The composer and University Professor of Composition discusses her new work, 'Resounding Earth'

February 18, 2014

Resounding Earth, a new composition by Augusta Read Thomas, will see its Chicago premiere Friday, February 21, 7:30 pm, at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The performance by Third Coast Percussion is part of UChicago Arts’ Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts Culture.

Thomas, composer and University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College at the University of Chicago, discusses her love of bells, ‘captured improvisation,’ and collaborating with Third Coast Percussion to realize the extended and ambitious Resounding Earth.

Many of the instruments used in Resounding Earth are unique. What first motivated you to acquire some of these instruments?

Eighteen Burmese spinning bells, ten Indian Noah bells, gongs, and twenty-six Japanese rin—to my ears, these unique sounds are infinitely fascinating. Probing bells’ rich meanings and characteristics as carriers of history, ethnicity, and societal and cultural connotations is a joy and wonder. Bells can be used to celebrate grand occasions, hold sacrificial rites, keep a record of events, give the correct time, celebrate births and weddings, mark funerals, caution a community, enhance any number of religious ceremonies, and are even hung around the necks of animals. As carriers of history and culture, bells, of numerous shapes, sizes, types, decorative patterns, weights, functions, and cultural connotations, enrapture and inspire.

Bells are central to and permeate my music. For over 25 years, in every work for orchestra, and in many for smaller ensembles, I have been composing music frequently using percussion consisting of bell sounds (pitched metal percussion and all the mallet percussion instruments), many of which have their origins in non-Western musical cultures. As such, Resounding Earth is an extreme extension of work I have been doing for decades.

How did you come to work with Third Coast Percussion? Is there something special about playing Resounding Earth in Chicago?

I treasure the opportunity to collaborate with the musicians in Third Coast Percussion because they are world-class virtuosi, visionary artists, and collegial, spectacular teammates. We have a longstanding friendship, which began in 2004, but we did not start to work together until 2011. Involving a large battery of unique, ancient bells and metals from around the world, our composition thus required countless hours of refining nuances, colors, mallet choices, bell placements, and honing any number of other shadings, tunings, and gradations of the sound complexes. The musicians in Third Coast Percussion are ardent collaborators.

Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled—on the spot. As if we listeners are overhearing a captured improvisation.

My music, which is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, should be played so that the inner life of the different rhythmic, timbral, and pitch syntaxes are made explicit and are then organically allied to one another with characterized phrasing of rhythm, color, harmony, counterpoint, tempo—keeping it alive, continuously sounding spontaneous. 

All of this, hopefully, works toward the fundamental goal: to compose a work in which every musical parameter is allied in one holistic gestalt. Third Coast Percussion’s performances are 100% in sync with these principles.

What did the collaborative process entail?

The immense logistical undertaking, in which we all participated, included picking out and arranging the bells, experimenting with sounds, building racks, finding bell importers, and learning the various notations and nomenclatures used in each movement. We made sample recordings of every bell, played with multiple mallets, which resulted in hundreds of sound files. Third Coast Percussion’s intricate mallet-switching across 35 minutes is inspiring. They use soft mallets, medium mallets, hard mallets, rubber mallets, rattan mallets, wire brushes, hammers, even the backs of mallets. We workshopped the piece four times in summer 2012 in Third Coast Percussion’s Chicago studio—such a collaboration is a composer’s dream!

How do you hope the audience interprets the result? 

Thirty-five minutes of nothing but metal—no strings, skins, voices, brass, woodwinds—is exceptionally difficult to sculpt. When you enter the concert hall and see the stage full of unique metals, you know you are in for something you have never heard before. You are going to enter a different sound world, and for an extended period of time, so one must attend the concert open for a new experience, with open ears and heart.


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Augusta Read Thomas, "Resounding Earth" II. PRAYER - Star Dust Orbits (9:04 min)

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