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Emily Dickinson’s poetic fragments provide inspiration for Anna Clyne in her new work The Gorgeous Nothings, premiered at the BBC Proms on 30 July. The performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London features the Swingle Singers and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Anna Clyne’s new score The Gorgeous Nothings sets seven of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems – fragments of poetry that she wrote on scraps of paper and envelopes. These little treasures are glimpses into the process of the great American poet. Scored for The Swingles (seven amplified voices) and orchestra, this work explores the sonorities of the voices in conjunction with those of the orchestra through the lens of Dickinson’s poetry. Additionally, The Gorgeous Nothings utilizes the Augmented Orchestra (AO) whereby sounds from the orchestra are modified in real time with live electronic processing. The AO is a collaboration with sound designer Jody Elff who created custom software to facilitate the live processing. The 20-minute score was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and The Swingles.

> Visit the BBC Proms website

The UK-born, US-resident composer describes in her programme note how “I have been fascinated by Emily Dickinson’s poetry for many years and am drawn to its potent and musical language, imagery, and her careful use of punctuation and capitalization. These elements translate very organically into music and her spellbinding wordsmithery draws you into her innermost mysterious world. We are familiar with the more common hymn-like rhythms to her poetry, but something that is remarkable about the fragments of text that comprise the envelope poems is that they are often asymmetrical and off-kilter as in a momentary passing thought.

“I often paint with layers of sounds when I am orchestrating – doubling the voices with instrumental lines to create, for example, cascading gestures. Whilst the voices are predominantly delivering the text, there are moments when they also become instrument-like in the composition – using syllables to mimic the instrumental writing, as opposed to just delivering the actual words.”

Celebrated American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was a recluse who rarely left her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Bookending Clyne’s seven ‘envelope’ movements are a Prologue and Epilogue, both of which set Dickinson’s poem This is my letter to the World, a much-loved reflection on isolation and the yearning for human connection. The title of the work, The Gorgeous Nothings, is drawn from the fourth movement which opens with the text Clogged only with Music, like the Wheels of Birds. Clyne riffs on the ‘wheel of birds’ with electronic augmentation of the sound of a bicycle wheel with a playing card clipped to the spokes whose fluttering sound is distributed around the hall.

Anna Clyne is Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic until 2026, with The Gorgeous Nothings being the second of three commissioned works. Clyne’s appointment builds on an existing creative relationship with the Manchester-based orchestra, which has included the UK premiere of This Midnight Hour at The Bridgewater Hall in 2020, and Anna Clyne in Focus, which saw students from the Royal Northern College of Music perform side by side with members of the BBC Philharmonic. Her Composer in Association role was launched last October with the UK premiere of the saxophone concerto Glasslands featuring Jess Gillam.

Recent works by Anna Clyne include a new piano concerto for Jeremy Denk, titled ATLAS after the artistic compendium by Gerhard Richter. Premiered with the Dallas Symphony in March, further performances have followed with the New Jersey Symphony and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This work follows a sequence of concertos written across the past decade for mandolinist Avi Avital, cellists Inbal Segev and Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist Jess Gillam, the Euclid Quartet, clarinettist Martin Fröst and violinist Pekka Kuusisto.

>  Further information on Work: The Gorgeous Nothings

Photo: Christina Kernhohan

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