By Jeremy Manier
Photo by Jason Smith

The professional musicians playing at Fulton Recital Hall were not quite clicking with a difficult piece by UChicago graduate composition student Andrés Carrizo. Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition, noticed the uncertain swings in tempo and made a suggestion to Carrizo, who was conducting his own piece.

“Andrés, try a few bars without the baton,” Thomas said.

Almost as soon as Carrizo put down the baton and started conducting with fluid hand movements, his textured composition came into focus. The performers played with a new confidence that made audience members look at each other and nod.

That valuable interaction of a motivated student with highly trained musicians was the result of an innovative class that Thomas began in the last academic year. It gave students the rare opportunity to develop and workshop new works in collaboration with professional musicians drawn from the Chicago area. The musicians came to campus every other week to perform the latest sections of pieces the students were in the process of writing for the class.

Thomas wanted to give her students the chance to stretch themselves and to get constant and candid feedback from performers with extensive practical experience of what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s very liberating because you didn’t have to have [a composition] fully conceived in your mind,” Carrizo said. “You could try something out in a very rough draft.”

The performers gave sometimes frank advice to the composers, as when violinist Austin Wulliman told student Andrew McManus that an especially virtuosic passage would sound better if he played it without a mute. During the final performance at Fulton Recital Hall, which included occasional feedback from Thomas and the performers, mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley tried to illustrate to Carrizo the importance of keeping a solid tempo.

“I’m building a suspension bridge here,” Bentley said, stretching her arms, “and if time and space start to warp in the middle, the bridge is not going to work.”

That’s just the kind of reality check that Thomas had envisioned. The task of composing can be solitary at times, and the students prized the ability to test their ideas in a demanding setting.

“There’s been this constant process of producing new material, getting rid of what we don’t like, keeping what we like, sculpting that, and just continually going forward,” said Alex Stephenson, AB’12, an advanced composition student who was a fourth-year in the College when he took the class.

Thomas said she was extremely grateful for the resources that University leaders provided to give the students the chance to work so closely with professional musicians. She plans to offer the course in alternating years, with the next installment starting in the Fall Quarter of 2013. It will be one more way for UChicago composition students to develop their own distinct voices.

“I do not want them to be Augusta Read Thomas clones, doing the things that I do,” Thomas said. “I want to help them be themselves to the maximum.”

Originally published on November 5, 2012.