The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new music series, MusicNOW, showcases some of the world’s most exciting contemporary composers and exchanges 19th-century orchestra performance traditions for a laid-back vibe. The Harris Theater is an ideal home for the forward-thinking series: the venue’s cavernous interior is drenched in darkness during performances, while local DJs spin in the lobby before and after each hourlong concert. Co-hosts Mason Bates and Anna Clyne (both pictured above) have put their heads together to envision another season of creative programming that represents a diverse spectrum of electrifying new music inspired by literature, cinema, travel and architecture.
Lively and deep, with a boisterous beat, old-timey fiddle and banjo music continues to thrive across time and genres. Folky modal melodies and rollicking rhythms are not are not unfamiliar in classical music, of course; Lmar Stringfield and Kurt Weill are just some of the many who have taken cues from the rough ‘n’ ready bands that once flourished in the rural South. When Mason Bates composed String Band for prepared piano trio in 2002, he was inspired by the “soulful, earthy” quality of the folk records that had weaved their way into his extensive collection. While listeners will be able to hear what Bates calls the “twangy resemblance” to string bands in the opening bars, the rest of the piece descends into a world of fractured pitches and pictures, taking the listener on a vivid, unexpected journey into before the train grinds to a screeching halt on the tracks.
Argentine composer Martín Matalon draws much of his inspiration from literature, particularly the work of fellow Buenos Aires native Jorge Luis Borges. But he is also a devoted cinephile, and his Traces II (2005) marries solo viola and live electronics in a stirring tribute to surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Written as a soundtrack to Buñuel’s subversive 1933 documentary, Land Without Bread, Traces II is the second part of Matalon’s ongoing series of Traces (seven as of 2010), which form what he defines as a “compositional diary.”
Finally, we hear the lyrical and mesmerizing vision of CSO Mead composer-in-residence and MusicNOW co-curator Anna Clyne come to life with the world premiere of her new work, The Lost Thought. Clyne has a deep interest in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and this piece is part of an ongoing set of works informed by the Belle of Amherst’s writings. Like Chicago-born composer Ernst Bacon, who famously set many of Dickinson’s poems to music, Clyne was particularly inspired by her poignant 1929 poem that personifies death as a sinister visitor from which one may neither hide, nor run away.
Architecture, dance and imagery join forces in the final MusicNOW concert of the season. A finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in music, Andrew Norman wrote The Companion Guide to Rome as an impressive musical portrait of nine historic Roman churches. Like the architecture that provided a foundation for the music, the piece is built out of what Norman calls “numerous renovations, accretions and ground-up reconstructions.” It is inspired by everything from the patterns on the church floors to the lives and legends of their namesake saints. A lifelong enthusiast for all things architectural, Norman beautifully expresses Goethe’s famous assertion that “music is liquid architecture” and offers his listeners a boldly designed string trio awash in lyricism, color and pulsing energy.
Anna Clyne’s electro-acoustic chamber work Fits+Starts (2003) pairs biting pizzicato patterns with cello, her native instrument. Acoustic samples of harpsichord, cello and viola are layered and manipulated to create a backdrop for the amplified cello, and the evolving textural form bristles with fractured static and the blooming, heady swells of reversed loops. Written for choreographer Kitty McNamee and her Los Angeles based dance troupe, Hysterica Dance Company, Clyne’s lush yet edgy composition was a standout track on her 2012 debut album, Blue Moth, and continues to feel as vital and relevant as it did a decade ago.
The title of British-American composer Oscar Bettison’s Livre des Sauvages is named after a curious collection of crudely drawn pictures once thought to have been Native American lithography but later theorized to be the doodles of a naughty schoolboy. Regardless of the document’s true provenance, its cryptic drawings sparked the imagination of Bettison, who says he “immediately took the book to heart.” In typical Bettison fashion, the piece uses a delightful hodgepodge of percussion “instruments”— including air pumps, hotel desk bells and a wrenchophone — to create a sprawling, high-energy landscape that is simultaneously spirited, provocative and fun.
Mia Clarke is a Chicago-based musician and journalist.