You really feel the individuality of the musicians in this Orchestra, how they relate to each other, their relationships with each other as an ensemble. And that’s something I’ll very much have in mind when I’m writing for them. - Anna Clyne
Born in London, the SCO’s incoming Associate Composer, Anna Clyne now makes her home in New York. She has worked all over the world, including highprofile residencies with the Chicago and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras, and the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France. But it was Scotland – specifically Edinburgh – that gave Clyne many of her formative musical experiences.
“I was a student in Edinburgh from 1998 to 2002,” she explains, “and it’s great to be coming back.” What does she remember about her undergraduate years? She points to one particular aspect of her studies as making a direct impact on her later work. “In my third and fourth years we did a lot of community music with Nigel Osborne. I remember going to a school for kids with learning disabilities, and we also went out to the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, and to Sarajevo. It was an incredible experience.
And an experience that has informed many of Clyne’s later activities. “In previous residencies I’ve had,” she continues, “community music has been a really big component. In Chicago, for example, I was involved in a project that went out to a nearby prison, and I partnered with an art therapist in a residential facility for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
Community music in its broadest sense – taking music out of the concert hall, engaging with audiences who might seldom consider attending a conventional event – is something Clyne is keen to continue in her new relationship with the SCO. “We’re still discussing specifics,” she admits, ‘but we’ve talked about taking some of my pieces into schools, and I really hope there might be some way of working with and mentoring young composers in Scotland.”
But despite the increasing importance of community work, Clyne’s main relationship with the SCO will be as a composer. And it’s in that role that she’s already achieved remarkable success, in a surprisingly short space of time. Where did it all begin for her? “I think I first started writing music when I was about seven,” she muses. “My parents gave the family a piano but it had some missing keys, so I avoided those. I remember making my own manuscript paper out of that old computer paper with holes down the side, and writing very simple pieces for myself and my friends to play. I had my first piece performed – it was for flute and piano – when I was 11, as part of an Oxford Youth Prom.”
Remarkably, however, Clyne didn’t have a formal composition lesson until her third year at university, which she spent at Queen’s University in Ontario, on an exchange programme run by the University of Edinburgh. She later continued her composition studies south of the border, at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. All that time, however, she feels she’d been thinking as a composer: “They asked me at my Manhattan interview why I wanted to study composition there, and I remember replying that I felt I knew what I wanted to say, but that I didn’t necessarily have the tools to do it.”
Since then, she’s received commissions from performers including the London Sinfonietta and percussionist Colin Currie, as well as from the BBC Proms – her virtuosic showpiece Masquerade made a huge impact when it was premiered at the Last Night in 2013. Another BBC project has been the inclusion of her dark and turbulent orchestral piece Night Ferry in the BBC Ten Pieces project, designed to open up classical music in the classroom for 7- to 14-year-olds.
It’s with another of her most widely performed pieces that she launches her relationship with the SCO on 7 and 8 November. Prince of Clouds is an exquisitely tender double violin concerto, with Pekka Kuusisto and Benjamin Marquise Gilmore as soloists at its SCO performances. “It was commissioned as a partner piece for the Bach Double Violin Concerto,” Clyne explains, “and I wrote is specifically for violinist Jennifer Koh and her teacher Jaime Laredo. I was reflecting on the idea of musical lineage, so the piece is a dialogue between the two soloists, and also their interactions with the ensemble.”
Clyne partners Prince of Clouds with a brand new work, also written in response to existing music. Her Sound and Fury takes its inspiration from Haydn’s Symphony No 60 ‘Il distratto’, which concludes the same concert. “It wasn’t a symphony I knew,” she explains, ‘but I’ve really grown to love it. It’s in six movements, and for each of them I wrote down a few elements that caught my attention – maybe a rhythmic or
melodic idea, or a harmonic progression. Then I’ve broken my own piece down into six sections, each of which develops an idea from the Haydn symphony.” There’s another influence, however, on Clyne’s new piece, as its title indicates. “‘Il distratto’ reuses music that Haydn wrote for a play, so I also went down a literary route. The title comes from Macbeth’s final soliloquy, when he learns that his wife is dead, and I’ve tried to incorporate the soliloquy’s reflections on time – past, present and future – and its really interesting sense of rhythm.”
Clyne has other works in the pipeline for her three-year relationship with the SCO. “They’re all very different, and that’s what makes it really exciting,” she explains. ‘Sound and Fury is for chamber orchestra, but I’m also going to be writing an a cappella choral piece, and a piece for wind octet.’ And working closely with SCO musicians will be crucial in those works’ genesis, Clyne stresses. “You really feel the individuality of the musicians in this orchestra, how they relate to each other, their relationships with each other as an ensemble. And that’s something I’ll very much have in mind when I’m writing for them.”
Indeed, collaboration is something that Clyne considers central to her approach to creating music. “I’m actually working with a choreographer right now,” she explains. “I’m writing a section of music, and they’re sending me back the choreography, which I can then respond to in the next music I write. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”
And in fact, rhythm and movement are things she feels closely drawn to in creating music. “I think a lot about the physicality of sound. When I’m composing I have wireless headphones on and – well, I’m not a dancer, but I imagine I can dance, and if the music I’m writing feels right with a sense of movement, that really helps me with the pacing of a piece.”
She’s comfortable, too, to embrace gloriously consonant, tonal harmonies alongside harsher dissonance in her music. “I’m definitely drawn to modal harmonies,” she explains, “and to quite simple folk-like tunes. But I like to spin them out in different directions. In Sound and Fury, for instance, I took a four-chord progression that occurs in one of Haydn’s slow movements and looped it. It’s a very tonal section, but I’ve added quite dissonant, skittish flurries of sound that make it sound a bit uneasy. If something feels quite straightforward, it can be good to add another layer that kind of messes things up.”
Clyne is a unique figure in contemporary music, a composer who’s very open to inspiration and input from others while maintaining a distinctive, immediately approachable style all of her own. From the opening concert of her SCO residency in November, it’ll be fascinating to chart how her relationship with the Orchestra develops.