? We’re not going to get it to them if we don’t allow anyone to get to it.
So thinking of how many hours of music people are listening to every day is quite exciting in a certain way. But how can we make sure that they’re listening to a huge array of musics, not just only one type. I think one of the categories that’s left out is classical art music. So large organizations, such as a large orchestra, really need to figure out a way to reach all these people who are listening for three hours a day. I don’t have an answer, but I believe that it’s possible.
Having taught orchestration for many years, and having written for orchestra for most of my life, I actually believe that the orchestra’s really young. I mean, when you actually think about it, the orchestra for which we are writing today was developed by Strauss, let’s say. We’re talking, like, 100 years old! This is incredibly young when you think about music history. Where will this be in 200 years? Or 300, 400, 500, 800 years? We need to keep this vibrant, alive, young, flexible, wonderful instrument moving forward as opposed to making it stiff and like a museum. And I think when we as a culture start to only play older works—and lots of them—and not enough new work, it can be very, very dangerous.
MS: Is it ridiculous to think that those attendance graphs will start going up again, or do we need to be more optimistic about the future? Are there possibilities in front of us?
ART: I’m a complete optimist. I may sound like a fool, but I have a lot of hope because I basically get up every day and I write orchestral music. And to do that, you have to be either crazy or have a lot of hope. So I really believe in the instrument. I believe in its past repertoire. I believe in what tons of composers are writing for it today. I think it’s vibrant and vivid, and there’s nothing like a great orchestra performing a great piece. We just have to be willing to keep going forward. And it’s so interesting because many people want a new car. They want a new cell phone. They want the latest in brain surgery. They want the latest technologies. Then, when it comes to [classical] music, they’re like, “Well, I only like Mozart, please. That’ll be fine.” But they want new of everything else: new theater, new cinema, new video games, new rock music. So I think there’s a disconnect. For me, I want new orchestral music. And so I worry when people get really stiff about wanting something that’s 200 years old only. I think, with all due respect, that that’s a mistake in any genre. Architecture, gardening, medicine, you name it. We have to keep moving forward.
MS: I’ve got to believe that your students look to take something from you that they can emulate—not the music that you make specifically, since they make their own music, but how you lead your life and how you have had success in your career. Do you have ways of guiding them, or thoughts that you offer them to help them along with their own dreams?
ART: I’ve taught for many, many years at Eastman, Northwestern, Tanglewood, and lots of residencies every year, where I go in for a week and do intensive teaching. I love it. And actually, I’m still in touch with Eastman students that I taught 20 years ago. I mean, I build real relationships with people. Like, I’m the godmother of lots of their children. They become like family to me.
I really care about what they’re making, and they send me all of their recent pieces. The one thing that I care a lot about is that they be who they are. I always say, “Let’s look at what you need to do. Look inside. Be yourself.” What I don’t want is to create a whole bunch of Augustas. The more honest people are, the more I’m enthralled with their work. So none of my students sound the same; they’re all doing completely their own thing. And that’s what I like. There are other styles of teaching where there’s sort of a guru and people follow in that system, or with those methods. And that’s also very valuable for certain teachers and certain students. But that’s not me. I’m much more about really having people be who they are. And so the things that interest me in their work are the same things that interest me in other people’s work, which is a certain kind of honesty, and integrity, and risk taking on their own terms.
MS: Do you suspect that teaching will always be an integral part of your career then, or will you eventually give it up so you can devote yourself exclusively to composition?
ART: It is my dream to found and direct an institute for advanced studies in composition. The institute would have fellows, who would be young composers, recently having finished a DMA or a Ph.D., who would come to work with me for two years, have all their compositions performed and recorded, would receive a yearly stipend on which they can live, and have the opportunity to teach. Being a fellow would provide them time and space to compose with concentration, closely rehearse and hear all their works played, make a wonderful portfolio of scores and recordings, and grow as artists. There are many more aspects to my dream, but that’s a quick summary. I just need some financial help building it!
MS: What about when you look back at your own career. It’s far from over, obviously, but at this point, if you turned around and looked over your shoulder, what are some of the milestone markers for you?
ART: For me, the actual, very specific sound that I want is very important. Like the difference between whhah and whhhhhaaah. They’re very similar, but they’re actually profoundly different, if we were to analyze those two. To just really have such a clean idea of the sound that one wants, and then to notate it and to hear it performed with the perfect bow speed, great intonation, beautiful blend—every time that happens, that’s a huge joy for me. This certain sound was imagined and executed. And hopefully captured on a recording, but that’s rarely the case. If you ask me about my career, what’s important, I would say that’s important. That really matters to me.
I think it’s also very helpful and meaningful to me to have real discussions about real music with people that know the same music. Where you can actually say, “Did that little thing work right there?” or “How could this little thing have been better?” It’s sort of like if you’re a young poet and you need advice, you really need to go to a great poet who will say, “You know, if you move the comma one word to the left, your whole poem will have this extra double meaning,” or you know, something really technical. Those conversations that I’ve had with people over the past 30 years have been really meaningful and really helpful. And those are the kinds of conversations I try to have with my own students. Like, let’s really get into it here. Let’s not just drink coffee and chat. I like to get into the sound and talk about it.
MS: When you first got on this path to being a composer and sort of looked down the road and thought about what that was going to mean, how does that vision mesh with where you’re actually standing today?
ART: I was totally infatuated with music as a young person and then I practiced for, you know, five hours a day, and then I played, and then I started writing, and then I kept writing, and now here I’m writing. I mean it feels very natural, very integrated. It’s just a path that I’ve been on, and that I’ll keep walking. You have to know your own truth. You have to get up every day and face another piece of blank paper and create a piece. I’ve always admired painters. They make a painting, and they get up and make another painting. And for myself, that’s very much been part of my process. Sometimes my husband will say, you know, “Why don’t you take a morning off?” But I’m so on my path that I want to make the next one. I have terrible insomnia also just thinking about the next sound. So it’s really just this huge, long, ever-extended journey.
MS: Do you think it will ever end? Will you ever stop being a composer? Will you retire?
ART: For me, I think it would be impossible to not be a composer. It’s just so natural to who I am. It takes a lot of physical health to have the strength to stand there for eight hours, ten hours, get on an airplane and fly halfway across the world and then do a rehearsal, then get back on the plane and then teach all day. So I suppose at some point if I become very sick, it would be very hard to do. And that’s why I feel, while I am in good health, I should be so thankful for that. I have all sorts of things I want to make. So I do it, I just get up and do it. No matter whether anyone likes it or not.