Augusta Read Thomas’ ΦBK Tour

By Daniel Catalanello 

Noted American composer Augusta Read Thomas has quickly become one of the most celebrated composers of our day. She has recently toured various college campuses across the country as a ΦBK Visiting Scholar, where she has given talks on composition and headed master classes, offering a unique experience to students and fellow scholars along the way. 

Among her multitude of honors and accolades, her piece Astral Canticle was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2007. Thomas has premiered original compositions consistently over the past two decades with major orchestras and ensembles. She currently teaches composition at the University of Chicago and serves on the board of directors for the American Musical Center, and as a member of various groups including the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

Thomas’ compositions include pieces written for choir, orchestra, chamber ensemble, ballet, band, and more. The composer’s prolific output reflects a voracious appetite for composing, which Thomas commented on, saying that she did not consider composing to be her occupation, but more of as her “condition,” because of the strong urge she feels to compose music. 

At her talk called “the A.R.T. of Composing,” (A.R.T. being her initials), at Louisiana State University, one of her many stops as a ΦBK Visiting Scholar, Thomas spoke at length about her thoughts on composing and music. She discussed her creative methods with eager attendants, detailing her strict use of a pen-on-paper method when writing, in contrast to the digital means most composers rely on now when writing. She also shared photographs of highly detailed maps of her songs, which she creates when composing a piece in order to lay-out the music visually. 

Donald Rosenberg of Gramophone Magazine, speaking of Thomas’s music, remarked that her “brainy brand of modernism reveals a lively, probing mind allied to a beating heart.” Her music succeeds in sounding lively and energetic, perhaps in part because of the composer’s wish to create music which sounds, as she described for her profile, “organically self-propelled,” as though the listener is overhearing a spontaneous creation, or “capturing improvisation.”

Listening to any given Thomas composition, one might get the feeling that her music has a mind of its own. This is not to say though, that every single detail of her works is not nuanced and worked over, as Thomas explained. When composing, she says looks for the forms things want to come in, and that she takes inspiration from natural forms like that of trees, and other things related to the natural world, and this organic quality comes through in her music. 

Beginning last year, her already considerable body of work began to be recorded by Nimbus Records, which Thomas explained was an especially exciting project because of how rare it is for composers to have the opportunity to record their entire catalog of work. Beyond her already extensive body of work, the active composer seems to have much of her best work still ahead of her

Visit the Phi Beta Kappa website to learn more about the Visiting Scholar Program

Daniel Catalanello is a senior at Louisiana State University majoring in English literature and Classics. Louisiana State University is home to the Iota Tau of Louisiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.