Anna Clyne discusses her new Rumi-imspired cello concerto, DANCE, written for soloist Inbal Segev. It premieres at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in August, led by Cristian Macelaru.
On August 3, Cristian Macelaru will lead the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and cello soloist Inbal Segev in the world premiere of Anna Clyne’s new cello concerto DANCE. The new 25-minute work is written in five movements, which are each inspired by a single line from a poem by Rumi.
Anna Clyne describes the connection between the poetry and music, and discusses the special experience of writing a concerto for her own instrument, the cello.
Can you describe how you used the poetry of Rumi as the basis for this new work?
I knew that I wanted to write a multi-movement work in which each movement had its own personality, its own character. I’ve known this Rumi poem for a while and always thought it would be good source of inspiration—it’s short, has repetition, a clear form of five lines, and a strong physicality (for example, “broken open,” “in your blood”). It also has a sense of urgency that I found compelling for this piece. It was a great way to structure the piece—to break it up into the five movements according to the five lines of the poem.
Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
How do the poetry texts characterize the movements of the piece?
The first movement opens the concerto in an unusual way—concertos tend to get off to a dramatic start with a lot of energy, but I wanted to do the opposite, to start with very tender and delicate music. The title of that movement is “when you’re broken open.” I imagined the fragility of being shattered apart—zooming in on those shards. The harmony is a series of stacked fifths in the strings that move in blocks to create a repeating cycle above which the solo cello soars in a high register.
The second movement, “if you’ve torn the bandage off,” is marked “Earthy and Fiery.” It’s much faster, a lot more aggressive, and a lot of double stops in the cello. The solo cello drives this movement—a lot of the orchestration is characterized by instruments within the orchestra spiraling around the soloist, and often in unisons. “If you’ve torn the bandage off” is a very physical sensation. In this movement, folk elements are introduced with melodic inflections and the use of open fifth drones as an accompaniment.
The third movement, “in the middle of the fighting” imagines discovering a moment within the chaos—where time freezes to provide an opportunity to be still and reflect. It’s a slow, repeating cycle above which the cello plays a soulful melody. Each time it returns, the cello plays higher in register. It’s very simple, but quite elegant as well, with Baroque-like embellishments to the lines. The tonality allows for a lot of natural harmonics on the cello to give it a delicate resonance and character.
The fourth movement “in your blood” presents music in contrast to the previous more delicate movement. It is marked “Regal and Expansive,” and starts with a simple ascending and descending line in quarter notes played alone by the solo cello. Once that line is finished, the double basses pick up that line and the cellist adds a new line. And then the basses loop the first line, the cello section play the second, and the soloist takes on a new line. This process repeats until all the strings are playing. Basically, the orchestra is acting as a looping pedal. The use of cycles, of repeating patterns, is quite central to this work. At the end of the fourth movement, it unexpectantly melts into a lullaby, which incorporates melodic fragments from the previous movements.
The last movement, “when you’re perfectly free,” is actually the movement I wrote first, but it ended up becoming the last movement. It almost stands alone from the rest of the concerto. The other movements incorporate elements from this movement, but it has its own story. This movement, like the second movement, is full of exposed and quite simple melodies. One of my favorite pieces of music is Elgar’s Cello Concerto—his melodies have such beauty and depth, and I kept this in mind when writing DANCE—not shying away from writing a simple melody and not getting too caught up in complexity. The last movement ends with a very simple melody. I was a little hesitant to end the piece in this way, but I do find beauty in its simplicity.
Can you talk about writing this piece for cello soloist Inbal Segev?
It’s been a real joy to work with Inbal. When I gave her the first draft of the piece, she connected with the piece immediately. She commented that it’s like a fusion of our cultures—she felt that the last melody reflects her Jewish heritage, it has that kind of tonality to it. And the music also reflects my Irish heritage (my mother was half Irish and half English). She could feel these two backgrounds mingling in this piece.
Did you have that in mind while you’re composing?
Not at all. But another important part of the piece is that I wrote it for my father, who is Jewish (his family is originally from Poland). He has always been so supportive of my music from the very beginning, so dedicating this piece to him is my way to offer something back to him—to say thank you.
How did your early training as a cellist impact the writing process of this concerto?
This piece has been a wonderful opportunity to connect with playing the cello again. That’s been quite an important part of the process, playing through it as I’ve been writing it. When I finished the piece, I printed out the solo cello part and played my cello concerto along with the midi—it’s my first experience playing my own music!
This is a very important piece to me for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it’s my instrument. I never get tired of playing the cello—in particular, movements from the Bach cello suites—they are so central to how I feel, experience, play and even compose music. Whilst I was writing this piece, I had the honor of hearing Yo-Yo Ma performing the complete Bach suites from memory at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. I shall always remember that, and in particular the Sarabande from the C-Minor Suite. I tucked a little quote from that into DANCE.
DANCE was commissioned by Inbal Segev for the Baltimore Symphony, Marin Alsop, Music Director; The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Cristian Macelaru, Music Director;
the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Rossen Milanov, Music Director; and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo), Marin Alsop, Music Director.
Interview by Carol Ann Cheung (2019)
Photo: Jennifer Taylor
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