Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas began her appointment as University Professor of composition at the University of Chicago in July 2011. (Photography by Anthony Barlich)

Something new

Sixty years of making and sharing contemporary music at UChicago and beyond.

It’s the week before Autumn Quarter, and Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of composition in the Division of the Humanities and the College, is in her office at Goodspeed Hall to give one of her first lessons of the academic year. A prolific composer whose music is featured on a Grammy-winning recording, Thomas served for nine years as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence. She has been teaching at UChicago since 2011.

Benjamin Martin, a second-year PhD student, arrives at Thomas’s door. One of about a dozen doctoral students in music composition, Martin has returned to Chicago after an eventful summer, which included performances of his works at two music festivals: New Music on the Point in Vermont and the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Institute in North Carolina. After exchanging warm hellos, he and Thomas settle down to listen to a recording of “Excise,” his new work for “piano four hands”—composed expressly for two musicians seated at the same piano—which was first performed during his stay in Vermont.

Thomas sets out a series of colored markers, preparing to mark Martin’s score with adjectives that summarize the piece, which will help her articulate what she likes about it, as well as circles and arrows that indicate places where it can be improved.

“Excise” opens with one pianist creating a bisbigliando texture (a tremulous effect) as the other delineates an increasingly dense, rhythmically complex arc of sound that roams across the upper half of the instrument’s range. Some of the words Thomas chooses to describe the four-minute work are “rich,” “poetic,” and “beautiful.”

Thomas, whose experience with performers runs deep, asks Martin what challenged him about rehearsing the piece with musicians. The Vermont festival has given him a taste for writing virtuosic music that demands a lot of its performers. “I’m trying to get more comfortable asking players to do hard things. This took some woodshedding,” he replies, using musicians’ lingo to describe especially intense practice sessions. “Now I’m hooked on the idea of bigger asks.”

“I can feel you stretching,” says Thomas. “It’s what we should all be doing every day.” Turning to the score, she targets her feedback on how to improve the experience of the complex piece for both listeners and performers. She advises him to reconsider the bisbigliando—its complicated yet repetitive rhythmic figure may make it seem like one pianist is not really listening to the other’s wide-ranging, well-contoured line, and it gives too few moments of “lift,” points that will buoy listeners’ attention. She counsels him to think carefully about how he uses complexity to ensure the music is purposeful: to remain attuned to what performers and listeners need from it in addition to what the composer finds most interesting.

Augusta Read Thomas Music Map for Forest of Shifting Time
Augusta Read Thomas’s creative process includes making music illustrations, like this map for a cowritten ballet for reed quintet. (Photo courtesy Augusta Read Thomas)

Composers, performers, and listeners: during the volatile 20th century, the vital balance between those key groups often seemed threatened by massive shifts in how music was created and presented. Since its founding in 1931, however, the music department at the University of Chicago has cultivated all three as part of its intellectual and educational mission. In 1964 the department invested substantially in “new music”—newly composed music as well as earlier compositions taking innovative approaches to pitch organization, form, and more—by recruiting New York composer and conductor Ralph Shapey. He not only taught composition students but also created a professional new music ensemble, the Contemporary Chamber Players (CCP).

UChicago has continued to champion the composition, performance, and appreciation of new music on campus and in the city of Chicago while evolving to meet the needs of the moment. In 2004 composer and professor Shulamit Ran oversaw the CCP’s renewal as an ensemble called Contempo. Fourteen years later, under Thomas’s watch, Contempo became the Grossman Ensemble, part of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, also founded in 2018 and led by Thomas.

Today the music department offers graduate degrees in composition, ethnomusicology, and music history and theory, as well as undergraduate majors and minors in music. Though it does not offer a performance degree, the department encourages all University students—many of them highly gifted amateur performers—to participate in ensembles, currently including 16 formally recognized ones in addition to many informal opportunities to play. “There’s a tremendous amount of live music making at the University of Chicago,” says Ran, now the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita. “This is a thread that has run through the program for all these years.”

When Shapey arrived in the mid-1960s, audiences were still skeptical of much classical music written in the 20th century. Academic music programs were becoming known for favoring a modernist aesthetic that could result in music so complex that some composers believed it beyond the ability of listeners to perceive and of performers to accurately play. For example, a technique called serialism involved constructing compositions from combinations of small series of pitches, rhythms, timbres, and other musical elements. A granular, tightly controlled means of musical organization, serialism challenged—and sometimes upset—listeners untrained to hear such small-scale structures.

Ralph Shapey conducting in 1970 and year later.
Ralph Shapey conducting the CCP’s 1970 world premiere of Jean Martinon’s Vigintuor No. 1, and years later in his office. (From left: Photography by Lloyd Eldon Saunders, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, apf1-11035, University of Chicago Library; Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, apf1-11029, University of Chicago Library)

Some academic composers in this vein saw themselves as being at the forefront of musical knowledge—as researchers who not only discovered novel ways to write music but who also developed new electronic sounds through technological experiments. Some imagined music might one day be created by electronic media, free from human variation and error. Not all academic composers took such an extreme position. But compositional complexity became associated with academia and, increasingly, with philanthropic foundations, top-tier performance venues, and prestigious awards.

At the University of Chicago, the music faculty embraced modernist complexity, but also performers and listeners. In 1956 associate professor Leonard B. Meyer, PhD’54, had published the influential book Emotion and Meaning in Music (University of Chicago Press), which took listeners’ affective responses to be an important measure of a musical work’s value. Later, in 1967, he presciently described techniques like serialism—despite their seeming ascendance among the music establishment—as just a handful of options among a dizzying array that modern composers could choose from.

In June 1964 Meyer, by then chair of the department, announced the music department’s intention to teach audiences to appreciate new music, with the help of a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation: “If contemporary music is to develop a public, universities must take the lead in educating the new generation of listeners both through formal instruction and through the concerts it presents.” The musicians of the CCP, with Shapey as their leader, would perform the latter service.

Shapey was a good person for the job. He wrote challenging, highly dissonant music that nevertheless communicated a sense of voice and affective expression that audiences enjoyed. He was also a sensitive conductor who relished leading ensembles in the “standard repertoire”—as canonical classical music had come to be known. In his later years, he would embrace the moniker “radical traditionalist,” coined by Meyer to describe the way Shapey blended old and new musical currents. In 1982 he was recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship.

In short order Shapey and his colleagues established the CCP, putting the University and the South Side of Chicago on the map as a place where stimulating music from the 20th century, including brand-new compositions, could be heard in excellent performances. The CCP played several free concerts each year in Chicago and also traveled, performing in venues as illustrious as Carnegie Hall. In 1967 this magazine reported that the CCP was essentially fulfilling its mission to engage audiences, quoting a glowing review in the New York Herald Tribune: “Mr. Shapey has built in his new home a splendid ensemble of youngsters who respond with sympathy and virtuosity to the demands of some of the hardest music. … They were cheered to the sky.”

Composers from all over the world started sending recordings and scores to Shapey, hoping that the CCP would perform their music. His correspondence from the ensemble’s early years contains exchanges with musical luminaries including Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, Aaron Copland, Anthony Braxton, Luigi Dallapiccola, Pauline Oliveros, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Elliot Carter.

But in 1973 he chose a record from the piles in his office and discovered instead a new UChicago colleague, Shulamit Ran. Ran says she has no idea who sent him the record. Her piece for voice and small ensemble, O the Chimneys, was on the B side of the album, with a better-known composer on the A side. She laughs, remembering how Shapey liked to tell the story—that after he listened, he went to then department chair Robert Marshall, threw the LP on his desk, and said, “That’s our composer!”

Shulamit Ran and scenes from her opera Ann Frank
Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Shulamit Ran, seen here in 2010, transformed the Contemporary Chamber Players into Contempo. The stage shots are from her opera Anne Frank, which premiered at Indiana University in 2023. (Photos courtesy Shulamit Ran (Anne Frank set designer Mark F. Smith, projection designer Camilla Tassi, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera and Ballet Theater)

Shapey and Ran went on to become cherished colleagues and friends. She believes it was largely because they had similar views during a time of sharp divergence about how to write music and teach composition. “My role as a teacher,” she says, “is to help my students develop their own voice and fashion their own tools. … In other words, not to impose a style on them but for them to find their own way of being themselves in music.” This echoes Shapey speaking to the Chicago Reader in 1986: “The technique that I teach is tools, that’s all. Once you’ve got your tools, then the final technique is imagination.” To crystallize his teaching approach, he had developed a basic course in composition that he required all of his students to take. Ran was so impressed by Shapey’s pedagogical gifts that she asked to become one of his pupils herself after joining the faculty.

Before being recruited to the University, Ran had lived in New York in the 1960s and early ’70s and had enjoyed experiencing firsthand the coalescing of two poles in the contemporary music world, labeled by some as “uptown” and “downtown” music. The uptown scene was associated with Columbia University and indebted to European modernists and US academic composers. “Downtown music” was a catchall term for various forms of experiment that had been taking place mostly in and around Greenwich Village. Ran remembers the impactful music of John Cage, composer of the so-called silent work “4′33”; the “Happenings” in Central Park; and concerts of all kinds at Town Hall, which hosted a contemporary music series as well as folk and jazz concerts by musicians including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and bossa nova legend João Gilberto.

A younger generation of composers was listening to all of it, fascinated not only by classical music but also by the explosion of US genres that circulated globally, as well as popular and “traditional” music from around the world. By the 1990s, complex modernist approaches to composition had begun to fall out of fashion in the wider music establishment. Also, for the first time, major awards like the Pulitzer Prize for music, awarded to Ran herself in 1991, had gone to people creating music other than classical compositions, with jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis winning in 1997 for his album Blood on the Fields.

Throughout that generational shift, Shapey continued to lead the CCP, conducting it until 1994 despite retiring from teaching in 1991. Then, after a series of faculty and resident composers led the ensemble, Ran took the helm in 2002 with an eye to change.

Ran had welcomed the pluralism and watched with skepticism as a backlash developed against techniques like serialism. She believes that “music that at times also touched the extremes, but came back from there, eventually brought about some of the most interesting ways in which people refashioned style and language.”

To mark the transition while honoring Shapey’s legacy, in 2004, the ensemble’s 40th year, Ran renamed it “Contempo” and gave it a “new face.” Audiences for the CCP were loyal but had dwindled, even as contemporary music ensembles formed by enterprising young musicians were springing up across Chicago and elsewhere. In her dozen years of programming for Contempo, Ran worked to increase and diversify its audience.

Contempo became more mobile, performing in venues around Chicago. In an annual double bill concert, Ran hoped to introduce people who loved one kind of new music—often jazz—to contemporary classical music and vice versa. She drew on two different kinds of professional ensembles to form the basis of Contempo’s personnel.

Both Eighth Blackbird, which focused expressly on new music performance, and the Pacifica Quartet, which played both new music and the standard repertoire, had long-term residencies at the University. They brought a new sound to Contempo, performing modernist works and collaborating with faculty and students on world premiere compositions.

For Boston Conservatory associate professor Eun Young Lee, PhD’11, one of the highlights of her studies in this period was having Eighth Blackbird and Pacifica Quartet create a highly polished recording of her work. As she began to share it, “everyone was saying, ‘Where did you get this recording?’” she recalls. Lee had found it difficult to fit in at the University, having come from a conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music in New York. But her mentors had encouraged her to persevere and to take advantage of the wider university as well as Chicago at large. Her explorations of the city led her to the Sejong Cultural Society, a Korean cultural organization in the city that helped Lee recognize how she wanted to incorporate folk music from her native Korea into her composition. It remains part of her work today, which is currently supported by a 2023 Guggenheim Fellowship.

By the time Ran retired from teaching in 2015, Chicago’s new music scene had grown in size and inclusivity, with opportunities to hear contemporary composition from a variety of ensembles and in an array of venues throughout the city. The University had infused more resources into the arts as well. In 2012 new music performance on campus found a sleek new home in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. After a few more thriving years as Contempo, under the direction of composers John Eaton and then Marta Ptaszyńska, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor Emerita of Music and the Humanities, the contemporary music ensemble—as well as the composition program more broadly—was ready for another transformation.

Today’s music composition students and recent alumni draw on a wide variety of musical and cultural sources. Clockwise from top: Kari Watson plays modular synthesizer at CHIMEfest 2023; Paul Novak, AM’22, composes at home; a scene from living to fall [rain] by Igor Santos, PhD’18; and a scene from Santos’s body_no_thing [fountains]. (Clockwise from top left: Photography by Eduard Teregulov; photography by Emma Foster; photo courtesy Igor Santos, PhD’18)

Ask today’s music composition students about the arguments over new music in the 20th century, and they blink for a moment before responding. It’s music history to them.

PhD student Kari Watson, who describes themself as a “composer, performer, and sound artist,” feels that creating installations and performances as well as concert music exempts them from the constraints of the recent past. “It’s been a real gift to be able to work with a variety of mediums,” they say. “I do not feel haunted by that sort of paradigm, and partially that’s because I didn’t even know that I was trying to fit in. … Being a composer in this day and age is cool because everyone’s just doing their thing.”

Paul Novak, AM’22, expresses his sense that more artists and musicians are beginning to claim the role of composer: “It’s a moment where it feels like a lot of the voices that have been historically excluded from what could be called classical music or composition are finally being included. … I also think it’s a moment where there are probably more people who call themselves composers doing vastly different work than ever before, and there is sort of an institutional acceptance of that diversity of work.”

The composition program these students are part of has been reconfigured by Thomas with a newly imagined set of goals and the latest iteration of the CCP/Contempo. The latter, the Grossman Ensemble, was formed under the umbrella of Thomas’s Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, which expands the purpose of new music programming in the department. The center provides a hub for composers based at the University to work with a top-notch professional ensemble while they premiere new works.

The permanent resident Grossman Ensemble consists of 13 professional musicians from across the Chicago area who perform together regularly. A wide network of composers conduct and write specifically for the ensemble. The community building Thomas emphasizes as both composer and teacher is concentrated at the center and in the ensemble; she notes how both bring together composers at every career stage, from distinguished guest composers to postdocs to graduate students to undergraduates—“so everybody is learning from everybody.”

The ensemble also provides composition students with crucial opportunities to hear their work realized. “I don’t think it’s possible to be a good composer if you don’t hear your music regularly,” says Thomas. While working with the specialists of the Grossman Ensemble, fledgling composers learn through trial and error, as well as through feedback from their instructors, how to craft music for highly skilled musicians—while making sure it will be appealing to listeners too.

Composer Igor Santos, PhD’18, remembers this kind of workshopping with particular gratitude. Santos, who won both the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021, felt he needed “anchoring” in his student years while moving through different phases of experimentation. Throughout his explorations of electronic music and microtonality (musical intervals smaller than those found in Western musical scales), his UChicago composition professors kept him focused on writing his music well.

The lesson still keeps him grounded today as he mingles “found sound”—clips from the environment like ocean waves or snatches of popular music from his native Brazil—with “found footage,” bits of video culled from the internet. With all his mentors, he recalls, “There was a particular focus on craft.” Thomas was “very good at making sure every single note is meaningful, making sure the flow of the piece works well, the orchestration works well, so there’s no dull spots.”

Thomas also helps composition students identify recording and publishing opportunities, which are key to building successful careers. In addition to the high-quality recordings that can be produced at the Logan Center, the deep well of talent on hand via the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition helps students pursue the portfolio building that Lee treasured. Still, “The focus has to be on making good pieces and documenting them well,” Thomas says. The commissions, grants, and awards that recent students and alumni have received depend most on the quality of the music: “If you do good work, then people will recognize it.”

Many of her students also relish the intellectual exchange that the University setting provides, including the chance to think critically about music and other subjects they’re passionate about. Santos highlights the importance of his exchanges with the musicology faculty. Current PhD student Justin Weiss says that he has come to realize how academic work feeds his creativity. For his minor concentration in music theory, he recently wrote a paper exploring the meaning of silence and how its use has shaped musical practice. The paper was “an analytical project that was searching for compositional inspiration,” he says. It formed a kind of conceptual underpinning to the composing he has done since then, including pieces performed by the Grossman Ensemble and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Thomas’s penchant for building music communities has proven contagious for her students. Despite the impressive amount of music making already happening under the department’s auspices, two PhD composition students lately undertook to further expand new music performance on campus. In 2022 Novak and Weiss, with faculty input from percussionist John Corkill, resurrected a group called the New Music Ensemble. “We saw a void,” says Weiss. “A lot of performers … wanted to play new music,” but lacked a venue.

They might be graduates of a conservatory pursuing a PhD in music theory; or College students who “are just amazing players”; or still others from any corner of the University. The New Music Ensemble, originally under the direction of conductor Barbara Schubert, EX’79, had for many years given all University students a way to participate in the creation of new and recent music. Now, under the batons of aspiring composer-conductors, it will do so again.

The move is firmly in line with the values Thomas has imbued into the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. At the same time, it harks back to the mission that Leonard Meyer articulated decades ago—extending a tradition that sturdily weaves contemporary composition into the tapestry of music making at the University.

Updated 02.20.2024 to correct August Read Thomas’s title. She holds an appointment in the Division of the Humanities and in the College.