5 questions to Anna Clyne (composer)

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Born in london Anna clyne is a GRAMMY nominated acoustic and electro-acoustic music composer. Since her stint as Mead’s composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2010-2015), Clyne has been one of the most acclaimed and in-demand composers of her generation, particularly of orchestral works. At October 23-24, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by BSO Music Director Marin Alsop, will give the world premiere of Clyne’s work Color field (a BSO commission) on a program that also includes its 2018 work, Stormy oceans, which was composed for Alsop.

Marin Alsop has been a great supporter and collaborator of your music since Masquerade (2013). Considering the importance of the composer-performer relationship, what has working with Alsop meant for your work, and how did this partnership start?

I first worked with Marin Alsop in the summer of 2010 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, where she programmed my first orchestral work, . Since that time Marin has performed almost all of my orchestral works, including my violin concerto, The sewer, and my cello concerto, DANCE, which she recorded with cellist Inbal Segev and the London Philharmonic, and was released on AVIE Records in 2020.

Writing a piece that I know Marin will be the first is a real inspiration to me – I love the way it moves and the way it connects with the musicians. Examples of these are Masquerade, which opened on the last night of the Proms in 2013, a monumental event marking the first time in Prom’s Last Night history that a woman had stepped onto the podium. We released the recording of this thrilling performance as part of an album Mythologies – a collection of five orchestral works recorded live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, also released on AVIE Records last year.

I feel great mutual trust with Marin. I know that my music will be produced as I imagined it in his hands. His support for my music has been a great honor and has certainly brought my music more visibility in the United States and abroad. It is unusual for a conductor to commit to a composer beyond a piece or performance of a piece. It’s something Marin has done with other composers as well, and it’s a great gift.

Anna Clyne with Marin Alsop – Photo by RR Jones, courtesy Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

Your two orders for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Abstractions and Color field) are inspired by semi-abstract or non-objective art. As it concerns Abstraction, you responded to works all produced during your lifetime by living artists for the most part. What attracted you to these particular tracks, and have you had the opportunity to meet them and discuss your musical response with any of them?

Abstractions is a suite of five movements inspired by five contrasting contemporary works from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the private collection of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, for whom this music pays homage. I did not have the opportunity to meet the four living artists (all except Ellsworth Kelly), although I would be very curious to hear their reactions.

Inspired by these works, I tried to capture the feelings or images they evoke, the concept of the work or the process adopted by the artists. Such examples are the filtered blues and the contrast between the light falling on the earthy stone and the mysterious moon that characterizes the VanDerBeek collection. Marble Moon; the long arching lines, the compact energetic marks and the shifting and dense forms of a system on the verge of collapse in the Mehretu region omens; the serene horizon with rippled water in Sugimoto’s Seascape; the striking juxtaposition of energetic black and white lines that magnify Kelly’s brushstrokes in RiverII; and the lines, which, inspired by Asian calligraphy and the structure of seashells, seem to dance in Marden’s work 3.

The title of your other BSO commission, Color field, refers to a mid-20th century abstract painting movement, but it’s a much more complex and personal starting point. You describe the piece as being a commission from Bonnie McElveen-Hunter in honor of Melanie Sabelhaus, whose favorite color, “Hermès Orange,” led you to the work of painter Mark Rothko, who brought him back to Sabelhaus. It’s a beautiful story, but I’m curious how this detail about it has become so central to your process?

The central inspiration of Color Field is indeed a person: Melanie Sabelhaus, the winner of this work. I started the creative process when I first met Sabelhaus in New York, when I discovered her family, her Serbian roots, her work and the music she loves. She is daring, daring, generous and a trailblazer for women in business and philanthropic work.

She also likes the color orange – especially Hermès Orange – and that’s how my exploration of color began. This led me to that of Mark Rothko Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) – a powerful example of the artist’s Color Field paintings, featuring red and yellow framing a huge vibrant shade of orange that seems to vibrate on the canvas.

As I explored creating music that evokes colors, I thought about synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which a person hears sound, pitch, and tonal centers, then sees specific colors, and vice versa. Every movement of Color Field weaves elements of the life of Melanie Sabelhaus. “Yellow” evokes hazy warmth and incorporates a traditional Serbian melody, first heard as a very slow bass line, then revealed amidst movement in the strings and winds. In “Red”, the fires blaze with daring percussive patterns and singing lines. In “Orange” the music becomes still and breathes, then intensifies once more, incorporating elements of “Yellow” and “Red” to create “Orange” – Melanie Sabelhaus’ signature color.

Anna Clyne chats with Cabrillo Music Director Cristian Macelaru at a Clyne's public rehearsal

Anna Clyne chats with Cabrillo Music Director Cristian Macelaru at a public rehearsal of Clyne’s “DANCE for Cello and Orchestra” – Photo by RR Jones, courtesy Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

I have used traditional expressions (response, inspiration, etc.) to describe your relationship with the visual arts, but I feel like this is doing you a disservice. The visual arts regularly play a role in your compositions, but you don’t just respond to a set of images – you seem to be collaborating with the artist by creating something new. How would you characterize this relationship?

I see the relationship between music and visual art as very visceral and the nature of the collaboration can change between pieces. In the case of Abstractions and Color Field, I responded to existing works of art. However, the process is sometimes reversed, as in The Violin – a suite of seven pieces for multitrack violins. My dear friend and wonderful artist Josh Dorman created seven stunning animations for each of these seven pieces – the art was created in response to the music. In other cases, the two elements are created in conjunction with each other, creating a very symbiotic relationship, as in a recent work, By, which I created in collaboration with a London artist Jyll bradley and violist of the Scottish Ensemble, Jane atkins.

This symbiotic relationship between art forms also extends to collaborations with artists from other art forms, such as choreographers and filmmakers. In other cases there is no collaborator, in which case I sometimes turn to the artistic creation myself to assist the creative process, as in Night Ferry, an orchestral work also included on Mythologies.

The first idea of Night Ferry was actually a visual image of a dark, turbulent wave, so I tried a new process – simultaneously painting the music while writing it. On my wall, I taped seven large canvases side by side horizontally, each divided into three subsections. It became my visual timeline for the duration of the music. In correlation with the composition of the music, I painted from left to right, moving forward in time. I painted a section, then composed a section, and vice versa, interweaving the two in the creation process.

Pardes (2020) of Jyll bradley to Vimeo.

Based on this, the videographers and dancers you employ in some of your chamber music works feel like you are adding another layer to your musical creation and to the concert experience as a whole. How would you describe the theatrical and ambient elements of your orchestral works?

This Midnight Time, a sort of orchestral symphonic poem, is a good example of one of my theatrical works, a recording of which is also included in Mythologies. This one is inspired by two poems. While not meant to describe a specific narrative, my intention is that it evokes a visual journey for the listener. The two poems are Harmony of Evening by Charles Baudelaire, who possesses wonderfully evocative images and musical references …

The season is at hand swinging on its rod
Each flower exhales a perfume like a censer;
Sounds and scents revolve in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languid vertigo!
(Translated by William Aggeler)

… And a very short poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez:

Music
a naked women
functioning crazy through the pure night!
(Translated by Robert Bly)

I often explore different approaches to orchestration to evoke more ambient elements – be it reverb orchestration – for example, in my work In her arms, a work for 15 individual strings. The music opens with a simple melody on the first violin, and other violins support the pitches of the melody to create the sonic illusion of ambient reverberation. I also explore other electronic processes in my orchestration, such as delay, inversion of sounds, time expansion, compression, and of course the processes that translate directly into orchestration, such as pitch shifting. and octave transpositions, and the combination of colors of different instruments in unison.

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorial independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded by generous donor and institutional support. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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