Cross-Atlantic composer Anna Clyne describes her curious route to symphonic music, fusing a rich range of artistic impulses.
You sometimes seem genuinely surprised to be a symphonic composer. How did your career evolve?
I’ve composed music from a young age, though I never had a grand plan of "being a composer" – it is just something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. As soon as I started playing the piano, I also began to compose and the two felt very intertwined. When studying at Edinburgh University I took an exchange year abroad at Queen’s University in Canada, and it was there that I had my first composition sessions with Marjan Mozetich.
Upon returning to Edinburgh, I continued studying composition with Georgian composer, Marina Adamia, and later with Julia Wolfe at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Throughout my studies I was fortunate to study with such inspiring mentors, to work with some exceptional musicians who were excited about new music and to collaborate with living composers. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn from them – to discover the intricacies of their instruments - the building blocks of the orchestra.
To start with my music was primarily electroacoustic – combining recorded, processed and layered sounds, with live instruments. My first substantial orchestral piece, Rewind, was composed for Hysterica Dance Company and choreographer Kitty McNamee, and was very much inspired by her unique choreography. This work applied the same electroacoustic processes, such as stretching, compressing, and adding reverb and delays, by means of the orchestration. Rewind became my window onto the orchestral world, leading to a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2010-2015. This was an incredible opportunity to hone my skills as an orchestral composer through attending rehearsals, working closely with the musicians and writing for the orchestra.
The Chicago residency in turn opened the door to residencies with other orchestras – the Baltimore Symphony, l'Orchestre national d'Île-de-France and the Berkeley Symphony – which provided new opportunities to compose orchestral music and to again work closely with the musicians. I’ve also been very fortunate to have received support from some renowned conductors and mentors, in particular Marin Alsop who has been incredibly supportive in programming and commissioning my music with several orchestras. Having such strong advocates for my work has certainly nurtured and supported my career as a symphonic composer.
You seem to have consciously avoided the baggage of music history. Does this help you take a fresh approach?
I’ve a wide array of musical influences ranging from Bach and Stravinsky to Stockhausen and Björk, but when I’m composing, I focus my attention upon what I’m trying to express. I try to follow my own voice and tend to avoid listening to too much music of a similar nature to my own when I’m composing, so that I keep an open canvas in my imagination. Coming to orchestral composition from an electroacoustic background has also brought a different perspective historically.
How do you view the pre-compositional phase? You are just as likely to be talking to choreographers, or painting ideas on a wall, than sketching on manuscript.
The process may begin with a conversation with an artist or a choreographer, an image, a poem – many things. Recently I’ve been exploring a more visual approach, which I’ve found helpful for envisioning the overall structure and trajectory of a piece before starting to write the actual notes. In my home-studio I pin lots of images or sketches to the wall, sometimes within a timeline, and then I start composing the actual music at the piano. My work subsequently moves between the piano and my laptop, using Finale and/or ProTools, as the music evolves.
A lot of your creative impetus comes through collaborating with other artists. How did this work with Three Sisters, your new concerto for mandolin and strings?
Collaboration is often at the core of my work and Three Sisters was inspired by mandolinist Avi Avital, whose incredible virtuosity, dexterity and sensitivity as a performer and interpreter provided a great starting point. Avi shared a wide range of recordings and scores of existing works for mandolin, which was very helpful to get a sense of its capabilities. It was a challenge to write for what is essentially quite an intimate and intricate instrument, and to find a way for the string orchestra to complement and not overpower it. Studying the score samples and being in regular contact with Avi during the compositional process – via Skype and meeting in person in New York – was invaluable in shaping the piece.
What attracts you especially to nocturnal imagery such as in your recent orchestral work This Midnight Hour?
This Midnight Hour was inspired by a very short poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez:
a naked woman
running mad through the pure night!
And the imagery from Baudelaire’s poem Harmonie du Soir with lines such as:
Sounds and perfumes turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languid vertigo
This very evocative imagery was a natural point of departure for an orchestral work, with all the colours and textures at hand. Movement, such as running, and the sounds of the air and waltzes translate very naturally into music.
How was the experience of creating the BBC Proms theme music from your Last Night commission Masquerade?
It was a great honour, and an exciting process, to re-compose Masquerade for the TV and radio themes for the BBC Proms, and I hope to compose more music for film going forward. Being a very visual composer, I find the experience fascinating – creating sounds and music that complement a moving image.
Your new orchestral work Beltane has a distinctly Scottish background. Where do you see yourself positioned between the UK and US?
Beltane is inspired by the dramatic Beltane Fire Festival which is held in Edinburgh annually to celebrate the death of Winter and the birth of Summer, and was commissioned as part of a series of new works inspired by Scotland. It was a great opportunity to recall my time at Edinburgh University, during which time I attended Beltane. Although I live in New York, I still feel very connected to my home roots in the UK and am thankful that my music is being performed on both sides of the ocean. My music often includes elements of English folk music, but it is also influenced by the current new music scene in the US, and specifically that of New York.
Interviewed by David Allenby, 2017
This Midnight Hour (2015) 12’
Italian, Austrian, Swiss and UK
premieres this season
Three Sisters (2017) 15’
for mandolin and string orchestra
Premiere: 7 August 2017
Avi Avital/Kremerata Baltica
Beltane (2017) 15’
Premiere: 9 December 2017
City Halls, Glasgow
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/
Photo: Javier Oddo
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