The latest release from CSO Resound showcases Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy and Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry, recorded live at their 2012 premieres. Both works were commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and premiered under the baton of CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti.
In the liner notes, the composers discuss what inspired them to compose these works.
ANNA CLYNE ON NIGHT FERRY
I come to ferry you hence across the tide
To endless night, fierce fires and shramming cold.
To those who by the dint of glass and vapour,
Discover stars, and sail in the wind’s eye”
Night Ferry is music of voyages, from stormy darkness to enchanted worlds. It is music of the conjurer and setter of tides, the guide through the “ungovernable and dangerous.” Exploring a winding path between explosive turbulent chaoticism and chamber lyricism, this piece weaves many threads of ideas and imagery. These stem from Riccardo Muti’s suggestion that I look to Schubert for inspiration as Night Ferry premiered with Entr’acte No. 3 from Rosamunde and his Symphony No. 9 (Great).
The title, Night Ferry, came from a passage in Seamus Heaney’s Elegy for Robert Lowell, an American poet, who, like Schubert, suffered from manic depression:
You were our Night Ferry thudding in a big sea,
the whole craft ringing
with an armourer’s music
the course set wilfully across
the ungovernable and dangerous
More specifically, Schubert suffered from cyclothymia, a form of manic depression that is characterized by severe mood swings, ranging from agonizing depression to hypomania, a mild form of mania characterized by an elevated mood and often associated with lucid thoughts and heightened creativity. This illness sometimes manifests in rapid shifts between the two states and also in periods of mixed states whereby symptoms of both extremes are present. This illness shadowed Schubert throughout his adulthood, and it impacted and inspired his art dramatically. His friends report that in its most troublesome form, he suffered periods of “dark despair and violent anger.” Schubert asserted that whenever he wrote songs of love, he wrote songs of pain, and whenever he wrote songs of pain, he wrote songs of love. Extremes were an organic part of his makeup.
In its essence, Night Ferry is a sonic portrait of voyages: voyages within nature and of physical, mental and emotional states.
I decided to try a new process in creating this work — simultaneously painting the music, whilst writing it. On my wall, I taped seven large canvases, side by side, horizontally, each divided into three sub-sections. This became my visual timeline for the duration of the music. In correlation to composing the music, I painted from left to right, moving forward through time. I painted a section then composed a section, and vice-versa, intertwining the two in the creative process.
The process of unraveling the music visually helped to spark ideas for musical motifs, development, orchestration and in particular, structure. Similarly, the music would also give direction to color, texture and form. Upon the canvas I layered paint, charcoal, pencil, pen, ribbon, gauze, snippets of text from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, fragments of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for this wonderfully evocative poem, and a selection of quotes from artists afflicted with, and blessed by, this fascinating illness.
The first text written on the canvas, to the far left side, in the bottom left corner reads “from a slow and powerful root … somewhere on the sea floor.” These are a couple of lines, quoted out of order, from Rumi’s poem, Where Everything Is Music. Below is a passage from this beautiful poem, in translation by Coleman Barks. His words unite the profound depth, power and parallels of nature and the human existence, as conveyed in Heaney’s image of Lowell as a “Night Ferry.”
We have fallen into the place where everything is music …
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge of
driftwood along the beach, wanting!
from a slow and powerful root that we can’t see
In addition to the above, I also found inspiration from the extraordinary power of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Muti’s baton, and also the unique voices of the individual musicians within the orchestra. Writing for an orchestra is usually an anonymous endeavor, but I am in the fortunate position of knowing the musicians and their musical voices through this residency. I found myself not writing solely for the instruments, but for the specific musicians of the CSO. Thank you to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for this wonderful opportunity.
MASON BATES ON ALTERNATIVE ENERGY
Alternative Energy is an “energy symphony” spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rain forest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.
The idée fixe that links these disparate worlds appears early in Ford’s Farm, 1896. This melody is heard on the fiddle — conjuring a Henry Ford–like figure — and is accompanied by junkyard percussion and a “phantom orchestra” that trails the fiddler like ghosts. The accelerando cranking of a car motor becomes a special motif in the piece, a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever more powerful energy.
Indeed, this crank motif explodes in the electronics in the second movement’s present-day Chicago, where we encounter actual recordings from the Fermilab particle collider. Hip-hop beats, jazzy brass interjections and joyous voltage surges bring the movement to a clangorous finish.
Zoom a hundred years into the dark future of the Xinjiang Province, 2112, where a great deal of the Chinese energy industry is based. On an eerie wasteland, a lone flute sings a tragically distorted version of the fiddle tune, dreaming of a forgotten natural world. But a powerful industrial energy simmers to the surface, and over the ensuing hardcore techno, wild orchestral splashes drive us to a catastrophic meltdown. As the smoke clears, we find ourselves even farther into the future: an Icelandic rain forest on a hotter planet. Gentle, out-of-tune pizzicatos accompany our fiddler, who returns over a woody percussion ensemble to make a quiet plea for simpler times. The occasional song of future birds whips around us, a naturalistic version of the crank motif. Distant tribal voices call for the building of a fire — our first energy source.
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