Augusta Read Thomas’ “Of Being a Bird”


THOMAS: Helix Spirals / Parker Qrt / Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) / Spektral Qrt & 3rd Coast Percussion / Capricious Toccata. Caprice. Rush / Nathan Giem, vln / Of Being a Bird (Emily Dickinson Poems) / Claire Booth, sop; Aurora Orch.; Nicholas Collon, cond / BERLIN-THOMAS: Love Twitters [They Say It’s Wonderful] / Nicola Melville, pno / Nimbus Alliance NI6323

Augusta Read Thomas is that rarity, an American composer who has found success and support in Great Britain in addition to being a Professor of Composition at the University of Chicago. She managed to gain a foothold in England by virtue of studying music with British composer Oliver Knussen as well as at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she finished her Master’s Degree. She also married British composer Bernard Rands.

Her composition style lies somewhere between those of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Libby Larsen, setting rather lyrical melodic lines to modern harmonies. I’ve been very fond of the music I’ve heard by her and, since this album includes a song cycle performed by soprano Claire  Booth, whose recording of Mussorgsky songs blew me away, I decided to review it since I’d never heard it before despite its having been issued in 2016. All of these performances are first recordings except for Caprice, Rush and Love Twitters.

One of Thomas’ strengths is the ability to write modern music that has a definable rhythm, which helps the neophyte to adjust somewhat better to her modal and bitonal harmonic language. Helix Spirals opens with a movement played in pizzicato, certainly rare for any string quartet music, with different figures bouncing off each other in counterpoint. Here and there, one hears the viola play a held note, and at the halfway mark the violins hold a brief chord, but it’s not until the 4:28 mark that one hears the strings playing more and more bowed figures until they become the dominant form of the music though the pizzicato continues.

The second movement opens with the viola playing quirky motifs in a fast rhythm, followed by one of the violins playing held notes, but again there is a lot of pizzicato, but ironically the last movement opens with a lovely viola solo, into which the violins join, and this movement is lyrical. It’s just a really strange piece!

Selene, written for the combination of a string quartet and percussion quartet, also relies heavily on pizzicato motifs for the obvious reason of the involvement of percussion. This piece is not broken into movements, but goes on uninterrupted for nearly 17 minutes, and in this work I did feel that Thomas was being more clever than creative, relying on learned techniques rather than being truly inspired despite some slow, lyrical moments for the strings giving relief to the “bouncing balls” of music. And in fact the Capricious Toccata falls into the same style. Yet this music does fit into the title of the album, Of Being a Bird, as it sounds as if it were based on bird songs.

Next up is the piece I most wanted to hear, the title piece written to poems of Emily Dickinson. This is much more lyrical and in fact very creative music, atonal yet lyrical and almost spooky in its austere orchestration for a small ensemble of winds and strings. Soprano Claire Booth, whose recording of Mussorgsky songs I praised so highly, sings beautifully but here, singing in her native tongue (English), she is not clear or understandable; but some of this I put to Thomas’ writing, which stretches so much of the music out over long-held notes that it’s difficult to get or sustain clear diction at that pace. But each piece in this remarkable song cycle is brilliantly and ingeniously written, and for once the fast staccato passages for the flute(s) and eventually other instruments in the “Interlude” suits the nature and title of the work. The next song, “The most triumphant bird I ever knew or met,” is by far the most complex piece in the cycle and a real test of Booth’s incredible vocal technique and musicianship.

For the most part, however, the music on this CD is too much alike in style and form. Thomas has written some extremely interesting pieces that do not constantly rely on “bouncing” figures to make their impact, but except for the Dickinson song cycle, most of this album just sounds too much alike.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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