By Ricky O'Bannon
London-born composer Anna Clyne is working with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra throughout the upcoming season. Her piece Masquerade is programmed for the orchestra’s opening regular weekend, and Clyne will write a new work inspired by a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s contemporary wing, which is commissioned by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter “in honor and friendship of Rheda Becker and Robert E. Meyerhoff.”
Clyne has been commissioned and performed by orchestras all over the world, and she is known for a distinct approach to composing that sometimes begins with mixed-media collages. Most recently, Clyne held the position of Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2010 to 2015.
Your piece Masquerade, which will be performed by the BSO this weekend, was originally performed by Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2013. How did you approach writing Masquerade?
For me in terms of expectations of a piece, Masquerade was the biggest challenge for me. The Proms were always something I had seen from afar through the television, and it's such a national event. Usually when you are commissioned for a piece, they tell you what the instrumentation is and the duration — and that's it. This was the first time I'd ever had a contract that said, "the music is to be exuberant."
I wanted to write something celebratory and upbeat, so the main melody of the piece is “Juice of Barley,” which is an old English drinking song. It's kind of a raucous song, and then I wrote another melody where I imagined these people singing, "welcome to our masquerade." It was kind of a simple idea, but I wanted something celebratory with this trumpet fanfare and a lot of energy from the strings.
A lot of your work seems to find ideas in other art forms outside of music whether it’s visual art, film or dance. Is there something about collaborating with artists who aren’t necessarily musicians that you find particularly inspiring?
I think for me, collaboration — particularly with living performers whether they are choreographers or visual artists — gives you a different perspective on your own art form. I find it inspiring. In terms of visual art, this will be the first time I've actually taken an existing painting and responded to it. Usually if I work with a visual artist we would create two things together. So [drawing inspiration from an existing artwork for the BSO commission] is going to be really interesting.
There’s a story out there about you writing your first piece on a piano your family was gifted that was missing keys. Creativity is often about problem solving. Do you find it more fruitful to write when you have a problem to solve like missing piano keys or like with your piece <<rewind<<, figuring out how to conjure the image of a cassette tape rewinding through an orchestra?
I think that's a really good point. Creating parameters is important. The most challenging part of starting a piece of music is starting. The world is your oyster. Other than duration and instrumentation, you can do absolutely whatever you like it. So whether it is having to navigate around missing keys on a piano [or thinking about a concept, problem solving helps create those parameters.] A really moving example is Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, [which Messiaen wrote in a German POW camp in in WWII for a cello that was missing a string and a clarinet with a melted key.] So that becomes part of the character of the music.
How does your background in electro-acoustic and tape music inform the way you approach the orchestra?
For me, I hope the music is quite visual. For example in this piece I will write for the BSO, my hope is not to literally describe a specific place but more of that feeling of being in that environment or place and time. Having a background in electro-acoustic music, I started with combining pre-recorded electronic elements. When I'm creating that tape part for those pieces, it's fun for me to layer those different sounds and take the sound of a pizzicato string and stretch that out or layer it. It's the same way I approach orchestration. I might use more melody, but it's doubled in unusual ways [like I might layer recorded sounds.] The way I approach orchestrations is really sort of like painting sounds, so that the texture becomes an intimate part of the sound of the music itself.
You wrote your first piece for full orchestra in 2005. What have you learned about writing for that ensemble in the past decade?
I think I'm still playing with it. I hope I continue to always play, trying out things and be open to things not working, too. Sometimes you can feel the pressure of things being perfect. For me, I really learn from my mistakes as much as I do from things that work. Back to this piece for Baltimore, I'd like to try things I haven't tried before. Even with just my first day of working with this orchestra, something I love is the energy that they give everything whether it's Strauss or contemporary music. I've already been talking with Chris [Williams], the principal percussionist, and he's already shown me some interesting things. So I think it will be a great environment to try some things that are new and doing it with musicians who are open to giving feedback.
Speaking of collaboration, you’ve worked extensively with Marin Alsop. As a composer, how important is it to have that familiarity and working relationship that builds over time with a conductor?
I've been really fortunate because I feel like Marin was the first conductor to really take me under her wing. She's conducted all of my orchestral pieces so far with different orchestras. I feel like she really trusts me. She programmed my violin concerto before she even heard it. As a composer, it's rare to find a conductor that really genuinely cares about every detail. The past couple of pieces I wrote, I imagined her conducting them when I'm writing it. And that really helps. It's the same way if you write a concerto you want to imagine that soloist and the physicality of that.
A good example of that is my piece The Seamstress for violin and orchestra, which she did in Brazil a couple of months ago. I have this 5/8 section that's pretty fast, and I could just imagine her conducting that and [getting that groove.] Some people don't realize just how important that composer-conductor relationship is because there has to be a real sense of trust there in each other