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First Person: Anna Clyne on composing collaborations, not battles, in her latest concertos | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Anna Clyne on composing collaborations, not battles, in her latest concertos

First Person: Anna Clyne on composing collaborations, not battles, in her latest concertos

UK premiere of 'Weathered' for clarinettist Martin Fröst is among a series of new works

Anna Clyne: 'It's important to recognise women and underrepresented people and to create opportunities to have their voices heard'Christina Kernohan

Collaboration fuels a lot of my music – I love the interaction that takes me outside of my natural tendencies – it’s a source of inspiration and an opportunity to see my own music and creative process through a different lens.

This past season I had the joy of collaborating with exceptional musicians as I’ve expanded my catalogue of concertos. These have included Glasslands for saxophonist Jess Gillam, Time and Tides for violinist Pekka Kuusisto, ATLAS for pianist Jeremy Denk, and Weathered for clarinetist Martin Fröst – the latter of which is a co-commission between the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic, Verbier Festival and the Philharmonia who will give the UK premiere tomorrow, 23 March, at the Royal Festival Hall.

Whilst composing these concerti, I spent time contemplating the role of the soloist in relation to the orchestra, and wanting to break down that disconnect – it’s still a dialogue, but a more collaborative exchange rather than a battle between the soloist and the orchestra. In an atypical approach, I use the orchestra to amplify the sonorities of the solo instrument. For example, in the first movement of my cello concerto DANCE, the cello is playing extremely high in the register. I double this with flute and vibraphone which both gives some more body to the soloist and alters the colour.

Watch Inbal Segev playing the first movement of DANCE with Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra

This layering of sounds stems from my early electroacoustic work, which comprised a lot of my output in my twenties. I fused live musicians with pre-recorded tracks, samples, and live processing as can be heard on my album Blue Moth. I set electronics aside for a good 10 years in order to focus on acoustic instrumental writing, attempting to emulate electronic processes such as reverb, delays, time expansion and compression through acoustic orchestration. My process of composing is to orchestrate as I compose; the orchestration is integral to realising the sound worlds that I imagine in my mind from the start.

Another consideration when writing a concerto is whether to include a cadenza. One of the challenges about writing a concerto is learning the idiosyncrasies of the solo instrument. My primary instrument is cello, so writing for a clarinet requires more preparatory work, and regardless of how much time I invest in that, I will never be as knowledgeable as a soloist such as Martin Fröst in Weathered. So, for his cadenza I gave him free rein to improvise a cadenza based on motifs from the concerto. I love this incredibly virtuosic moment in the concerto.

Watch Yo-Yo Ma playing Clyne's In the Gale as part of The Birdsong Project

Time and Tides, a new violin concerto for Pekka Kuusisto, draws inspiration from four folk tunes. I I had the title from the very beginning – inspired by the lyrics of "The Blackest Crow" as performed by Bruce Molsky and Julie Fowlis. I also draw upon Pekka’s virtuosity as both a classical and folk musician; I notated a soft harmonic cycle in the strings, above which he improvises based on motifs from that movement. For my concerti that do include a cadenza, I like to place it at the heart of the piece – in the middle movement.

I often turn to non-musical sources while composing – as in my forthcoming piano concerto ATLAS, which is inspired by a monumental four-volume publication mapping the ideas and processes of German artist Gerhard Richter. I am also fascinated by mythology and folklore which in part inspires both Glasslands and Time and Tides. Glasslands, a saxophone concerto premiered by Jess Gillam last month, conjures an imaginary world of three realms governed by the banshee – a female spirit who, in Irish folklore, heralds the death of a family member, usually by wailing, shrieking, or keening in the silence of the night.

But it is not always other art forms that inspire my work – sometimes it is current social and humanitarian global crises such as climate change that inspires Weathered, a work that touches on our shared experiences of the COVID pandemic and the alarm of global warming. Sometimes the title will guide a composition – I may decide upon it at the very beginning of the process or it may reveal itself as the music unfolds.

Watch Elim Chan conduct Philharmonia strings in Within Her Arms

I am delighted to be the Featured Composer for the Philharmonia’s 2022-23 Season. During this time, they have performed three of my orchestral works – Masquerade, This Midnight Hour, and Color Field – and my clarinet concerto, Weathered. One of the highlights of an orchestral residency is that it allows for a more personal connection with an orchestra – the musicians, conductors and the administration. In the case of Weathered – whilst I was writing the music, I was in touch with musicians from the orchestra to check that certain passages were playable – learning from the musicians themselves as part of the development of the work. This allows an opportunity to bring orchestra members into the development of a new composition through a collaborative relationship.

During the writing of Weathered, Martin Fröst was also an important collaborator. Before the first note was written, Martin and I met on a Zoom call so that he could share a variety of extended techniques that were new to me – such as singing at the same time as playing, harmonics, the agility of certain licks, and the possibilities at the extreme highest register of the instrument. Following this, I wrote five sketches for solo clarinet and after each one was complete, Martin and I met again to share feedback on the sketches – what could, for example, be altered to make it more idiosyncratic. I then went on to expand my favorite parts of those sketches, expanding them out within the context of the orchestra.

My collaborative work also extends beyond the orchestral world. For example, Between the Rooms, a chamber opera created in collaboration with filmmaker and choreographer Kim Brandstrup, explores the inner world of the American poet Emily Dickinson – an artist who strove to find her voice in a time when women’s voices were not commonly published or recognised.

Watch Between the Rooms in one of LA Opera's Digital Shorts

I feel strongly that it is important to recognise women and underrepresented people and to create opportunities to have their voices heard. A recent example of this is my curation of two of the Philharmonia’s Music of Today concerts which features chamber music by cutting edge composers from around the world – Nathalie Joachim, Grace-Evangeline Mason, Jessie Montgomery, Paola Prestini and Caroline Shaw. I have also had the pleasure of offering two masterclasses for the Philharmonia’s Composers’ Academy, which this year focuses on themes of social change and how music can be used and influence social justice and societal issues with participating composers Nneka Cummins, Jamie Man and Arthur Keegan-Bole.

Future works will bring a new element into my work – The Augmented Orchestra (AO), an immersive sonic experience whereby the sounds produced by the orchestra are augmented by computer-controlled processes such as tone, amplitude, dynamics, location and environment. The augmentation is integrated with the physical orchestra such that it is perceived as a natural extension of the source, and a fundamental component of the composition itself. I have been developing the AO with audio engineer and sound designer Jody Elff, who is also my husband, which makes for a very efficient research and development process! I am very excited to have an opportunity to reintegrate electronics and electronic processing into my music with the AO – combining my earlier experiences with electro-acoustic music with over a decade of orchestral writing. Stay tuned for a very exciting collaborative AO project ahead…

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