The New York Times
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
April 17, 2015
When Anna Clyne was working on her first big orchestral piece, she invited one of her composition teachers, Julia Wolfe, to look at her drafts. But when Ms. Wolfe arrived at Ms. Clyne’s studio in Chicago, where she had just begun a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ms. Wolfe found no sketches written out on music manuscript paper or drafted with any of the software programs commonly used by composers. Instead, “The wall had a painting across it,” Ms. Wolfe remembers. “It was done in a series of panels that went across her studio, and she said, ‘This is my piece.’ ”
Ms. Clyne, 35, the subject of the Miller Theater’s final Composers Portrait of the season on Thursday, is a composer of uncommon gifts and unusual methods. That series of paintings — actually mixed-media collages — has since been translated into music with the resulting tenebrous, roiling piece “Night Ferry,” recorded by the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Riccardo Muti.
Ms. Clyne is at work on a chamber opera about the poet Emily Dickinson, parts of which will be performed at Miller by the Ensemble Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman. This time, Ms. Clyne used facsimiles of letters by Dickinson to jump-start the creative process, projecting her handwriting onto a wall and retracing the magnified letters with an indelible marker. The end product — fastidiously constructed compositions that typically carry a potent emotional charge — bears no traces of these playful beginnings, although Ms. Wolfe remembers Ms. Clyne turning in scores that were beautifully lettered and bound by hand. But there is a distinct sense of shape and momentum to her music that grows out of a creative process rooted in image and movement.
Ms. Clyne’s attention to craft across different media is all the more noteworthy because she started out as a composer of electronic music — an intangible art form. Ms. Clyne, who was born in London, spoke about her creative process during a recent interview over tea and McVitie’s biscuits in her sunlit apartment in Brooklyn. To avoid becoming bogged down in habit and “tendencies,” she seeks out conversations across disciplines — whether in collaboration with choreographers and visual artists or, as in the case of the “Night Ferry” collages, with her own inner painter.
“It was like a timeline,” she said of the seven panels, which each represented three minutes of music. “I knew I wanted it to have a very turbulent beginning. I’d paint that, and then I’d write it. It would keep me on track.”
The Miller program includes “Fits and Starts,” for solo cello and electronics, which she wrote for the choreographer Kitty McNamee and in which an increasingly lyrical and impassioned cello line coalesces out of skittish and distorted beginnings. In a phone interview, Ms. McNamee described Ms. Clyne’s musical language as “very visual,” adding: “It has incredible tension and release, which is very helpful to me. It has great shape to it.”
Last year, Ms. Clyne released “The Violin,” an extraordinarily beautiful and moving DVD with dreamlike stop-motion animation by the painter Josh Dorman.
The music for that project is an elegy for Ms. Clyne’s mother, who died in 2008. Shortly after the funeral Ms. Clyne was in Oxford, England, where, in the window of a thrift shop, she spotted a baroque-style violin with an elaborately carved scroll in the shape of a gargoyle. She bought it for 5.99 pounds (about $9 today). That violin inspired a series of works written for strings and imbued with a deep sense of loss and mourning. Stylistically, they carry echoes of English Renaissance music, folk traditions and Britten, while possessing the startlingly three-dimensional quality of sound that is a hallmark of Ms. Clyne’s music.
When he worked on “The Violin,” Mr. Dorman said, he didn’t know much about the private pain at the root of the pieces. “The music gave me a feeling of sadness, but my goal wasn’t to illustrate that or give it some sort of narrative,” he said.
The violinist Jennifer Koh first discovered Ms. Clyne’s music through a live recording of “Within Her Arms,” a lament for string orchestra sufficiently poignant for critics to draw comparisons to Barber’s Adagio. “I do a lot of contemporary music.” Ms. Koh said. “Sometimes things reach you and it’s colorful or intricate or structured in an interesting way or the orchestration is wonderful. But the extraordinary thing about Anna’s music is that it is incredibly moving. And I hadn’t had that reaction for a long time.”
Ms. Koh has since commissioned a number of works from Ms. Clyne, including a violin concerto, “The Seamstress,” which will receive its world premiere in Chicago in May. The work is based on a Yeats poem about a coat made out of song and “covered with embroideries/out of old mythologies.” Ms. Clyne did not take up needle and thread in drafting this work, but the cover page of the score features a drawing she made of a seamstress. A vintage Singer sewing machine stands on the mantel of her uncluttered studio, below framed photographs of Stravinsky, Cage and the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, all caught in moments of intense listening.
“In these three photos, there’s a real peacefulness and a quiet concentration,” Ms. Clyne said. “And I also try to really pay attention to sound. That’s why it’s incredibly time consuming how I compose. But if you really take the time to get into the sound, people connect with it.”
Ms. Clyne grew up on a housing estate in Abingdon, near Oxford; her mother was a midwife, and music was not a regular presence in the family. But she took cello lessons and studied music at the University of Edinburgh. She began composition lessons during a year abroad at Queen’s University in Ontario. “It was late to start,” she said, “but I already knew what I wanted to say.”
How to say it was often a matter of practical constraints. Ms. Clyne’s early works for choreographers, using a mix of acoustic instruments and electronics, were often shaped by budgetary concerns.
“The thing with choreographers is they have so little money,” said Ms. Clyne, who worked as a florist and a cleaner in her early years in New York. “With electroacoustic music you can have a piece for acoustic cello and a prerecorded track that has a very rich sound world. So that’s a practical reason for doing that. Electronics allows you to have that impact. And choreographers love to turn it up really loud.”
These days, Ms. Clyne is just as likely to receive commissions for extravagant orchestrations. She is at work on a piece for 100 cellos, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, that is to be performed at the Hollywood Bowl in May 2016. The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has championed her music, as has Mr. Muti, who in an email wrote of the “great potential” he saw in Ms. Clyne, “whose compositional voice speaks to a wide array of influences and culture.”
Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has conducted works by Ms. Clyne, like “Within Her Arms” and the five-minute “Masquerade,” which grew out of a commission Ms. Alsop gave to the composer. That sort of versatility, Ms. Alsop said, “is the mark of real talent, someone who can write a long-form piece that is deeply moving and then a right-between-the-eyes barn burner of a showpiece.”
Maintaining stylistic flexibility along with a distinct, personal voice remains one of Ms. Clyne’s prime concerns. Despite the critical success of the string-heavy music she wrote in the years after her mother’s death, she says she is “violined out” and keen to return to electronic composition.
On her computer are drafts for a work for chamber ensemble and taped spoken word, featuring the voice of John Cage. On the desk are a pair of headphones, which Ms. Clyne will wear to listen to draft versions of her piece while walking, gesturing, dancing through the room.
“It’s a way to connect to the physicality of the music,” she said. “I’ll put this on and not look at the score and just move to see if it feels right.” She’s not a dancer any more than she is a painter, and said she would be “mortified” if anyone saw her doing it. But it’s a process she trusts — at least for now, for this piece. At any rate, she said, “I’m having to invent things each time.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 19, 2015, on page AR15 of the New York edition with the headline: A Composer Who Creates With Images.
Copyright ©2015 The New York Times