Sometimes you can figure things out just by thinking them through; sometimes you can figure them out by watching other people. But sometimes you just have to grab onto the electric fence with both hands yourself. For those of us who prefer to learn by doing (including with the occasional low-voltage shock), contemporary classical composition is a difficult profession. New pieces are often premiered with only the bare minimum of rehearsal time, meaning there isn’t time to play around and get things wrong. The first draft has to be right, because the first draft is the only draft you’ve got.

Augusta Read Thomas is trying to change that. A renowned composer in her own right, Thomas is remarkable for the proportion of her artistic life that she’s dedicated to supporting her fellow artists. One of her latest endeavors is the Grossman Ensemble, a high-caliber sinfonietta under the aegis of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. Like every performing ensemble, their activities have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, but they’re not letting the lack of live performance opportunities drive them to a standstill: Last month, they released their debut album, featuring five world premieres written specifically for the ensemble by Shulamit Ran, Anthony Cheung, David Dzubay, Tonia Ko, and David Clay Mettens. In advance of its release, I caught up with Thomas—digitally, of course—to chat about the Grossman Ensemble and how they’re reacting to the current cultural moment.

Grossman Ensemble · Photo © Grittani Creative
Grossman Ensemble · Photo © Grittani Creative

“Very often a composer will get a commission, and it’ll be something like, ‘Well, you can have 44 minutes of rehearsal this day, and then a run-through and a dress [rehearsal] the next day, and then it’s the show, and that’s it,’ ” Thomas said, describing a situation that applies to everyone from neophyte composers to the most established titans in the field. “Often you can’t even speak because the rehearsal time is so intense.” That obviously doesn’t leave room for experimentation, and Thomas described several very simple changes—trying a passage at half-speed, or cutting a section that the composer decided was subpar—that would be impossible to make under those conditions. With the Grossman Ensemble, she wanted to “make an environment where it’s fine for a composer to say, ‘Guys, I crashed and burned, I hate this.’ That kind of thing where a composer can take risks. So often when you get a commission, you want to knock it out of the park. You want it to be perfect, and you don’t take as many risks, because you know you have 40 minutes of rehearsal and you have to get the piece rehearsed in that time.”

And so, instead of meeting briefly, once or twice right before the concert, the Grossman Ensemble meets extensively with each composer they commission, on multiple occasions, and well in advance of the concert. This gives composers several opportunities to bring in sketches, drafts, and musical ideas that they want to play around with and explore. Since so much about the final piece is still in flux, these aren’t exactly rehearsals, but in each case, the entire ensemble is present for the entire time, and the results deeply inform the final work.

This extended exploratory process doesn’t just benefit the composers and their final compositions. It also, as Thomas sees it, gives more agency to the performers: “A lot of times, performers get their part and then they’re expected to show up and play it perfectly. There’s no opportunity to say, ‘This is just not working on my instrument,’ or whatever.” In a short rehearsal, there simply isn’t time to hear that sort of feedback from everyone. With the Grossman Ensemble, there is. “In our rehearsals, performers speak all the time; they just interrupt: ‘At letter B this time, I’m going to try it this way,’ [or] ‘Let me change these accents and put it on tape for you.’ There’s a lot of agency,” Thomas adds, emphasizing “agency.”

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That’s a big—and, frankly, welcome—shift from many contemporary classical spaces, which have a tendency to treat performers less like people and more like mindless automata, only there to perfectly execute the plan that the composer-auteur has worked out in advance. (Composers in this scenario become superhuman sound generators, who must hear even the most complex sonic creations fully-formed in their minds, without ever needing a single test-run or edit.) As Thomas describes it, the Grossman Ensemble is also a shift away from viewing the composer as the sole source of musical ideas. It is, in other words, a step towards a less hierarchical partnership between equals, towards genuine creative collaboration.

In keeping with the theme of reestablishing a performer’s agency, ensemble members also have some say in which composers work with the group. “We have no house style. It’s about excellence, collaboration, and creativity,” Thomas said. “One of the biggest jobs [for the two co-directors and myself] is picking composers. We also have a list of composers that the musicians would like to work with. And so we pick four composers per concert, and we try to pick different ones, try to mix it up, so that we have different aesthetics, styles, ages, ethnicities, sexualities—you know, whatever, mix the whole thing up.”

The Grossman Ensemble’s approach raises deeper questions about diversity and entrenched inequities in the arts. When I pressed Thomas for more details on her approach to the demographic breakdown of the Grossman Ensemble’s concerts, her pace grew less swift, though not less assured. She began with a condemnation of racism and other forms of discrimination: “The very long history of systemic racism is totally unacceptable. Utterly outrageous. Black Lives Matter—let me say that in triple capital letters with four exclamation points. And Brown Lives Matter, and Indigenous Lives Matter, and Gay Lives Matter, and you can keep going down the list; I don’t even want to stop there.”

But she also drew from her own experience to describe the ways that being reduced to one’s demographics can be tokenizing, verging on dehumanizing.

“I can say for myself, for instance: Some people say ‘Oh, you’re a woman composer, and we need a woman for this concert,’ and I hate it. I absolutely hate it. I’m a composer, I’ve been writing music since I was four. I don’t like to be categorized, I want to be hired for my excellence. And I want to treat everybody with that same respect. I don’t like boxes.”

The approach she’s aiming for, then, is one that balances an awareness of historic and ongoing structural inequities with a commitment to treating individuals as individuals, not interchangeable members of a demographic bloc devoid of any distinguishing characteristics.

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Speaking about diversity and tokenism, Thomas repeatedly mentioned the billions of individuals who live on Earth. But the Grossman Ensemble obviously can’t work with billions of people every year, or even the much smaller number of those billions who compose. In fact, they can only work with twelve. Their model may sound attractive to performers and composers alike, but there’s an obvious hurdle to implementing it across the classical music scene writ large: cost.

“It’s expensive,” Thomas said bluntly. “You have an entire ensemble sitting there for an entire day, and everything they’re playing that day is melting away, like a sandcastle on the beach. It’s not exactly financially cost-effective.” The Grossman Ensemble’s existence is only possible because of heavy investment from the University of Chicago, and a group of wealthy donors whom Thomas considers to be her partners. That’s a funding model that won’t necessarily work in every other place: Not every community has a university and major donors to spare, and even where such resources do exist, securing their support can be an arduous and delicate process.

Then again, the novel coronavirus has revealed how delicate the classical music world has been all along. The pandemic cancelled the Grossman Ensemble’s final concert for the 2019-20 season, and much of their new season is still up in the air. Thomas made sure that all of the musicians were paid for the cancelled spring concert, a recognition of the commitment that underscores all aspects of the ensemble’s work (“You can’t just say ‘That’s it, we’re not paying you!’”). But longer-term solutions are less clear, and they point to deeper systemic issues with the classical music scene in the United States and American society at large. For freelance musicians, as Thomas explained, many at the top of their game can “actually make a pretty decent living” when you calculate their total income from a year of gigs. “But the minute all of that has to stop, there’s no safety net,” she added. “Even the large organizations with big endowments have had to let artists go. Performing artists of all kinds are hit disproportionately hard by [these shutdowns].”

Given the nature of their freelancing work, many of these artists have been only partially covered by COVID-19 relief packages, or excluded entirely. In this, they are not unlike many other US workers who have been effectively abandoned by their government in this protracted crisis. Thomas makes this connection as well, and points to the responsibility of federal and local governments: “This is a question for national leadership, our political leadership, our national, state, and local governments.”

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In other words, without access to the levers of governmental power there’s only so much that even the best-intentioned ensemble can do for freelancers left out in the cold, just as other small businesses and organizations cannot singlehandedly provide for everyone in need in this dire moment. Real solutions to problems of a societal scale cannot be implemented piecemeal by individual groups scattered here and there across the land; they must be implemented on a societal scale. Such an implementation, however, requires the kind of government action that the United State, at present, has seen terrifyingly little of.

In this sense, the seemingly novel idea of the Grossman Ensemble can give us a vision of how our corner of the world might look in the wake of this pandemic’s devastation. What’s more, if we can organize our communities and build a society that truly takes care of everyone’s needs without qualification or exception, that sense of novelty would cease to exist. Anyone who wanted to form a similar ensemble or collective would be able to, without worrying about how they’d pay for food, rent, health care, transportation. With this in mind, I asked Thomas what she thought about the prospect of copycat Grossman Ensembles springing up across the classical music scene.

Her response was immediate: “I think that would be great.” ¶