May 4, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

When we pause in front of a painting at a gallery, if we allow ourselves to be open, we inevitably leave with something. Sometimes it’s a message from the artist; sometimes it is a story. Other times it is just a vague, elusive emotion.

Over the past few months while she wrote her new piece, Abstractions, composer Anna Clyne has worked to mine those sometimes ephemeral impressions as she translated what she carried with her from several works of visual art into her own musical language.

Abstractions is a suite of five movements, each inspired by contemporary artworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the private collection of Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, who the work is written in honor of. Clyne is in residence with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who will be premiere the new work this weekend.

Visual art is no stranger to being a muse for composers. Given the conceit behind Abstractions, it’s easy to draw a parallel to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But where Mussorgsky — in traditional Romantic program music fashion — looked to translate the images in artist Viktor Hartmann’s watercolors and sketches directly to music, Clyne said she wanted to take a different approach.

“From the very beginning working on this piece, my intention was not to literally transcribe the image musically. In each one, I'm trying to capture some aspect of the painting,” she said.

In some cases that was a feeling, energy or color palette. For others it was a technique used by the artist. One of the first artworks Clyne settled on was Marble Moon by Sarah VanDerBeek, which became an anchor for the piece as its opening movement and introduces material Clyne subtly weaves into later movements.

The mixed-media work Marble Moon juxtaposes an image the artists’ family took observing a lunar eclipse that she rediscovered as an adult with one she later took of light falling on marble in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Clyne said she was intuitively drawn to it because of its soft, filtered blue hues and the “contrast falling on the earthy stone and the mysterious moon.”

To Clyne, the musical goal wasn’t to write about the moon but instead to draw on the artworks’ juxtaposition of something earthly and otherworldly and that filtered memory and emotion locked up in an artifact of the artists’ childhood.

“An interesting thing in how you observe the pieces — and something that [BMA Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman] brought to my attention — is in a lot of these pieces the artist is trying to distill a moment in time that you could experience as the viewer,” she said. “It’s like a snapshot of that moment, but while you are looking at it, it’s like you are within a moment that is frozen.”

The way we experience art in person also came into play with a work like Auguries by Julie Mehretu. Auguries is massive in scale measuring more than 15-feet long, and Clyne said it’s a very different feeling seeing a picture of the artwork online and having it dwarf you in person. Mehretu’s piece is divided into 10 panels and has something of a musical history as it was selected to be a centerpiece of an exhibition called “Notations After the Ring” that accompanied a 2010 production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle by the Metropolitan Opera.

“To me it looked like a graphic score. The way I tried to initially approach that was to interpret that musically as if it were a score going left to right,” Clyne said. “I had to abandon that idea. When you look at a painting, it's not a time-based art. It's an overall impression. I think it was a really good theory, but it just didn't end up working.”

With that idea dropped — though she muses it would be fun to put each panel in front of an orchestra as sheet music with instructions to improvise based on the art in each — Clyne decided to instead focus on the shifting forms and energetic gestures of Mehretu’s work. While working on that movement, Clyne printed out copies of each panel to lay on the floor of her New York City apartment so that the scale of the work continued to make an impression on her.

“It was massive — well, relative to a New York apartment,” she said. “But I had it on the floor and would just stand on it while I was listening back.”

The thread that ties all five works together for Clyne is a limited color palette, references to nature and a theme of art capturing and freezing the flow of time in a way where the viewer can observe and contemplate it.

A look through Clyne’s resume suggests she is well suited to meld visual art with music. A recent New York Times profile called her a “composer who creates with images.” In that article, it describes an early draft of the British-born composer’s work Night Ferry, which before turning into a score existed as a series of mixed-media collages on her studio’s wall that functioned as a musical timeline. She regularly collaborates with artists outside her medium, and in 2014, she released a DVD for her 2009 piece The Violin that featured stop motion animation artist Josh Dorman.

However, Abstractions is the first time Clyne set the challenge for herself of responding directly to fixed pieces of art. To Clyne, these artworks offered a window into their collectors, to whom the piece honors.

But responding to finished artworks is very different than collaborating with an artist where each adapt and adjust their art in the process to complement one another. The artworks that inspired Abstractions often time had certain energy and motion to them that Clyne said demanding something from her musically that was non-negotiable.

“I couldn't get away with writing something quiet [if the artwork had a strong energy],” she said. “The image was not going to change to accommodate me.”

That’s not to say that Abstractions did not have a collaborative thread, which Clyne so often finds in her projects. Clyne said that it was a luxury knowing the ensemble she was writing for where she could ask musicians questions about technical elements in the piece or being able to picture BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney playing a section or imagining Maestra Marin Alsop conducting a passage.

“That was really helpful from a composer’s perspective,” she said.

Similarly she said one of the wonderful parts of the process, was becoming friends with Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff to learn more about contemporary art and specific artists and to understand the often personal stories behind a piece of art they collected.

“It’s a celebration of them as a couple as well,” Clyne said. “Those pieces of art have a lot of meaning for them both personally and artistically, and I hope that some of that is captured in the music.”