Ear Taxi: Augusta Read Thomas
Ear Taxi Festival wrapped a month ago now. Spanning six days and seven Chicago venues, the Festival presented 54 world premieres and over 350 artists. The event was ambitious and intense, and it drew worthy attention to the Chicago new music scene from press, artists, and thinkers inside and outside the city limits.
Festival leadership was shared by composers Augusta Read Thomas and Steven Burns. Responsibility for the Festival was divided among a corps of staff and volunteers, with Festival Manager Reba Cafarelli playing an especially significant role. A curatorial board comprising composers, performers, presenters, scholars, patrons of the arts, and City officials provided oversight. The website carefully credits the Alice M. Ditson Fund for instituting the Festival. Ear Taxi could be called a grassroots movement—concatenating the good-faith contributions of hundreds of Chicago artists, the event sought to elevate our community to some inclement height no sane person would strike out for alone.
Collaborative as the operation was behind the scenes, Ear Taxi events moved with the whirring steadiness of a wheel around an axle, a miraculous economy of force concentrated at the center and radiating to the rim. Having attended Ear Taxi, it was clear to whom all the spokes pointed: composer Augusta Read Thomas.*
Gusty is a formidable person. She dresses smartly, wearing something like a school girl’s uniform without any of its complicated girlhood meanings, none of that moody repressed coy eager Alicia-Silverstone-in-an-Aerosmith-video bullshit going on. Make no mistake, Gusty is a self-possessed woman wearing heeled black patent leather loafers and pink Chanel jackets and getting her shit done, much more than an average person might do in a day if the average person is like me and needs to drop everything and bake a bunch of apple pies lately because a bushel of apples doesn’t look like a lot when you go apple picking but on the kitchen counter it’s an unbelievable quantity of apples. No, Gusty is not like you or me. She is not tired, not overwhelmed, not discouraged. She is unironic. Like apple pie, she is very kind and very good.
I would say Gusty’s three fictional characters are Hillary Clinton at a state dinner in 1998, Christopher Robin, and Helen Tasker, the housewife-to-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-turned-spy played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1994 James Cameron blockbuster True Lies. I would say that, but with Gusty the game doesn’t make sense because she is herself something like a fictional character, impossibly hard-working, bright, positive, clear-headed, and true. Then again, were she the heroine in a book or movie, she’d be barely believable. She’d play one of those uncomplicated and sometimes dull protagonists surrounded by idlers, worriers, users, and bumbling weaklings that do good on accident. Gusty told me that for the three years leading up to the Festival, she woke up at 4:00 am so that she could get in a full day of composing before lunch. She seems to have a signature color, and that color is pink. She says, and really seems to believe, things like this:
Catch happiness. Life is short. Don't waste time.
This advice comes from a 2014 commencement address to music students at the University of Illinois. Read more and you’ll discover that even when entertaining a celestial perspective that reduces all human striving to a forgettable hiccup in the four-billion-year history of life—even then, Gusty’s advice is somehow, “Go do it!” or, “Be passionate!” and not, “Go put your head in an oven” or, “Forget your name.” Do you need more proof that she lives in an unlikely alternate universe, a world very different from ours? Here she is actually standing with Hillary Clinton and look at them—they might be sisters.
Gusty is so consistent she could be an element—obviously a metal, and not one of those soft and reactive alkalis like lithium but a transitional, precious metal with high lustre and ductility. She’s palladium. She’s rhodium. This idea is not new—in 2001, Seth Brodsky wrote this amazing thing that flashes with her glaring metallic shine:
For what is Augusta Read Thomas's music pining? What might be its homeland? Evidence abounds that it is the sun. [...] Of course, we really needn't look for signs: Thomas shouts it loud and clear, having confessed to "worship the sun, literally"; she has even noted, with a playful mysticism, that "I feel as if the sun writes my music."
Look long enough and it’s blinding, a yellow-white impersonal radiance personal radio transmitting clear channel copper wires all coppertopped all white almost all white all solar powered solar patent leather panels all white-yellow-white all-day battery life pro-lifer Prometheus delivering fire like some kind of Energizer bunny basket of Duracells or something.
Look, I know I am getting carried away here, but maybe you can guess why I am caught up in a meditation on this tireless, skilled, thoughtful, positive, blond woman-in-charge.
Maybe you feel it, too, that groping-in-the-dark sensation that has made reading the news feel so good even though it feels so bad, adrenaline mixed with fear mixed with rage and colored by the midlife realization that thanks to nobody or nothing in particular, all your high school heroes were white male physicists or philosophers or poets delivering Charles Eliot Norton Lectures and here you’ve been wondering aloud in therapy why you are still so damn susceptible to teacher crushes in your thirties. Maybe like me you’ve been reconsidering your relationship history, your employment history, your educational history with a greater sensitivity to abuses of power and now lots of people you felt sympathy for might be real trash, but can you blame them because the world seemed really very different just three or four years ago. And there but for the grace of God go I—occasionally I am powerful like when I write or spend money or make music and who could I ask if I wanted to know whether I’m managing any of that responsibly? I only just last week started trying to not call grown women “girls” anymore, the way we have all been doing since basically forever.
For me, the desire to draw very, very close to the image of Augusta Read Thomas is an urge to understand a changing world and to take responsibility for my place in it. Should a woman become President-Elect of the United States tomorrow, we will each have to navigate our way out of some uncanny valley or another. I have known for a while that this would be difficult for some people—for example, anyone using the hashtag #DrainTheSwamp without understanding that the abject, rotting pit they are talking about is definitely not Washington but a vagina, and most likely their mother’s vagina. For these people, recognizing the subjecthood of Hillary Clinton threatens identity and disturbs social order. I like to think that I am different—I am not so desperate that I would rather submit to a demagogue. But I am not confident I am prepared for what’s next, either.
It was when I started to think deeply about Augusta Read Thomas and the Ear Taxi Festival that I noticed the ways that I might feel less-than-ready for the female future. Ear Taxi unfolded the same weekend that we learned that walking epidermoid cyst Donald Trump thinks he can grab women by the genitals. Trump is a sub-zero piece of trash, but the habit of denying the realness of other humans does not belong only to him. Interviewing Gusty, reading about her, experiencing her presence and her Festival, listening to her music, I felt over and over again that it is impossible that she is real.
When Doyle Armbrust asked why she’s doing what she’s doing, she said:
Basically, I love music, and people that have been fortunate, as I’ve been fortunate, should give back. It’s just a piece of supporting and sustaining this art form that I love and to which I’ve devoted my life.
Like Gusty, I love music. But I hate it, too, and often. I might hate music more than I love it. I hate music that is bad but harmless—sloppy, boring, trivial, naive. And then there’s music that reinforces outdated ideology, glorifies ignorance, violates the vulnerability of listening. Fuck that music. There are institutions that concentrate power in unkind, unmusical people. Fuck those places. Say it with me, all trembling righteousness: fuck that music, fuck those places. Maybe this exercise is messy and pathetic and so what if it is? We are not wrong.
It’s not just that Gusty so consistently loves music. She does it from the center of the field, withstanding a kind of exposure to music that I may not experience in my lifetime. Everywhere critics, grumps, strivers, students in crisis. She built Ear Taxi from the ground up—before that, she initiated MusicNOW, and after, the Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago. To be sure, I can imagine myself living her life and also feeling blessed, honored, and in love with my craft. But at least once, music must have inflicted grievous harm on her. Right? Is she tired, even?
I asked her how she felt when Ear Taxi was over, and she said it wasn’t over. She had four more months of work ahead of her, reporting to foundations, delivering recordings to artists, filing reports with ASCAP and BMI, writing thank-you notes. I asked what she’ll do when she is finished. She said she’s got many compositions to write. She said she is pouring work into the Center for Contemporary Composition. She said:
If you make me go on a vacation, I would freak out. I like to work. I feel like life is short and if I can make a difference for others I think that’s a valuable use of my time. It would be hard for me to lay on the beach. Maybe someday I’ll learn, but I just think life is short and contemporary classical art music needs really strong advocates.
Talk to her sometime. She is totally sincere.
Because the Festival is over, because a famous composer spearheaded it, because of its glossy program book and its bright downtown venue and its banners on city light posts and ads on the CTA, it is easy to think of Ear Taxi as some kind of jewel that was discovered and not a project made by a person, a projection of a person’s life experience and point of view, an expression of a certain kind of humanness. Like all of us, Gusty gets to wear, think, do, and say whatever the fuck she wants. She’s not a specimen for you to criticize, deconstruct, or scrutinize, but if you consider her carefully she could be a mirror onto your character. Please, think on it: how does a person come to make a thing like the Ear Taxi Festival? Or, put another way: what would Ear Taxi look like if it were mine? Or yours?
I am asking because now, right now, it seems important to practice not exactly empathy or togetherness but the expanding of the self that is possible only when hard ideologies crack. It’s not that reflecting on music is going to make the world a better place. But Gusty is to Ear Taxi as Hillary Clinton is to the Presidency and I bet if you wanted to check in on how you feel in the world right now you could spend some time thinking deeply about how you felt at the Harris Theater last month listening to Third Coast Percussion play mbiras or Jeff Parker play synthesizer or musicians of the CSO play handheld fans. How you felt when Gusty clipped by in the lobby. How you felt when musicians thanked her, over and over. How you felt when she took a bow. How you felt when it was over.
Please, think on it. This is what the movement of tectonic plates feels like.
This piece is one of a series I am slowly writing about Ear Taxi. You can find the others here. If you shared your reaction to the latest in the series, Covering the Press, thank you so much. If you have new thoughts about what it was like to metabolize Ear Taxi, or to read about it, I am still eager to hear them.
*In Ear Taxi parlance, mirrored in press leading up to and during the Festival, Gusty is not the creator or director of the Festival, but its “spearhead.” This word lingered with me because despite sounding ultra-precise, scalpel-like, its meaning is not plain. What would happen if you and I think more on what a spearhead might be? Like, a centaur with an arrow? Like, the front line in an offensive formation? What if it’s phallic? What if it’s violent?