Exploring creativity and imagination – interview with Anna Clyne

Anna Clyne portrait by © Christina Kernohan

”Last year was my most productive year ever as a composer, because I had not been traveling and teaching has been online. So I’ve written a lot of music”, summarises the London-born, New York -based composer Anna Clyne when asked about her professional life during the pandemic year.

Alongside new compositions, substantial album releases of her recent work also took place in the Covid era. Perhaps the most notable of these has been Mythologies, an anthology featuring five orchestral works by Clyne, Masquerade (2013), This Midnight Hour (2015), The Seamstress (2014-15), Night Ferry (2012) and «rewind« (2005-06), all performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, released on AVIE Records last October.

”There’s a ten year span, and the album is actually not in chronological order. I put it together as if it were a concert, with an opener, a concerto and a main piece. Those five pieces are quite diverse;«rewind«, which is the oldest piece, is quite different from This Midnight Hour, which is the most recent.

However, I think there are some commonalities too. «rewind«is very much inspired by the post-minimalist tradition. There are lots of repeated notes, but there are also these little notes that pop out of the texture to create short melodies. I ran with that more, as I got older; just having melody really be in the foreground of my music. Perhaps the biggest development for me has been revealing melodic ideas more in the foreground.”

For Clyne, the process of composing almost always starts at the piano, with initial musical ideas written down with pencil and paper.

”I’m actually not a very good pianist, but I often start by placing my hands quite randomly on the keys and playing around. I often do that to find chords that have interesting voice leading or a melodic idea. Like those chords shared between the winds and the horns two thirds into «rewind«, where it suddenly slows down and becomes quite amorphous. I found those chords just by how they felt and not thinking ’oh, this is a dominant seventh chord’.

Once I have some solid material, I enter it into Finale and then start inverting things and layering them. I draw a lot from my electro-acoustic composition techniques that transfer very organically into the process of orchestral writing.”

Once the music begins to take shape, Clyne then works from beginning to the end, at least in most cases.

”I use playback a lot. I write a couple of minutes of music and I listen to it and add more, and listen to it again, and add more. So it is an additive process. I don’t often have a plan, like some composers; two minutes of this, one minute of this and two minutes of this… I might do that, if it is a very long piece. Night Ferry, for example, is in seven sections. And I very consciously had these seven three-minute sections in mind while composing the music.

I’m very intuitive in my composition process. I’m also quite sensitive to the physicality of music. I am not a dancer, but I’ll move to see how the music feels in my body and let that overn it.

I usually write pieces that are in one movement. Recently, I wrote a five-movement cello concerto called DANCE, released on record last year, and the last movement is the movement I wrote first. So if it is a multi-movement work, sometimes the process can be a bit out of order.

If it is a shorter piece, like Masquerade, for example, I just go for it. When I hit five minutes the piece is done. Perhaps I have to do some adjusting to frame it in that amount of time. What I tried to do in Masquerade, was to take the listener on a journey with a whirlwind of different little vignettes. I like to have a lot of contrast, and in a short piece, it gets more compressed.”

Often inspired by other art forms, such as poetry, literature and the visual arts, a lot of Clyne’s music seems to land somewhere between abstract and narrative.

”I think my pieces are narrative but also a little abstract too, I’m not trying to say something very specific. This Midnight Hour, for example, is very much inspired by that short poem of Juan Ramón Jiménez; a naked woman running mad through the pure night. That’s more of an image and emotion and feeling. Maybe there’s some drama there, but not in a sense of narrative drama. It’s more abstract drama, if there’s such a thing.”

In the manner of Igor Stravinsky writing Pulcinella a hundred years ago, sometimes the inspiration for Clyne also comes from other composers and their music. Commissioned and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Night Ferry has its roots in Schubert.

”Generally, when I am writing, I want to have a blank canvas in my imagination. With Night Ferry, Riccardo Muti asked that I look to Schubert for inspiration, because it was to be premiered with his Symphony in C on the same programme. In that instance I didn’t want to look to the music of Schubert, but instead I read about him as a human being. One of the things I discovered is that he suffered from cyclothymia, which is a form of manic depression characterised by severe mood swings. And that intensity of the range of emotion really resonated with his music. So that was my inspiration for Night Ferry.”

Written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sound and Fury (2019), in its turn, has its roots in Joseph Haydn’s Symphony in C major, Hob. I/60 Il distratto (1774).

”In Sound and Fury, I was asked to find inspiration in Il distratto, which I did not know before. I really enjoyed that process. I’ve grown to love the Haydn; it’s got great energy and also a sense of humour, which was fun to play with. I decided to take little fragments, quotations, and spin them out through my own lens.”

Last year, as a part of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, Clyne wrote three pieces inspired by three different Beethoven works. The first of them, Breathing Statues was premiered by Calidore Quartet in February 2020. The fifteen minute score draws upon Beethoven’s late quartets opus 130 and 135 as well as Grosse Fuge.

”Similar to Sound and Fury, I took fragments and spun them out. And the same thing happened with Shorthand, a piece for solo cello and string orchestra, based on fragments from the Kreutzer Sonata. Similarly, the third piece, Stride, which was premiered in November, is based on his Sonata Pathétique, in C minor; I took little fragments and developed them.

I really enjoyed all these projects. They provide you with amazing material. These are some of the great masters. It is an opportunity to get to know their work very intimately and find little things that you can play with and be quite playful and curious in the process. The first time I did the Haydn, it was a little bit new, but once I had been through that process of taking quotes and developing them, by the third Beethoven piece, I’d become familiar with it.”

In concertante works, such as The Seamstress (2014-15), written for violinist Jennifer Koh, the soloist’s musical personality becomes an essential part of the process of composition.

”It can have a big impact. I mean, with Jenny, she is such a phenomenal musician and she has such a range of emotional intensity in her playing, from earthy and fiery to very ethereal and beautiful. I first heard her perform in (Kaija Saariaho’s) Graal théâtre. It was amazing and really earthy. That’s a real inspiration!

DANCE, the cello concerto I just wrote, is for Inbal Segev, who plays incredibly expressively. I really wanted to explore that in that piece. I am a cellist myself, so writing for the strings is very comfortable. I just wrote the music and shared it with the soloist, and we did some improvements when the piece was done.

I’m currently writing a saxophone concerto and I’m very new to that instrument, so there’s going to be more dialogue. It’s for Jess Gilliam, the young and upcoming saxophone player in England. So there will be more to and fro than if it were for the cello or violin.”

Anna Clyne photographed by © Jennifer Taylor

While each new piece has its own challenges, some aspects of being a composer do become more comfortable with age and experience.

”It’s like anything, the more you do it, the more comfortable it gets and the more confident you become with your skills. I think all artists in all genres face writer’s block or artist’s block at sometimes. The older you are, the more you’ve experienced that and the more you recognise that’s part of the process. If you are struggling to start a piece, rather than getting stressed about it, you can take a couple of days off, go for a walk or do some reading and some drawing, and then come back to it afresh. The more you do it, the more experience you have, and the more you are able to draw on that. When you’re younger that can be a bit more overwhelming.”

While the very act of composing has remained somewhat business as usual during these uncertain times, attending rehearsals and premieres has been whole another matter. But new challenges evoke new solutions.

”For the chamber pieces I’ve been able to be present. But I’ve had a few premieres, where I’ve not been able to travel, like in Houston or Orlando. But my husband is a fantastic audio engineer and puzzle-solver, and he created Ted the Head, which is, basically, a binaural mannequin head with high fidelity microphones in the ears, linked with a 360 camera, a speaker, and connected to the internet. 

So we send Ted to orchestras in a suitcase, and they put Ted five rows back in the hall in a good place. At home, I put on headphones, and I can hear them brilliantly. I can see them in 360 with google glasses, and since they have a speaker, I can speak with the conductor in real time. It really feels like being in that space.

I’ve been to four premieres where Ted has been traveling instead of me. So I’ve been really fortunate. It has been a wonderful tool for me, and it opens up possibilities for audiences as well. If you put Ted the Head in the concert hall, people who can’t get childcare, or are disabled or live far away, can enjoy the performance at home. These are exciting times to explore new things like that.”

Among the many new things explored by Clyne is her Postcards project; a series of small-scale solo pieces, combined with paintings.

”It’s a project for just the love of the project. I’m writing very quickly at the moment, so I have little windows of time here and there. And because I have lot of large orchestral projects, it is nice to do some little pieces in between.

There’s always more to learn. I’ve never played a trombone or an oboe, so each time I write for them, I learn more. I thought this would be a great opportunity to work one on one with the musicians; to really to get to know the idiosyncrasies of those instruments in a more relaxed environment. So it’s very much a musical currency, so there is no money exchange, I’m writing the pieces for free.

They are written for multitracks. The one I just did is for the bassoon, but I’ve written it for five multitracks of the same instrument. It is for Rebekah Heller, who plays with ICE Ensemble.

The way it worked is that we got on Zoom, and she showed me all those different extended techniques and all the fun things that the bassoon can do, and I recorded the session. Then I went home and wrote the piece and sent it over to her. We then had some dialogue over some things, to find out what works and what doesn’t work. Then we sent out a recording kit to Rebekah and did a remote recording from here.

For each piece I’m creating a little painting like a musical postcard. I’m doing one for each instrument of the orchestra, all for woman musicians in the US. It has to be in the US, because I’m shipping out the technology to do the remote recording. Hopefully, by the end, I’ll have twenty of these little pieces, all five minutes long. It is nice to do something purely for the love of it, rather than being commissioned.”

Meanwhile in the commissioned realm, on 24 March, Orchestra of St. Lukes gave online premieres of two Clyne’s works, a clarinet quintet called Strange Loops (2020) and Woman Holding Balance (2020), a film score for string quartet, accompanying a short film by Jyll Bradley and David Ward.

As a part of LA Opera’s Digital Shorts initiative, Clyne has recently finished her score for Between the Rooms (2020), conceived in collaboration with Kim Brandstrup, Danish choreographer and filmmaker based in London.

”We’ve wanted to collaborate for a while, so this was an opportunity to do that. It’s a setting of fragments of poetry by Emily Dickinson for socially distanced ensemble. We were able to choose up to five musicians, so I chose a string quintet; a string quartet and double bass.

I wanted to write for a voice that is little less operatic and more like baroque, like Purcell in sound quality. I was very fortunate to come across the soprano Joelle Harvey for this project. We just recorded it a couple of weeks ago here in New York with The Knights ensemble, conducted by Eric Jacobsen, sort of the dream team! I’m really happy with the recording.

The next stage is for Kim to create the film. It was a very interesting project, because usually you get the film first, and then write music to the film. Even though the film wasn’t made, I did feel, I was scoring his imagination. We had a lot of artistic dialogue, and I really got to understand what he was envisioning; what is the narrative, where is the tension.”

As it happens, Emily Dickinson is also the subject of Clyne’s forthcoming full-scale opera project, a long-time dream for the composer.

”The new opera is about her as a muse to explore creativity and imagination, rather than a biography of Emily Dickinson. It is more about getting into her imagination; what sparks all these ideas and different realms. I’m very excited about the project.”

Alongside opera, Clyne has further plans for post-Covid days.

”I really thrive on collaborative relationships, so I would love to do more work with dance and exploring technology. I’ve been writing a lot for the orchestra, but I’m very interested in developing it with live processing in a very organic way, like having surround-sound speakers amplify the sounds, in order to have, for example, double-bass subtones emerging from the fabric. I would like to experiment more with that.”

In addition to composing, mentoring young colleagues is an important part of Clyne’s ongoing three-year residency as an Associate Composer for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

”We have a new mentorship program called New Stories. It involves three women composers at the very early stages of their careers. They haven’t been published yet or had major performances. There was an application process, and Georgina Macdonnell Finlayson, Electra Perivolaris and Gillian Walker were selected. I’ve worked with them the past year, and they’ve each written a piece for seven instruments; woodwind quartet and string trio.

It’s in collaboration with the Scottish Storytellers Centre, so the mentors include myself and Janis Mackay, who is a wonderful writer and storyteller. We started the process with a workshop, where we discussed story-telling in music and looked at a lot of different examples across different genres in music. And we did two workshops with Janis on the creativity of story-telling, and it was really wonderful and she really encouraged us to be playful and not to be too self-critical; just to write and share it.

So the three composers wrote stories for the first two months, and I worked with them to find ways to translate elements from the stories into music. Their pieces were workshopped in April, and now they are in the process of revising them for a performance in June. We have three wonderful composers, with very different voices, working really hard, so it is going to be a good concert.”

Anna Clyne portrait by © Christina Kernohan

Clyne’s approach to teaching and mentoring is informed by her own experiences as a student at Manhattan School of Music.

”When I was studying with Julia Wolfe, she really encouraged me to follow my intuition and find my own voice. She never imposed her style on to me. That’s something I’ve taken with me as I mentor.

My goal is not to replicate my music in my students, but to help them find tools to express themselves, which means that it’s totally different with each composer. Some need more technical ability, some need work on form or structure, others on harmonic content or conceptual ideas. It varies from composer to composer, which is part of the fun of teaching, and I thoroughly enjoy that.

I like to think of them as colleagues too. As a composer, I have colleagues and friends that I’ll show my music to, if I get stuck. It is helpful to havefresh ears. As a mentor you’re also that; you’re a fresh pair of ears and eyes on a piece. After being really immersed in the music for a week or so, it is good to step back and ask other people what do they think of it.”

As first careful steps are taken towards reopening concert venues, Clyne would be happy to see some aspects of the Covid-era programming carry on to the post-pandemic realities.

”I think the programming has been more eclectic and diverse, including more music by younger people. Hopefully that will move forward.There’s been a lot of dialogue about the inequality in the classical music world and the need to shake things up, especially over the last couple of years. I think that’s rippled down to the programming now, and there has been more gender equality and racial equality.

Also, it’s been lovely to see orchestral musicians appear in chamber music context, striving for more diversity through smaller-scale instrumentation. I would love to see that move forward too.”

© Jari Kallio

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