Receiving an appointment as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a bit like being backed as chef de cuisine at a hot new restaurant on Randolph Street. How will you most effectively take advantage of this newfound access and opportunity?
As curators of the MusicNOW series, the CSO’s Mead Composers-in-Residence bring with them new flavors and trajectories in programming, and Anna Clyne and Mason Bates exit the position having transformed these Monday nights into even more popular, animated events. Found in the audience at shows across Chicago, Bates and Clyne have developed a buy-in to the city’s music scene, which has helped to build a loyal following back at MusicNOW. The pair head into the next phase of their compositional careers emboldened by their five years at the CSO.
Music writer Doyle Armbrust recently caught up with Clyne and Bates to talk about their Chicago venture, and what lies ahead.
During your tenure as composer-in-residence at the CSO, what was your singular highlight, personal or otherwise?
ANNA CLYNE: There have been so many wonderful experiences during my tenure as composer-in-residence at the CSO, but the highlight was hearing Night Ferry come to life for the first time under the direction of Maestro Riccardo Muti. There’s such a powerful and unique synergy between Maestro Muti and the musicians of the CSO, and it’s been a great honor to work with them. (The CSO will give the world-premiere performances of Clyne’s violin concerto, The Seamstress, with Jennifer Koh as soloist and Ludovic Morlot conducting, on May 28 and 30 and June 2.)
MASON BATES: The highlight for me is not one single moment, but rather the slow-motion explosion of MusicNOW over our five-year tenure.
It’s safe to say that there are many more bodies in chairs at MusicNOW concerts since your arrival. To what do you attribute this boost? What were your priorities in programming MusicNOW concerts?
CLYNE: In curating the MusicNOW concert series, Mason and I have been committed to programing a wide array of musical styles and genres that reflect the diversity of music today.
MusicNOW has also been a great platform for collaboration with choreographers, visual artists, and many wonderful guest conductors as well as with musicians from the CSO and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. We have also had the opportunity to develop the series in terms of the format — to reimagine the concert experience through an imaginative integration of lighting, staging and digitally projected program notes, which give a glimpse into the composers’ world.
The Harris Theater has been a great venue to facilitate this, and also to develop the social aspect of MusicNOW with pre- and post-concert parties in the lobby, providing an opportunity for audience members to meet and interact with the musicians, conductors, and composers. This combination of diversity in programming, collaboration with artists from other fields, reimagining the concert experience, and opening a social environment for audience members to meet the artists, has developed a diverse and enthusiastic audience.
BATES: The ever larger and more diverse audiences are a tribute both to the adventurous spirit of Chicagoans, and as well to the CSO for supporting us in provocative programming and complex production. Using technology and stagecraft to transform the program book has been a key part of engaging this boisterous and wonderful audience.
For a variety of reasons, many — if not most — young composers are writing for smaller ensembles, but this residency afforded you one of the world’s great orchestras as a collaborator. Did this give you a freedom to “go big”?
CLYNE: With unlimited access to rehearsals, concerts and scores at the extensive CSO library, this residency has been an incredible education and an opportunity to develop my technical skills in orchestration and to be exposed to such a breadth of music.
I’ve been fortunate to get to know the musicians of the CSO, which has made the process of writing for the CSO much more intimate. For example, if I’m writing a solo, I’m thinking of that particular musician — their unique sound and character. It has also allowed an opportunity to get some feedback while composing — to make passages more idiosyncratic for the instruments, and also to explore new sounds.
When I was writing Night Ferry, I met with the CSO’s principal harp, Sarah Bullen. She showed me how to create various unusual sounds, including the threading of paper through the strings which, when struck, creates a very percussive sound. This subsequently became part of the opening sonority for the piece.
One of my goals for the residency was to experiment with transferring compositional processes that I use in electro-acoustic music to acoustic orchestral composition, and through having the opportunity to work closely with the CSO musicians, I have been able to explore this.
BATES: American orchestras are more approachable and dynamic than many people realize, and I see many big symphonic opportunities out there for young composers. But it’s true that Maestro Muti and the CSO inspired us both to think big. For me, that came in the form of my most adventurous work — a time-traveling “energy symphony” — and coming in June, a setting of a magical-realist compendium of imaginary creatures.
You’ve done a good bit of worldwide traveling. Is there anything that is unique to Chicago within the realm of contemporary music?
CLYNE: Something that I find striking about Chicago is the openness of audiences to such a wide array of music. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the arts scene and the cross-pollination between artists from different fields and between institutions, which creates such fertile ground for new and innovative projects.
BATES: Because of the modernist focus that the CSO had for many years under Barenboim and Boulez, the classical community is more open to intensely maximalist music than anywhere I’ve been.
Is there a piece you wrote while here that you feel was specific to Chicago, or could have only been written as a composer-in-residence at the CSO?
BATES: Writing for Riccardo Muti — who is both a master conductor and a superb musical dramatist — I pushed my music further in the realm of the theatrical and surprising. For example, Alternative Energy sweeps through four eras and locations in telling the story of energy, and the upcoming Anthology of Fantastic Zoology uses all manner of spatial effects to conjure mythological creatures. (The CSO will give the world premiere performances of Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, conducted by Muti, on June 18-20.)
Why is it essential for an organization like the CSO to have a series like MusicNOW?
BATES: Beyond the very worthy goal of supporting new art, a new-music series allows the institution to take risks outside of its mainstage offerings. Experimenting in programming and production, we’ve been able to put several ideas on the artistic administrator’s desk that have a good chance of seeing implementation in Symphony Center.
What do you exit this residency with that you didn’t know entering it?
CLYNE: When I began my residency with the CSO, I was relatively new to the world of orchestral composition, so this has been a wonderful journey, and I have gathered many tools along the way. Curating MusicNOW has also been a new experience for me, and has opened my ears to a vast array of music.
The residency has also given me a deeper understanding and experience of the importance of music within our community through developing and creating new Citizen Musician™ projects with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute. These have included working at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville; the Merit School of Music, and most recently, at Mather Lifeways in Evanston, a memory-care facility for elderly residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia, where we developed a project that explores music and memory.
What is next for you, artistically? Did this tenure influence that trajectory?
CLYNE: My experiences and developments as a composer through my residency with the CSO have certainly influenced my upcoming projects, many of which focus on collaboration. I am currently developing a new ballet with choreographer Kitty McNamee and I am also continuing work on As Sudden Shut, a multimedia chamber opera that I am developing with animators and directors, the Quay Brothers, and librettist Steve Weiner. Two movements of this were commissioned by the CSO and premiered at MusicNOW, whereby I was offered the freedom to explore an unusual instrumentation. I am continuing my exploration of orchestral composition with a two-year residency at the Orchestre National d’Île de France in Paris. I am also continuing to explore unusual instrumentations and am currently at work on a new piece for a hundred cellos, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and will be premiered at the Hollywood Bowl in May 2016.
BATES: Next season, I begin my tenure in the newly created position of composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The position reaches across many disciplines, from ballet to opera to orchestra, but my basic mission remains similar to mine here: bring new art to new ears in imaginative ways.
Doyle Armbrust is a music writer for Crain’s Chicago Business and Q2 Music, and the violist of the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet.