By Dennis Polkow
Over the next couple of weeks, Chicago will be treated to not one, but two world premieres, one each from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s co-composers-in-residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates. Before bringing them on board in 2009, music director Riccardo Muti had never met either but chose them for these positions, and chose them by and large based on their scores.
“I didn’t know either one of them,” says Muti over lunch at his hotel, “but I asked to have scores of many different composers and I chose them on the basis of the music. Many times today you see scores that are the triumph of complicated rhythms or sounds that just create effects for the sake of effects to impress the public with noise or with complicated rhythms. But I found that the scores of these two young composers had substance. It’s very difficult today to write music of substance that conveys feelings. And I think that their modern way of writing with the use of instruments of such complex variety and the way that they treat the orchestra, it is not old, it is not new: it is just their way of expressing themselves. These are not two people who want to sound ‘new’ at any cost.”
Had Muti been looking for two composers-in-residence? “No,” he says, as if even he is surprised. “You know, I was trying to find one, and at times, even that looked like it might be difficult. You sit there [imitating motion of going through scores] and it is like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no—oh, that’s very interesting.’ And then ‘no, no, no, no—ah, look at that.’ But then it was like, ‘Oh, there are two that are interesting.’ Well, why not two?”
“Then I realized that these composers had already been performed by important conductors. You see, the fact that I studied composition for ten years in Milano means something. We had Richard Wernick and [Chicago composer Ralph] Shapey in Philadelphia [when Muti was music director there] and Wernick would say, ‘Muti, when he opens a score, he immediately understands what it is all about.’ I understand what is going on.”
Clyne says that she had no idea that she was even being considered. “They had a large search,” she says, “and asked publishers. But as the composers ourselves, we had no idea. It was a shock and an honor and all of that.”
Muti wanted to meet both composers before making a final decision, which he did, separately, in brief post-concert dressing-room encounters when he was in New York guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic.
“I was told I needed to meet him because I was on the short list for that position,” says Bates, “so I knew that this was an important meeting. I had spent a year living in Rome and I knew that Southern Italians might put a lot of stock in what might seem like a quick encounter. And that I needed to be myself and talk about some pieces of mine he had been looking at. It was a little bit nerve-racking because I knew that underneath his very charming demeanor he was working quite hard to figure out whether I would be a good fit.”
Although Clyne had not deduced the reason for the meeting, she was taken aback by how well Muti knew her music when they did meet. “We had never met,” she says, “and it was a ten-minute encounter. But something really beautiful was that through studying our scores, he knew us far better than most. He had spent a large amount of time understanding our music and had questions for us. As a composer, this is such an honor, for a conductor to have taken the time and care to really know your music. It is so gratifying how much [Muti] cares about your work and you see he is giving it the same level of attention that he would give Beethoven. It is really remarkable. It makes the premieres that much more exciting to know that he understands our music, our intentions.”
“He doesn’t phone it in,” says Bates, “he is the real deal.” Though many audience members were bewildered when Muti unexpectedly showed up last May at a club appearance where Bates was DJing, Bates was not surprised as he had come to learn that Muti’s curiosity and sense of exploration is insatiable. Both see him as a true composer’s advocate.
Had Muti himself ever flirted with being a composer as many conductors had? “No,” he says, “I studied composition not because I felt I had something to say as a composer. I studied composition because I was told by my old teacher, if you want to be a conductor, you must know composition perfectly. Not only how to play an instrument or two, or even all. But you must be in the situation where you can read a score like a composer.”
Putting out his right hand, Muti invites me to feel the side of the middle finger of his right hand. “Do you feel that?” Indeed, there is a discernible ridge, a groove, there. “I carry this for all my life,” he says, indicating that it is a mark made from writing an eighteen-hour exam. “For the seventh course of composition, you write a fugue. They give you the theme and they lock you in a room, and you have to write it in eighteen hours. When you have to go to the toilet, there is a button with a red light and someone comes in and accompanies you, even going in with you. For the diploma, one of the exams is twenty-four hours. When I finished the next day, you come out and the world is beautiful.”
“I don’t understand why they study ‘conducting’ in the United States. Conducting should be the result of composition. What do you study, how to move your arms?”
After it was decided that Clyne and Bates had been chosen as co-composers-in-residence and the announcement was made in the fall of 2009, the two began thinking about the commissioned pieces that they were to write as terms of the appointment.
“Very early on I gave a description of ‘Alternative Energy’ to Maestro Muti,” says Bates, “and he ended up programming it with Honegger’s ‘Pacific 231,’ which is a really nice fit. It’s a fantastic thing to have two pieces that approach this topic of energy or technology from a concert perspective. On a musical level, you will get different kinds of reactions to propulsions, different kinds of energy forces. For me it’s going to have the influence of my own work in electronics. But there is plenty of it that is purely acoustic that will react to the topic with more or less the same forces as the Honegger.”
Bates says that he had been thinking about this piece for a long time, even before the appointment. “I had in mind a piece that was an energy symphony: different kinds of energy sources that we keep looking to. Particularly I liked the idea of starting a hundred years ago in the past with a purely acoustic orchestra, perhaps with car parts in the percussion section and moving slowly into the future.”
Car parts? “Yeah, [Chicago Symphony principal percussionist] Cynthia Yeh and I drove out to a car dump and looked for old car scraps. Every single person there was a meaty guy looking to amp up his vehicle, and we were walking around with mallets to hear how parts actually sounded. They must have thought we were children of the seventies or something.”
It also led Bates to make recordings of energy accelerators at Fermilab in west suburban Batavia. “Fermilab is not an actual energy source but research there impacts what we know about atomic levels, which is energy related. Fermilab represents the constant human source for energy which fascinated me as a dramatic concept.
“The piece imagines a dark future and an energy event or mishap, perhaps a kind of a meltdown, who knows? I imagined that to be China, who knows what that energy will be that burns a hole in a huge part of the Earth? It could very well be energy related to what we use now. And ultimately the piece ends in a future rain forest where it looks to perhaps a simpler and less destructive path.
“Energy is often related to transportation but it really powers everything we do. I looked at this as not really a super-literal program or some kind of a narrative of a specific industry, but more like a general concept. I thought of ‘alternative’ in the sense of we’re always looking for the next thing that is going to keep us moving, I guess. Once the combustion engine was alternative energy that moved us from the horse and buggy.”
Does Bates’ piece speculate what a future alternative energy source might actually be?
“It’s not a literal program: it’s imagining each step that we take to get something better than what we have. It’s not so much a minutia of energy technologies or a musical treatise on energy forms. It’s more like our quest for something that will let us keep the lights on.
“It’s like other pieces Muti likes to conduct like ‘Symphonie fantastique’ where there is a story but the way it is told, the music takes the story as a starting point and the music takes hold of that idea, not just the narrative itself. That’s a wonderful dramatic conceit to explore symphonically.”
Did Muti’s Fall 2010 performance of “Symphonie fantastique” act as an inspiration? “Absolutely. I had this idea of the piece for a long time but I didn’t write a note of it until I had spent some time getting to know the orchestra and the Maestro. He absolutely informed the composition of the piece. Watching him do ‘Symphonie fantastique,’ for example, really encouraged me to give him some dramatic liberty. This piece is almost like the ‘Grand Ball’ movement of that piece in certain moments. And knowing his operatic background, I really amped up the drama as much as I could and made it almost a kind of mini-opera. There is a very lyrical section in the third movement, a memory of simpler times which is constantly offset against a more gritty reality. Watching Maestro do the more dramatic symphonic works encouraged me to make sure to put everything into very stark relief.”
Bates also found that the musical personalities of individual CSO players influenced aspects of his piece. “Cynthia, as I mentioned,” says Bates, “and concertmaster Robert Chen in particular has a huge part because there is a blues fiddle component running through this whole piece, almost embodying a junkyard early automaker, somebody like Henry Ford tinkering around. In fact, the solo violin is featured so much that it is almost a violin concerto in the first movement. There’s also quite a big jazzy brass movement that was pretty directly inspired by the entire brass section.”
Clyne, too, says that individual players came into her mind as she wrote her piece. “For me, writing for an orchestra felt like a very anonymous endeavor, this massive collection of musicians that I have no connection to. So, originally you might think, the oboe will do this, instrument x will do that. But after being here for so many concerts, rehearsals and working with musicians for the MusicNOW concerts, you not only get to know them as people and as friends, but you also get to know their musical voices. So, instead I am thinking, Jennifer Gunn will be playing the piccolo at that point, Chris Martin will be playing the trumpet part there. It is a much more personal relationship to the piece, very intimate. I’m not sure I will ever have a chance to have a relationship with another orchestra the way I have had with this one, it was a real privilege.
“And the emotional depth of the players is elevated by Maestro Muti, by the chemistry between him and the orchestra. His depth of musicianship and commitment and he has such a tradition in opera and vocal music that I wanted the instruments treated as human voices in many respects. I’ll never forget his conducting and the way he could so suddenly change direction. Less is more. And his humor. At the end of the day we’re just people and we’re trying to do something as a unit, so communication is the key. They obviously adore him as he obviously does them. It’s great to see musicians laughing out loud and so loving what they’re doing and also bringing emotional depth, which characterizes the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. All of these individual voices and musicians coming together to elevate anything they’re doing, it’s as if you’re hearing even the most familiar music for the first time.”
As for Clyne’s piece, “Night Ferry,” she was originally asked by Muti if she might draw some inspiration from Schubert since her piece was scheduled to be premiered on an evening otherwise devoted to that composer. “Oh gosh, that was a challenge at first,” admits Clyne, “because when I am composing, I like my mind to be a blank canvas. So, I didn’t want to actually play the music, although as a cellist, I played lots of chamber music and was enamored with the emotional depth and clarity of his work. I was fascinated with Schubert as a musician and via concerts. So, I decided to learn a little bit more about him as a person.”
“Of course, twenty-minute length and the instrumentation were pre-determined. I kept it to three winds with contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, harp, piano, three percussion, timpani and strings. I had only had a couple of orchestral pieces behind me at that point, so it was a real challenge. And I had never written a twenty minute piece in duration before. I thought about fluidity, different sonic textures, tension or lack of tension. And I wanted it to be one movement.”
“The connection of ‘Night Ferry’ with Schubert is about the mental illness of Schubert,” explains Muti. “There was a certain state of nonbalance of personality, happiness contrasted with darkness. The idea was to create a contrast—Schubert and a dramatic contemporary piece. It is very complex and very well-written. You have ‘Rosamonde,’ so tender and beautiful, followed by an aspect of life today. Two columns, one small, one large—the ‘Great’ Symphony—contrasted with the tragedy of our world today.”
“Schubert died when he was thirty-one, which was my age,” says Clyne. “There were violent, turbulent passages in his mind. Life was very traumatic for him and then he would go into these very lucid states of mind and in those states, would knock off ten songs a night. Fascinating in that he suffered so much and how that inspired his music. Going back to what I felt as a musician playing his music, there was a juxtaposition of these intensely dark, emotional contents and sometimes things that were complete opposites. I felt that in learning this about him.”
The title of her piece, “Night Ferry”—“as in the boat, not the fairy,” Clyne is quick to point out—is navigating being “really up or really down. Something very interesting that Schubert said that when he wrote songs of love, they’re songs of pain, and when he wrote songs of pain, they’re songs of love. It’s a juxtaposition or bipolarity which is part of his genetic and musical makeup. Maestro Muti described it as a ‘spiritual thunderstorm,’ the similarity between nature and our internal nature. In many ways the ocean is an image of our own internal journey.”
One of the fascinating aspects of “Night Ferry” is that Clyne wanted a single movement. “I didn’t want the voyage to be interrupted,” she says. “And since I am a very visual composer, I thought I would simultaneously paint the piece whilst I was composing the music. So in my studio I placed a very large canvas across the wall and decided to make each panel—seven in all—represent about two minutes.”
Does Clyne paint ordinarily? “I don’t,” she admits. “Some sewing, some hobbies, but I never studied. It’s a different form of expression. But I would by no means call myself an artist. This was just a tool to help me write this piece. It was a combination of paint, charcoal, images, photographs, ribbons, text, lots of things. And four notes of music. Very dark turbulent waves. Black and white. I also cut out Schubert’s eyes and placed them on the canvas,” she says, before letting out a small giggle.
“With orchestral music, it’s very easy to rush an idea and not let it breath because you have all of these instruments and it is very easy to get lost in a few seconds of music. Writing for orchestra is very much like painting only you’re painting layers of sound with instruments. With writing a string quartet, I can see on a page if an idea is being rushed, not being allowed time to develop and breathe. But with an orchestral score, it’s very difficult because one page might be six seconds of music so you lose the image of form. Through painting, it allowed me to be aware of not rushing ideas but to think about the shape of the piece I am forming.
“Images did also give me ideas about orchestration. If I would indicate something very high up on the page with very bright colors, that would indicate to me that the tubas and the contrabassoon would not be playing. Having done this, it really did give me a more comfortable sense of form.”
Bates also claims that he, too, is obsessed with form, and that in fact, he was surprised to discover that “Alternative Energy” is really a symphony. “I do look at it as my second symphony. I really do like pieces that are imaginative but I have always been a little bit weary of the numbered symphonies. But I feel that my first symphony was a piece called ‘Liquid Interface’ which I feel was kind of a water symphony. This, to me, is my second symphony. The fact that it is in four movements and some of the aspects of the form are by accident. I really don’t like to attach that name to it because I feel like we’re really in a different era now.”
Whereas the hands-on portion of Clyne’s piece was her painting while she was composing, Bates will also be a performer in the premiere of his piece, operating a computer.
“I hate the computer,” Muti says unhesitatingly, “because I don’t like anything else telling me what to do. But the computer obliges me. And Mason Bates has written in his own style with an element of American music that he feels as part of his culture. He is fantastic because he is able to balance these elements with right moments of deep expression and with great moments of color with the orchestra.”
“I want the electronic element to be subservient to the piece itself and for the concept of the piece to be communicated by the music that comes naturally out of the music itself,” says Bates. “For me, it’s weird. If a piece is happening in a club, you’re not going to have the same kind of listening focus or the same kind of acoustic. Studying classical music is one part of my brain and checking out DJs and electronic music is another part of my brain. These days I really feel like the most important part of my brain in the way that these pieces happen is the setting. But a piece for orchestra is really going to have to invite intense focus because of the symphonic setting.”
Mason Bates’ “Alternative Energy” has its world premiere February 2-7 and Anna Clyne’s “Night Ferry” has its world premiere February 9-11 with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000.