Diane Thome is accustomed to being the only woman in the room.
Over the years since she emerged from Princeton as that rarity of rarities, a woman composer who specializes in computer music, Thome – now on the faculty at the University of Washington – has made her way as one of few women in a male-dominated field.
It doesn’t bother her a bit.
Thome (whose name starts with a soft “th” like “thin” and rhymes with “home”) turned 60 this year, and that occasion will be marked with a major retrospective of her work at a Contemporary Group Concert Dec. 2 in Meany Theatre (7:30 pm, 206 -543-4880). The retrospective spans 23 years of Thome’s work.
The 60-year milestone doesn’t bother Thome, either, because she doesn’t look or act 60. Always stylish-looking, she projects an air of self-possessed serenity, but Thome is far from aloof; she has a lively sense of humor and a great laugh. Her studio in the basement of the UW Music Building, with its view of grass and trees, is filled with neatly arranged files that have background info, program notes, lyrics and other details of her compositions. Looking over the flier for her concert, Thome mulls over some of the roads taken that have brought her to this milestone.
“This is a wonderful time for me as a composer,” she says.
“Singers lose some ability as they grow older, but composers can mature.
“I’ve had to battle here and there to be taken seriously as a woman composer. But it never fazed me. There were times I wasn’t totally confident, but I’ve been so committed to composition, and I’ve been so lucky to have many wonderful, supportive people behind me.”
Thome was only eight when she decided to be a composer, and she never wavered from that decision. By 12, she was “writing little pieces for some kind of contest,” which she won, telling her mother she now had to have a composition teacher.
“Luckily for me, my mother found a wonderful teacher, Robert Strassburg. To have a great mentor is a huge gift. He would take pieces of mine and enter them in contests without my knowledge, and I’d get scholarships to study in the summer with composers like Roy Harris and Darius Milhaud.”
Not all great composers are good teachers, but Thome says hers were very encouraging. Her studies at Aspen and Tanglewood encouraged her to apply to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
“Eastman was a very traditional school, so I wrote more traditional music,” Thome remembers. “But at Tanglewood (in the summer) I had become fascinated with the atonal works of Schoenberg. I played a Stravinsky/Schoenberg piano recital from memory and received the highest possible rating, even though I wasn’t a serious pianist – I think it was because the piano professors were all terrified of that music.”
The real turning point in Thome’s career was her arrival at Princeton, where she earned her PhD. Applying at the suggestion of a friend – Thome never expected to get in – but on April Fool’s Day 1968, the mailbox brought her not only a letter of acceptance, but a fellowship and more money than she had ever imagined.
It was at Princeton that Thome met up with composer Milton Babbitt, a big influence in her academic life. She wasn’t interested in composing 12-tone music, which was Babbitt’s forte. “It was a very rigorous place,” Thome remembers of Princeton in the late 1960s.
“It was really a boys club. But that didn’t bother me, because I was used to being in places where there were no women.”
At Princeton she first got hooked on electronic music, at a point where computers were so large they occupied whole rooms, and had to be shared by different users. Worse, the computer programs were tedious to learn and soon became obsolete.
Thome, fascinated by the emerging technology, persevered to become the first woman PhD in Composition at Princeton (following an M.F.A. at that school, and an earlier M.A. in theory and composition from the University of Pennsylvania). At one point, then married to composer/conductor Joel Thome and living in Philadelphia, she had to drive a six-hour round trip to Murray Hill, New Jersey where Bell Labs had a D to A converter.
“I’m thrilled with what’s happening now: so much acceleration and efficiency,” Thome says of today’s computer music technology.
She was ready to go out in the world five years after arriving at Princeton, and Thome says, “That degree spoke for me as well as my music.” For a while she taught at the State University of New York in Binghamton, but changes in the scope of her position made her want to move. That’s when she came to the University of Washington in 1977, leaving behind “everyone and everything I knew. I was ready for my life to be different. I needed more quiet; I wanted to be near the water, and part of a large faculty of composers and performers.”
A large body of chamber, choral, orchestral, and solo music – much of it inspired by poetry – attests to Thome’s considerable range as a composer. Not all of it is electronic music; some, including an upcoming premiere for the local choral group, The Esoterics, is purely acoustic. Most often, though, her scores combine live acoustic performance with computer-synthesized music; she usually writes the electronic portion first, and then the acoustic part.
Every piece was born through different technology. “Masks of Eternity,” a 1994 piece for solo tape, used a Kurzweil 2000 digital synthesizer and Cakewalk for Windows sequencing software; the sections were digitally mixed using the MTU Microsound digital/audio system. The 1998 “UnfoldEntwine” was created primarily with a Capybara-66 signal processing system in conjunction with Kyma 4.5 software, with additional software all running on a Power Mac. The new “Estuaries of Enchantment,” for oboe and computer-realized sound, melds the tones of the oboe with synthesized music run on a Macintosh Cube.
Thome’s music has been described as “high modernist…searching, intense, and full of integrity.” Her music is so diverse – atonal and tonal, electronic and acoustic, that it’s hard to characterize in a single phrase. What she usually does is to expand the sonic possibilities of live performance by creating computer-generated sound that underscores and sets off what the onstage performers are doing.
The rich viola sound of “Like a Seated Swan” for viola and computer is overlain with sounds that are delicate, eerie, and string like, floating as the swan does. Thome describes “UnfoldEntwine,” a solo electronic work, as a “mysterious, slowly-unfolding journey” in which a single stream of sound diverges into multiple connecting sounds, all interweaving with each other.
“UnfoldEntwine,” “Estuaries of Enchantment,” “Masks of Eternity” and three others (“Pianismus,” “Bright Air/Brilliant Fire,” and “The Yew Tree”) will all be heard in the Dec. 2 concert at Meany. Thome will be “an excited member of the audience,” but she won’t be on the stage behind any keyboards.
“The piano is a tremendous education,” she explains, “but I never wanted to be a concert pianist. I’m actually pretty shy.”