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Dance Foldings

Like much of her music, Augusta Read Thomas' Dance Foldings is energized by the dynamics of bodies in motion—though in this case those bodies are protein molecules.

Quick Facts

  • Composer's life: Born in Glen Cove, New York, April 24, 1964
  • Work completed: 2021
  • First performance: Royal Albert Hall, London, August 8, 2021, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ryan Bancroft conducting, during the BBC Proms
  • First BSO performance: Symphony Hall, January 14, 2022, Andris Nelsons conducting (American premiere)

Augusta Read Thomas was born April 24, 1964, in Glen Cove, New York, and lives in Chicago. Her Dance Foldings was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ryan Bancroft on August 8, 2021, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, as part of BBC Proms 2021. The piece is “dedicated with admiration and gratitude to BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ryan Bancroft, and Lisa Tregale and to The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, and Anthony Fogg.” The composer also offers “special thanks to the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club for contributing support to this project.”

The score of Dance Foldings calls for a small orchestra of 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, clarinet and bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets (1st may opt for piccolo trumpet), percussion (2 or 3 players: marimba, crotales, vibraphone, finger cymbal, small, medium, large, and extra-large triangles, large suspended cymbal, 2 conga drums, high tom tom, 2 bongo drums, cabasa, guiro, tambourine, 5 temple blocks, 2 wood blocks), piano (optional, included in these performances), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The duration of the piece is about 13 minutes.

“To be performed with dancers when feasible,” reads the score to Augusta Read Thomas’ Dance Foldings, the title of which already suggests multiple ideas of movement. As she explains in her own program note for the piece (see below), those ideas were suggested by an unexpected source: the creation and transformation of protein molecules within the human body. During the two-year span of the pandemic, we’ve encountered public discussions and explanations of cellular and sub-cellular biology more than we perhaps expected. Thomas’ musical reflection and interpretation of some of its processes illustrates, more than anything, humankind’s capacity to find beauty and elegance throughout our experience. (The separation of “arts” and “sciences” for pedagogical purposes doesn’t fully reflect the reality that they’re inextricable and often indistinguishable.)

Augusta Read Thomas experiences music intensely as a physical thing. As she composes, she mirrors the future actions and reactions of the instrumentalist, the conductor, the singer, and the listener by singing, scatting, playing the piano, or dancing, embodying the physical presence of the music she’s writing. That activity is transmitted through the notes on the page to the minds and bodies of the players and finally to the audience. The physicality of her music is present not only in its pulses and rhythms but in its timbres and harmonies and in the integrated interaction of multiple layers of activity. Thomas has said, “Because I was a performer for so many years, I have enormous empathy for musicians and am exceedingly mindful of what I am asking artists to play; I care deeply about how the music looks on the page.”

The range of Thomas’ inspirations mirrors the energetic activity of her music. The hard-science inspiration of Dance Foldings is balanced by pieces relating to the other end of the physical spectrum. Many of her pieces are concerned with a cosmology that encompasses not only modern science but its reflections in ritual and spirituality. In her concerto for orchestra Orbital Beacons, composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while serving as that ensemble’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, she created “acoustic constellations” that parallel the stories of celestial constellations. Such titles as Astral Canticle, Helios Choros (“Sun God Dancers”), Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), and Galaxy Dances, to name just a few, attest to the composer’s fascination with the ways humankind has sought to find meaning in the heavens, while other works turn our gaze to the earth and the sea. She seems drawn both to the mysteries of these phenomena and their potential for illuminating the grand and awesome order of our universe, and both are reflected in her music. Her frequent invocation of dance (Galaxy Dances, Sun Dance, Dance Foldings) relates these vast and intricate questions back to the direct experience of the body, to the individual. (Her online list of works lists more than two dozen pieces in the category “dance/ballet.”)

In Dance Foldings, Augusta Read Thomas treats the orchestra by turns as a big band, a percussion ensemble, and a classical orchestra capable of great lyricism. In the Dance Foldings program note included on the composer’s website, the composer includes links to animated simulations of the processes of protein generation and folding. Both of these are visual metaphors for the balletic musical processes of her piece, but neither determines how the piece actually sounds. The vibrant, syncopated rhythms, exuberant fast solo passages, colorful instrumental combinations, and harmonic intricacies are part of the composer’s highly evolved and personal musical language.

The piece begins with a syncopated, percussive line dominated by plucked strings and the piano, an idea that recurs throughout the piece; the composer has it marked “Like chains of amino acids,” suggesting strong connectedness within the line. Another recurring idea is a Morse-code-like string of repeated pitches, each instance serving to highlight an instrumental timbre and to steer the harmony of the piece to a new realm. These ideas interweave and develop through an ever-changing soundscape that ebbs and flows in density and constantly changes color but maintains the fundamental pulsing life with which it began.

Augusta Read Thomas has published nearly 150 pieces, with something over a third of these scored for orchestra or large ensemble, the medium that most naturally fits Thomas’ acoustic imagination. Her experience writing for orchestra is extensive. During her residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she wrote nine pieces for that ensemble and her music was conducted by both Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. Other ardent champions of her music have included the great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra led the premieres of her Air and Angels and Galaxy Dances, and conductor Christoph Eschenbach, who conducted her music with the National Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, and North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. Her orchestra music has also been commissioned by the Cleveland Symphony, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and London Symphony Orchestra, among many others. Her Harvest Drum was premiered by the Symphony Orchestra of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China, a culmination of the composer’s residence among China’s Miao community.

Thomas’ long association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra began when she was a student in the 1980s at the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center (TMC); she has since served as a TMC faculty composer and in 2009 was director of Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Her Magic Box, commissioned by the BSO, was premiered in 2019 as part of the inaugural festivities for the Tanglewood’s new Linde Center for Music and Learning. Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) was a co-commission to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center in 2015. The BSO itself first performed her music in 1997, the cello-and-orchestra piece Chanson, composed for Rostropovich’s 70th birthday. The orchestra co-commissioned and gave the American premiere of her Helios Choros II, led by Ludovic Morlot, and also commissioned her Cello Concerto No. 3, Legend of the Phoenix, which was premiered by the BSO and soloist Lynn Harrell with Christoph Eschenbach conducting.

In addition to her intense compositional work, Thomas maintains a well-rounded musical life as a teacher, musical administrator, and citizen. Along with her Tanglewood residencies, she was the youngest tenured professor in the history of the Eastman School of Music and has also taught at the Aspen Music Festival and Northwestern University. For many years she has held the prestigious post of University Professor of Composition at the University of Chicago, where she also founded and directs the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition; she also created the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s acclaimed MusicNow series. In 2016, Thomas was named Chicagoan of the Year by The Chicago Tribune. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has served on the boards of many composer support organizations, among them the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the Conseil Musical de la Foundation Prince Pierre de Monaco.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Director of Program Publications.

Augusta Read Thomas on her Dance Foldings:

In celebration of the diversity and the mission statement of the Royal Albert Hall on the occasion of the venue’s 150th anniversary, the BBC Radio 3 commissioned Dance Foldings for orchestra for which the commission prompt was to reflect the arts and sciences as they are now. Composers were free to choose their own subject, so long as there was a clear link to the sciences or to other art forms.

The natural world, as explored by scientists, engineers, and physicians in their laboratories and clinics, offers a wealth of opportunities to explore resonance and balance through sound. Few orchestral works attempt to capture the kinetic and emotional content of scientific topics and convey these concepts through abstract, rather than descriptive, music.

The musical materials of Dance Foldings for orchestra take as their starting point the metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms, and images inspired by the biological “ballet” of proteins being assembled and folded in our bodies. Online, one can easily find many beautiful animations which show the process of protein folding. Some resemble assembly lines, and many look like ballets; both are extremely suggestive of musical possibilities. For example, proteins are made in cells by linking together amino acids one at a time to make a linear chain, i.e., the primary structure, or unfolded protein, which is akin to a wiggling chain of beads. These chains take musical form as animated, rhythmic, and forward-moving lines of music which unfold with kaleidoscopic sonic variety. An amino acid chain gradually self-organizes into nicely lined up shorter strands of beads forming pleated sheets or helices, nestled next to each other; interconnecting strands form loops crossing over in three dimensions. Musically speaking, those three-dimensional forms are affiliated to counterpoint, harmony, flow, flux, and form. Notated on the score are indications including: “Like Chains of Amino Acids,” “An Amino Acid Chain starting to fold and become a protein,” “Brass Protein Foldings #1, Like jazz big band meets Stravinsky,” and “Another Amino Acid Chain-making Machine.”

Protein folding is essential to life, and form dictates function. Proteins have primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures, and this makeup naturally falls into manifold musical possibilities with distinctive materials, sonorities, rhythms, counterpoint, and inner-life.

No matter what the external inspiration, Music must work as music. As such, I create music that is organic and, at every level, concerned with transformations and connections, which should be played so that the interconnectivity 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, breath, keeping it alive — continuously sounding spontaneous. All of this, hopefully, working toward the fundamental goal: to compose a work in which every musical parameter is nuanced and allied in one holistic gestalt.

If I listen carefully, the piece I am composing has its own inner life and will tell me what it next needs. The music I create is passionate, involving risk and adventure, such that a given musical moment might seem like a surprise right when you hear it but, only a millisecond later, seem inevitable. One of my main artistic credos has been to examine small musical objects—a chord, a motive, a rhythm, a color, an energy field, a harmonic space—and explore them from every possible perspective. The different perspectives reveal new musical elements, which I then transform and which in turn become the musical development.

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.

Dance Foldings is an example of the many synergies between science (nature) and music. I previously composed Helix Spirals for string quartet to commemorate the Meselson-Stahl DNA replication discovery of 1958. Since DNA is the blueprint for making the proteins of any organism, protein construction, folding and animation is a natural next project.