With Anna Clyne’s <<rewind<< and Mason Bates’ Violin Concerto both scheduled for performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in April, the CSO Mead Composers-in-Residence took time to chat with Nick Winter, the CSO’s director of artistic administration, about their work in Chicago.

Maestro Muti has extended your residency, for a second time, to the end of the 2014/15 season. What has the residency meant to you so far — and what do you hope to accomplish in the remaining time?

Anna Clyne: The main thing I want to do in the remaining time is to continue to learn as a composer. It has been such an honor to have been appointed Mead Composer-in-Residence with Mason. Mason and I are both fortunate that Maestro Muti brought us together as a team. It’s quite unusual for two composers to work so well together, and we have enjoyed developing a collaboration and a friendship, which I am sure will continue.

The CSO, under guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, performs Anna Clyne’s <<rewind<< in concerts April 3-8.

It has been a dream experience to work with one of the greatest orchestras in the world; hearing them in rehearsals and performances with a whole range of conductors has really opened my ears  and eyes. In particular, it has been a real joy to hear Maestro Muti and the CSO — they have such a unique affinity with him — and a privilege to work with him on the premiere of my Night Ferry and on Mason’s Alternative Energy.

The residency offers a great opportunity to get to know the orchestra members individually and to take account of their unique musical voices and personalities when writing for the whole orchestra. It’s special because usually, when composing for orchestra, you feel you are writing for an anonymous mass of people who you have no connection with, but thanks to the residency, we have gotten to know their individual musical voices, and think of them as friends.

Writing for the orchestra becomes a much more intimate process — for example, the piccolo solos in Night Ferry were written with [CSO piccolo] Jennifer Gunn in mind, or my MusicNOW commission Spangled Unicorn, which featured members of the legendary CSO brass section.

Maestro Muti is an incredible musician and human being. He places such importance on taking the music to underprivileged communities. I find his vision very inspiring, and this is something I will take away with me. I learned an incredible amount working with him — in many ways, he knew the score of my piece better than I did, and his attention to detail is astonishing.

With MusicNOW,  it is important to continue exploring new ways of sharing the music with a wider audience. We’ve found curating the programs particularly rewarding; there is such a hungry audience in Chicago for contemporary music and it has been great to try to tap into that.  It has been has been a great place for collaboration — with choreographers (Hubbard Street and Hysterica dance companies), visual artists (Joshue Ott with his superDraw program and Robert Stockwell), and the many wonderful guest conductors, as well as members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus under the direction of Duain Wolfe.

In addition to inspiring and developing my music, the residency also has given me a deeper understanding and experience of the importance of music within our community — taking music to audiences that don’t usually have access to it. Following on from the projects I did in the first two years at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville and the young composers’ workshops at the Merit School of Music, this year I am developing a music therapy program for people with Alzheimer’s at the Mather Pavilion in Evanston, in collaboration with my colleagues at the CSO’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training. My hope is that this program, which explores music and memory, is one that we can further develop in the final year of my residency and that can be continued by the Institute in future seasons.

Mason and I would both like to develop a deeper relationship with the Civic musicians. The Civic Fellows are involved in my Alzheimer’s project and have been very open to new ideas.  We are looking to see if we can involve the Civic Orchestra in some way as I write my violin concerto, which the CSO will premiere next season.

Mason Bates: The residency has impacted my thinking in two obvious areas. One is dealing with the musicians and with Maestro Muti. My music has changed in a lot of ways, sometimes just “under the hood” — things like how to get what you want in a simpler and more direct way through use of notation. Maestro Muti has been very helpful with this; for example, encouraging us to use notation that allows the conductor the freedom to look up from the score occasionally! There’s been a huge gain from working with the best musicians in the world — [CSO principal percussion] Cynthia Yeh, [CSO concertmaster] Robert Chen and the phenomenal brass section are just some that come to mind. The great thing about the residency is that this engagement never stops — whether in CSO rehearsals, or working on MusicNOW on pieces that are not even yours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have experience curating programs before — for example, my Mercury Soul event — but programming MusicNOW is simultaneously a series of historical importance and one that has been constantly changing. So being given the reins to that, to be able to drop all our pre-conceieved ideas about what a new music concert should be — that has been huge.  So I feel that leaving the CSO, I have become a better composer and a more imaginative curator.

In the remaining time, we would love to solidify the gains we have made with MusicNOW in audience and format development, and in new kinds of creative outreach. For MusicNOW, it has been great having the freedom to choose repertoire and think very imaginatively about the concert format, which has allowed us to transform the experience into something that is both substantive and fun. The main tools we’ve had to make that transformation happen have been repertoire and stagecraft: We’ve deliberately chosen a broad repertoire ranging from the more modernistic, avant-garde composers who are quite familiar to Chicago audiences, to people completely out of the field, such as Mouse on Mars [who performed with musicians from the CSO for a MusicNOW concert in February 2011].

The CSO, under guest conductor Leonard Slatkin, performs Mason Bates’ Violin Concerto in concerts April 17-22.

The other tool has been stagecraft: the Harris Theater allows for an unbelievable amount of control over the concert experience, including lighting and the use of projections and the lobby space. We have thought really hard about how we can get information to the audience in new and immersive ways. I’d like to see those gains continue to solidify and perhaps migrate some of those experiences across the street [to Symphony Center].  Of course this has been happening for some years already with Beyond the Score but we’d love to see more mingling between MusicNOW and CSO audiences. New events such as POST [an after-concert lounge with CSO musicians and guest artists] are a key part of that.

How is work going on your CSO commission, which is to be premiered by the orchestra next season?

Clyne: I am currently composing a violin concerto, which will be premiered by the CSO next season and which brings together two creative relationships: with the musicians of the CSO, and with the soloist Jennifer Koh, for whom I composed Prince of Clouds, a double violin concerto, which was co-commissioned by the CSO and performed at Symphony Center last season. Bringing those two collaborations into one feels like a natural next step. Jenny and I have spoken about a concerto for several years, so having it come to fruition is very exciting for both of us and feels like a fitting way to conclude my residency at the CSO.

Bates: I am working on Anthology of Fantastic Zoology right now; it’s a challenging piece, but so fun — a real joy. It is a perfect final piece for me in Chicago because it touches on several of the growth areas for me in my music. One is that I started to think so much about theatrical music. When Maestro Muti conducts,  say, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor — which has nothing to do with theater on the surface — just the way he approaches music is theatrical.  When he conducts extracts from Verdi, or a ballet score, you really feel like you are at the ballet because he understands that music is a human kind of communal, social endeavor — it’s more than just musical expression, it’s a way of connecting in a very visceral, emotional way. You really feel like you are at the ballet because he understands that music is a communal, social endeavor. After all, theater is one of the oldest ways that we do communicate.

So Anthology of Fantastic Zoology feels like a ballet score. There is no ballet, but there are short movements, like character pieces, each one bringing to life a different imaginary creature, from sirens to nymphs to sprites. As for the sprite movement, I thought how cool it would be if some musical idea could be hopping from stand to stand and maybe even hopping off the stage and going all over the place like a sprite running around! You can imagine how that theatrical idea becomes an interesting musical challenge.

If one thing you’ll hear in the piece is a real attention to theater, then the other is that the piece is acoustic. I’m certainly not moving away from electronics, I’ve always moved back and forth, but I’ve found it is intriguing for me sometimes to start the creative process — before a note is written — just in the choice of the ensemble. By not having an electronic component, I’ve been challenged to come up with very exotic and imaginative sounds from the instruments in ways that might not have happened if there had been an electronic component there. So in the new piece, you’ll hear the impact of Maestro Muti and all the instrumentalists who will be very much conjuring up the animals of the Anthology on an individual level, through their personalities, almost like a concerto for orchestra.

How will Chicago stay with you?

Clyne: Having lived here for four years, Chicago will always feel like a home to me, wherever I am. When I moved to the city, I found the vibrancy of the arts scene inspiring and welcoming. I’ve enjoyed the dynamic new music scene, wonderful galleries and have taken Irish fiddle lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music, art classes at Lill Street Art Center and dance classes at Joffrey [Ballet]. I’ve enjoyed working from my studio at the Fine Arts Building alongside other artists, instrument makers and visual artists — it is a community that will always be here for me. And we will always feel close to special friends such as Joan Harris, Cindy Sargent and the Sally Mead Hands Foundation, who have made so much of this possible with their generous support.

Bates: We have a good amount of time left, but thinking about this makes me very sad. I feel I am a family member and intend to be showing up at family reunions to watch the next phase of things! I have really come to love Chicago. It’s my favorite dense urban center; it certainly eclipses New York for me. Chicago is a very adventurous place; people do not just want Brooklyn minimalism or European serialism, they want a huge experience. I’ve found that in getting to understand that sense of adventure that Chicagoans have, I have really looked far and wide for a big variety of experiences  to bring to MusicNOW and even to my own music. I have so many dear friends here now that I can’t imagine not coming back on a regular basis, seeing what is going on at Symphony Center and staying in touch with friends.

Do you have any advice for your successor as Mead composer-in-residence?

Clyne: Take full advantage of such a special opportunity, and get to know and enjoy all that Chicago has to offer as such a vibrant and unique city — and please keep the momentum going with MusicNOW.  There’s a really wonderful audience for contemporary music in Chicago open to new ideas and ready to be taken to the next level!

Bates: I would approach the position as a Chicagoan, which means you really have to know the city. You can’t just parachute in, do your thing and go. In addition to inhabiting the CSO, it’s helpful to be able to show up at a warehouse party on the other side of town to see what people are doing there, or perhaps take in a Dal Niente or Fulcrum Point concert, or see what else is happening at the Harris.

My advice is to spend a lot of time on the ground and get to know both big and small parts of the music scene and the general  cultural scene. The great thing about that is that it will be great fun — I’ve loved exploring this city and I don’t think I’ll ever stop because I’ve been bitten by the bug. Whoever comes in will have a wonderful time learning about the very distinctive Chicagoan take on cultural adventure.