Jefferey Allen Thomas makes symphonic music accessible to all

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times Music Writer

February 7, 2014 9:44AM

Orchestral halls and grand theaters from early last century were built for symphonic works in matching the grandeur of the music, the scale of the performers to audience, and, of course, the need for acoustic precision.

But what about a tavern? That is the setting that Chicago composer Jefferey Allen Thomas is working in to create symphonic music he says he hopes will break down barriers between the so-called high and low arts. As motivated by rock composers like Frank Zappa as he is Beethoven and Haydn and film greats Ennio Morricone, Thomas is interested in combining both worlds so that audiences will step across pre-conceived boundaries to experience music that has complexity and energy.

“I love the freedom of not feeling a genre. If I strip away a style, I can start listening to the colors of the instrument and what I can do with them … I do want to write for a big orchestra, but I also want to go to Rosa’s and play blues guitar solos. I want to do it all,” Thomas says.

He will conduct a live performance of “Rumors,” a 25-minute selection from a larger composition, at “Love is Love,” an alt-Valentine’s Day event Feb. 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art curated by the Hideout, the music room where Thomas works behind the bar, but also on the stage as a musician where he debuts new works.

Typically, if you’re not a dead European living several centuries in the past, getting new symphonic works heard is an arduous process. Academia is a typical incubator and young composers are often forced to rely on keyboard samples of orchestral instruments, not live musicians, to experiment in the development of new work. Once complete, the work needs a home, another difficult task, and a competitive one. Symphonies, chamber ensembles and opera companies frequently fund new work, or provide space, but with many struggling with funding, that’s not assured.

Thomas is steering around that. Moving to Chicago from St. Louis 12 years ago, he studied music composition at Columbia College but played electric guitar in bands before becoming a founding member of Mucca Pazza, the gonzo marching band where he plays lead guitar. His interest in composition got him work at local theater companies, including Redmoon Theater and Chicago Shakespeare, where he scored productions.

Despite roots in indie rock, and playing in band since a teenager, symphonic music called to him as an adult for a very simple reason: “It sounded new.”

“When first hear Beethoven’s Ninth, I was floored. I never heard anything like it. I had the same feeling when I first heard the Minutemen’s [1984 classic] ‘Double Nickels on the Dime.’ I started realizing it was kind of music I wanted to explore within myself. It was a challenge,” he says.

Thomas started working with live musicians in recording original work, and often trying out new ideas in an ensemble hastily assembled at the Hideout. The minimalist work playfully combines a woodwind choir as a single voice that plays against percussive ticks and booms to create bubbling energy. Movements involving strings create more meditative interplay that deliver a sense of catharsis. The work is part of four symphonies he is creating that pay homage to his grandfather who died in a train accident when his father was just a year old. A recent father himself, Thomas, 35, says he wants to combine his new experience with his imagining of the central figure in his family about whom little is known.

At the MCA he will conduct a 16-piece chamber orchestra comprised of musicians from many different Chicago bands, including Mucca Pazza. From there, it’s back to how he perceives himself in the work’s ongoing development: “a guy with a machete hacking through the jungle until eventually you see the hill.” More performances are promised.

“As a 21st century composer, you can’t ignore rock ’n’ roll, you can’t ignore hip-hop, you can’t ignore genres. This is how people hear music now,” he says. “I almost feel my role is to get people to understand it all and put it together like a mosaic.”

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