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Composer Anna Clyne, a radical melodist with a painter's eye

Composer Anna Clyne — one of the most performed living composers — embraces melody in her music as a vehicle to connect with listeners.
Christina Kernohan
Courtesy of the artist
Composer Anna Clyne — one of the most performed living composers — embraces melody in her music as a vehicle to connect with listeners.

There was a time not long ago in the classical music world when melody was considered passé. Young composers making their way through academia were encouraged to leave hummable tunes behind in favor of atonal angularity, a style embraced by early 20th century modernists likeArnold Schoenberg and dutifully imposed on succeeding generations.

That era has given way to a more open-minded approach, where a composer such asAnna Clyne can thrive. The 44-year-old London native, who now lives on three rural acres in New Paltz, N.Y., believes that melody is a fundamental way to tap into emotions that connect to listeners. Two fine examples are Within Her Arms, a moving piece for string orchestra which rivals English pastoralists like Ralph Vaughan Williams in its expansive, lyrical lines and richly upholstered harmony, and her cello concerto DANCE, where the soloist makes the instrument sing sublimely, high above the orchestra.

Clyne hasn't traveled a conventional path. In college, she planned to study literature, but made a last-minute switch to music — and though she'd experimented with writing small pieces as a child, she was already 20 before attending her first formal lessons in composition. After moving to New York in 2002, she worked as a florist and flirted with investment banking. Her career sparked after she met Steve Reich, who read her scores and introduced her music toJohn Adams. Now Clyne is peaking: As one of the most performed living composers, she fields commissions from major orchestras and institutions, and within the past seven months she's welcomed five major world premieres, including a new piano concerto debuting March 28 with soloistJeremy Denk and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

These days, Clyne composes in a quaint brown cottage on her property that she calls her "hobbit house." Inside are an upright piano, a table lamp fashioned out of a post horn, a large computer monitor, photographs ofJohn Cage andIgor Stravinsky and books ranging from Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential to the Dalai Lama's An Introduction to Buddhism. From her studio, Clyne joined a video chat to talk about the potency of melody, her newest concerto and how the pandemic is still changing music.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: One of your teachers, the composer Julia Wolfe, told me that her approach to her work is never about trying to write the perfect symphony. Instead, she said, "I'm trying to find a way to express myself that feels full of discovery." Is composing an act of self-expression for you?

Anna Clyne: If a piece is genuine, then we're accessing something from within ourselves. But for me, it's a bit like being a movie director. If you're trying to evoke a certain thing, it's not always something that's within you. Sometimes I write very dark, turbulent music, which doesn't necessarily mean that's a reflection of my inner world — it's a reflection of my curiosity to evoke a range of different emotions. And if I'm cheerful most of the time, I don't want to be always writing cheerful music. I hope that my music connects with people on an emotional level, because that's what I'm trying to tap into.

Your music is unabashedly melodic, and you've said that as you grow older, melody has become more important.

I think it's a way to connect human beings. Perhaps a controversial statement is that music is a universal language, but there's something about melody that connects to the human voice.

As a bit of context, I didn't grow up in a house with classical music, but I did grow up around a lot of folk and jazz music; that sense of melody is very much linked to my very early memories. In my early 20s I explored a lot with textural, non-melodic music, which I love. But the older I get, the more I lean into melodic writing. And that's part of the reason that my music does connect with others.

Does that mean music that isn't melodic has less of a chance of connecting with people?

I don't think one is better or than the other — just different ways of connecting. Perhaps it's less about melody as it is about emotion. And different composers have different tools to connect with their audiences. I find emotional connection through melody, but melody can vary.

Think ofSteve Reich's music, for example. The hocketed rhythms create these little undulating, melodic ideas on the surface of a very rich, textural sound world. The way I would use melody is perhaps more overt. But also I'm thinking of the music ofKaija Saariaho, which is much more textural, but is deeply emotive. It's very interesting how we respond to colors in the orchestra. Very hazy harmonics can affect us really physically, as can experiencing very low, earthy tones.

When I was preparing for our conversation, my mind shifted to another composer named Anna — the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, who is about your age but whose work has a very different take on beauty. Do you see her music as being the opposite of yours, in terms of its raw sonic qualities?

They're very different. But I remember seeing her manuscripts, which are beautiful. I think she also starts with pencil and paper; there's something very organic about that. I haven't had a conversation with her, but I imagine perhaps the process is similar in terms of thinking a lot about the music before writing it, and thinking about what is the inspiration: Is it a human interaction, is it something in nature? All composers share the fact that it's an incredibly solitary endeavor, so the results are very different. But her music is incredibly beautiful and powerful.

It makes me think of how much I'd love to hear a concert made up of just your music and hers. Do you think any orchestra would take that on?

I think there are a lot of forward-thinking orchestras ready to have contemporary music as the meat and potatoes of a concert, rather than starting with a five-minute contemporary piece, then Beethoven and Mozart filling out the rest. I am currently composer-in-residence with the Helsinki Philharmonic and we have a concert coming up in May that features music by Thea Musgrave, myself and Hannah Eisendle, a younger female composer. I think bringing women together is a really strong statement.

Just a few years ago, it was not uncommon for even the big orchestras — Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra — to have no women composers represented. We're seeing a shift in that now, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.

My two major teachers were women: In Edinburgh when I was younger, my teacher was Marina Adamia, the Georgian composer; and at the Manhattan School of Music I studied with Julia Wolfe. To have those as my role models in my formative years, I really didn't think about gender — I just thought of myself as a composer, rather than a female composer. Of course, with hindsight, at Manhattan School of Music there were five of us and I was the only female.

But I feel my generation owes a lot to the generation before us who have laid the groundwork, and it's now our responsibility to develop things further. I consider that an essential part of my teaching — mentoring the next generation of composers, doing what I can to create opportunities for women and people from underrepresented backgrounds in general.

Julia Wolfe has also told me she thinks of herself as a renegade composer. Your use of what you call the "augmented orchestra" is pretty radical in its own way.

When I first started as a composer, I was doing a lot of electro- acoustic music, combining pre-recorded elements with live acoustic instruments. I put the electronics aside in about 2010 when I started my residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was an opportunity to really refine my craft writing for acoustic instruments. Then, I was thinking about the next curious thing to explore. What does radical mean but to try new things and to not be fearful of failing?

I'm currently developing the augmented orchestra with sound designer Jody Elff, who also happens to be my husband. The idea is to expand the sound world through live processing. It's not looping, it's not amplification, it's not sample-based, but it's, for example, taking an oboe and pitch-shifting it up an octave. You'd think, well, a flute or piccolo could play that high, but the quality of the sound of a double reed versus a flute is very different. It accesses new colors that are not possible with the standard orchestra, both in terms of pitch — like dropping the double bass an octave to create rich, organ-like pedal tones — but also time. We're currently working on a piece called PALETTE that is the most ambitious implementation of augmented orchestra so far.

Anna Clyne at a rehearsal in 2023 for her violin concerto <em>Time and Tides</em>, with soloist Pekka Kuusisto (right) and conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
/ Helsinki Philharmonic
Helsinki Philharmonic
Anna Clyne at a rehearsal in 2023 for her violin concerto Time and Tides, with soloist Pekka Kuusisto (right) and conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

You mentioned there wasn't much classical music in your house growing up. Was there a piece or two that first captured your attention and made you fall in love with the music?

I fell in love with classical music through playing it. When I was 7, some friends of our family gave us a piano. It had some randomly missing keys, so I would avoid those, but as soon as I started playing, I would start writing as well. The first piece I learned was Beethoven's "Für Elise" and Mozart's Sonata in C. Then a few years later, I remember being at home in the kitchen and my mom said, "Here's a letter from school asking if you want to participate in group cello lessons." I didn't know much about the cello, but I loved it. So my school and my music lessons were really my introduction to classical music outside of my home. And I've loved writing these concertos — the piano concerto and the cello concerto — as opportunities to reconnect with these instruments as an adult.

You started composing pieces when you were 7? How did you know how to arrange the notes on the page? Did reading music come natural for you?

It did. Printers have developed a lot over the years, but when I was young, they had the paper with the little holes along the side. I remember ripping off pieces of that, getting a pencil and writing the five lines and then filling in the notes — with all the stems going backwards and everything upside down, but I knew what it meant. And with time, my notation skills improved.

You've come a long way since then, though I read that when you first moved to New York you were still very much working side jobs. What was it like trying to get your music performed then?

I'm not from a wealthy background, so I've always had to fund my own way in this path. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I worked as a cleaner for the building to lower my rent. I also worked at quite a renowned florist, a shop at the Ritz called Jane Packer, in my 20s while working as an assistant to another composer and also being a director for the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra's Young Composers Program. So, juggling a lot of different things and composing at night. But I was very fortunate that when coming to New York, I met an incredibly exciting and collaborative network of artists.

At some point you must have gotten that quintessential "break" where your music was noticed.

The summer after I graduated from Manhattan School of Music, I had no idea how I was going to stay afloat, especially in such an expensive city as New York. I went to the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, and Steve Reich was the guest composer. He met with the young composers and offered to look at our music, but I was too shy at the time and couldn't bring myself to do it.

Several months later, there was a Bang on a Can production at BAM in Brooklyn, and at the little afterparty I built up the courage to go up to him. He asked me to send him something, so I sent him a score of my piece Rewind. Time passed, but then I got an email saying "You are a good composer" in the subject heading. It was from Steve Reich, and he said, "My instinct is a gut instinct that you are the real deal." He gave me incredibly thoughtful feedback on my piece and he offered to connect me with John Adams in his capacity as a conductor. That introduced my music to the San Francisco Symphony, and led to a commission from Carnegie Hall, which through other things led to a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So that email is one that I will always treasure.

Anna Clyne in an art studio.  Painting, she says, has helped her think about structure and color in her musical compositions.
Melanie Delgado / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Anna Clyne, at an art studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Painting, she says, has helped her think about structure and color in her musical compositions.

Your latest piece, a piano concerto titled Atlas, receives its world premiere on March 28 at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra with pianist Jeremy Denk. It's another one of your pieces connected to the visual arts, in this case the work of the German artist Gerhard Richter. What drew you to his massive project, also called Atlas, and how did you choose among the images for inspiration? There are about 800 panels in that collection, covered in some 5,000 images.

I've always loved Gerhard Richter's work, and going through Atlas I thought, this could actually be an interesting point of departure for a musical composition: It already provides the structure, in that it's in four volumes. Then I just systematically went through the collection and selected images that caught my eye. They range from spheres and moons to landscapes and cityscapes to paintings to architectural drawings. I wrote a response to them, but a very abstracted response, taking the listener on a journey.

The real inspiration was Jeremy Denk, who is an incredible musician, a virtuoso and a wonderful collaborator. His repertoire ranges from very early music to very contemporary music, so I was able to explore a lot of different styles through that process and write a piece tailored to him.

You're something of a painter yourself: I've seen your posts on Facebook exploring colors — emerald green, most recently — and you have created your own paintings to guide your music, including a piece titled Night Ferry that you wrote for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

That was my first large-scale orchestral work, and also the longest piece I had written. As a composer, at the beginning of the process, I think about structure and form in order to give a framework in which to develop musical ideas. The first idea I had was an image of a dark, turbulent wave. I thought, what if I try to express that visually, and then translate it into music? In my studio in Chicago, I put up seven large connected panels, and each panel represented three minutes. So I painted the first three minutes; it was a combination of illustration, paint and poetry from Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. And then I translated that into very turbulent music. I wrote a couple more minutes of music, and then translated that visually. By the end of this very symbiotic process, I had both a 25-minute composition and a 15-foot-long mural. That was my first instance of using it as a tool in an integrated way, as I am doing now, revisiting that concept with PALETTE.

A section of a 15-foot-long mural Anna Clyne painted in 2011, which she used as inspiration in composing <em>Night Ferry</em> for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Todd Rosenberg / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
A section of a 15-foot-long mural Anna Clyne painted in 2011, which she used as inspiration in composing Night Ferry for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

You mentioned that, in 2010, you started a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you have current residencies, as well. What changes for you, as a composer, when you are practically embedded in the orchestra?

When you write for an orchestra, it's usually this anonymous mass of people you don't have a connection to. Whereas when you have a residency, you actually get to know a lot of the musicians within the orchestra, and you're able to find inspiration in that. I hadn't written much for harp before Night Ferry, so I met with the harpist and she showed me techniques that were new to me, including threading paper through the strings and hitting them, which is now part of the opening gesture of Night Ferry. It's such a gift to be able to write to the principal trumpet to say, "Here's an excerpt. Is this playable? If it's not playable, is there a way to make it more idiosyncratic?"

And yet so few young composers actually have that opportunity to be in a residency. How can we change that?

Obviously, it's an expensive endeavor. And while I wish there were a way to have those resources be available to a wider pool of composers, I think also the next closest thing is for those of us who have had that experience to integrate teaching as part of our compositional and artistic life. That's important for me, to be able to share the things I have learned from these extraordinary musicians with the next generation. So if I'm looking at a young composer's score, I can see things that might be problematic or make suggestions in terms of orchestration choices without imposing my own voice on them. Mentoring is an important part of that equation.

What kinds of things can you imagine being inspired about in the future?

I'm looking to work on larger-scale collaborations — ballets, operas and growing technology. I'm very excited about this work, PALETTE, because of the experimentation with the augmented orchestra. In the piece, we're making clarinets sound like electric guitars, making double basses sound like they're going through distortion and overdrive. I want to push that into new contexts in bigger venues, and bring voices into the equation.

It's been a rough few years since the pandemic started. What has it been like writing music during the era of COVID?

While I was acutely aware that it was a devastating tragedy for the world, my personal experience was that it gave me the gift of time, because suddenly travel ground to a halt for several years; all of my teaching became online. In 2020, I wrote 15 pieces of music, of which several were large-scale works.

Also, the pandemic coincided with a big lifestyle change: I moved from Brooklyn to New Paltz, which is a much more rural area. We have a little house, but it's on three acres of property and we have adopted a dog. I was concerned that, when I left the city, I wouldn't have the energy and inspiration of city life, but I've actually found it to be the opposite — having this peace and quiet and space has been incredibly conducive to composing. So that, combined with the pandemic, provided actually a very fertile environment.

It's also been rough for orchestras and opera companies: financial troubles, trouble just getting people to come out and attend a show. Some have predicted audiences will never be as robust as they were before. Where do you see things heading?

The way we experience concerts has shifted. We are now more comfortable watching content online, and I love that — because, instantly, you have a global audience which is beyond the capacity of the concert hall. I'm from England and I have a lot of friends and family there, and during the pandemic, they were able to come to some of these concerts, which they never would have experienced.

So I think it's a combination. You can never beat the in-person experience, knowing that you're with other people around you and feeling the vibration of that live music. But audiences are coming back, and perhaps we appreciate it even more after having been deprived of it.

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Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.