About Diane’s Music: A Critical Analysis by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States (2006)
A highly respected composer and teacher, Diane Thome (b.1942) began studying piano when she was seven and a half and composing when she was eight. It wasn’t until she was a graduate student at Princeton University in the late 1960’s that she became interested in contemporary electronic media. Although she is an accomplished pianist, Thome does not normally perform and has only occasionally been the pianist for her own pieces which include solo, chamber, orchestral, and electroacoustic works.
Thome received a PhD and an M.F.A. in composition at Princeton University working with Milton Babbitt and becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate in 1973. Additionally, she holds an M.A. in theory and composition from the University of Pennsylvania and two undergraduate degrees with distinction in piano and composition from the Eastman School of Music. After three years as an assistant professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton, she accepted a position at the University of Washington in 1977 where she is currently a professor and chair of the composition program. From her earliest days at Princeton, Thome worked almost exclusively with computer synthesis. Her doctoral dissertation, Toward Structural Characterization of the Timbral Domain, illustrates her concern with specific tone color and structure, elements which can be closely controlled by a composer using the computer. In a 1995 article, however, Thome credits work done on the Moog analog synthesizer at SUNY-Binghamton as having an important impact on her music since it allows her freedom to improvise in a ‘hands-on’ manner with electronic controls and to physically shape different sounds. The dominant element of her electroacoustic composition became the sound itself.
In the same article, she describes some of her earliest experiences with computer music, focusing on a 1973 work, Night Passage, done in collaboration with two women – film and kinetic sculpture artist, Judith Vassallo, professor at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and German choreographer and dancer Birgitta Trommler. Designed for “Seven Dancers in Zones of Fire, Earth, and Water,” the piece evolved through various discussions about its formal structure within which each artist had a great deal of freedom to work independently. Once completed, Night Passage featured the dancers moving in sculptured areas of earth, fire, and water, while audience members could walk freely through this performance space. Thome’s music for the event was computer-synthesized using the Music V and Music 360 programming languages.
When interviewed by Beverly Grigsby in 1983, Thome divided her electroacoustic music into three distinct categories: works which use synthesized sound alone; works which combine synthesized sound and traditional instruments; works which add recorded and electronically manipulated instrumental sounds to live instrumental music and synthesized materials. The infinite variety of relationships possible in the third category especially intrigues the composer, and in all her electroacoustic music, taped and live sounds are closely interwoven. An excellent example of this is her Anaïs (1976) for cello, piano, and tape, which is an homage to the diarist Anaïs Nin. All three elements in the piece overlap in their phrase beginnings and endings, and share many abstract melodic and harmonic ideas. At times their parts are quite distinct timbrally, making the work an interesting study of opposites.
Thome has also created effective settings of voice and tape. Her Levadi (Alone) for soprano and tape (1986) is based on a poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik, a Russian-Jewish writer of the Jewish Enlightenment. Thome had actually written a ballet inspired by another poem of this writer when she was fourteen years old. Treating the tape accompaniment in a similar manner to the way one might write for voice and piano, Levadi features melodies recalling the Sephardic Jewish tradition. The tape part also provides contrasting melodic and rhythmic ideas which flow in an improvisatory manner when heard alone. A later work, The Ruins of the Heart (1990) for soprano, orchestra, and tape, utilizes translations of poems by the Sufi poet Rumi. In this piece, the listener is presented with two different media in combination with the text. The tape part is heard alone in three extended, highly ornamented, and dense passages of contrasting material. These sections serve as a reflective and atmospheric commentary on the text.
Thome’s works for solo tape are fewer in number, but also explore the timbral possibilities of electronically transformed acoustic and synthesized sound. Her 1994 Masks of Eternity begins with synthesized marimba-like sounds. A dramatic and other-worldly quality is evoked by the ‘almost real’ sonic materials. Masks is in four parts and was inspired by the Native American masks displayed in the Museum of Northwest Indian Art in Juneau, Alaska, which made a strong impression on the composer. Metallic sounds are also featured, and an ambient environment of wind textures is used, giving a sense of being swept into the past while striving towards the future. This sense of timelessness is also evident when hearing her UnfoldEntwine for solo tape. A fifteen minute work commissioned by the University of Michigan for the 1998 International Computer Music Conference, UnfoldEntwine uses multiple streams of sound that constantly change in timbral content and intensity. The continual development of these sounds makes for a compelling and introspective piece. Thome’s Like a Seated Swan (1999) for viola and computer-realized sound involves the use of changing viola timbres and ideas against a continuous electronic part. The computer-realized portion of the work is similar in character to UnfoldEntwine in that the rich digitally recorded and altered, sustained viola tones are subjected to minute timbral permutations to produce a continuously-changing atmosphere. The violist performs a virtuosic and abstract part which alternately plays in contrast and in combination with the tape. Like her other instrumental works described earlier, the tape part is so closely integrated with the live instrumental music that the boundaries between instrument and tape are often blurred and obscured. Like a Seated Swan was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and written for Seattle Symphony violist Dorothy Shapiro who has performed it on numerous occasions, including the International Viola Congress held at the University of Washington in 2002.
All of Thome’s electroacoustic music from her earliest work to her current projects is intricate and intriguing in its construction. Each piece illustrates the composer’s ability to create an enormous palette of sound featuring timbres with minutely changing differences. Abstract in nature, her music is quite beautiful and shows the variety of her poetic, visual, and philosophical interests and influences, as well as her aesthetic concern with creating pieces in which the technology does not dominate the compositional process but enhances it instead. Centaur Records has recently released a second monographic CD of her recent electroacoustic works, Bright Air/Brilliant Fire, which takes its title from a 1997 piece for flute and computer-realized sound. Her most recent work, Estuaries of Enchantment for oboe and electronics, commissioned by the Eleusis Consortium was premiered during the University of Washington’s computer music concert in May, 2002.