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How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's Abstractions

Anna Clyne. Photo/Javier Oddo/Supplied

The works of the English contemporary composer feature in the NZSO’s forthcoming The Planets series.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s The Planets concerts includes the New Zealand premiere of an inventive work by Anna Clyne, an acclaimed British acoustic and electro-acoustic composer.

Clyne, based in the United States, has been praised for her collaborations with choreographers, artists, film-makers, leading orchestras and musicians. The New York Times describes the Grammy Award nominee as a “composer of uncommon gifts and unusual methods”, and by Time Out New York as “dazzlingly inventive”.

The NZSO will perform three movements from Clyne’s Abstractions.

What inspired you to compose Abstractions?

Abstractions is a suite of five movements inspired by five contrasting contemporary artworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art and from the private collection of Baltimore philanthropists Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, for whom this music honours.

The three movements the NZSO will play are Auguries, inspired by Julie Mehretu’s Auguries (2010); Seascape, inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Caribbean Sea, Jamaica (1980); and River, inspired by Ellsworth Kelly’s River II (2005).

Julie Mehretu's Auguries (2010).

In drawing inspiration from these artworks, I have tried to capture the feelings or imagery that they evoke, the concept of the work, or the process adopted by the artists. Such examples are the long arching lines, compact energetic marks and dense shifting forms of a system on the verge of collapse in Mehretu’s Auguries; the serene horizon with rippled water in Sugimoto’s Seascape; and the stark juxtaposition of the energetic black and white lines that enlarge Kelly’s brushstrokes in River II

Some common threads between the artworks are their use of limited colour palettes, references to nature, and the capturing of time as a current that flows – distilling and preserving it so that we can contemplate it as the viewer. I was also attracted to the structures of these works – for example River II and Auguries, which at first sight could be seen as random, and even chaotic, are in fact created within a sense of order – they feel both dynamic and structural.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Caribbean Sea, Jamaica (1980).

What projects are you excited about working on in 2019?

I am currently completing a cello concerto that will be premiered by soloist Inbal Segev with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony in June. Other upcoming projects that I’m excited about include a multimedia collaboration for the Manchester International Festival, a new orchestral work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon and Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and a new work for the Calidore String Quartet, which draw inspiration from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.

Has your method of composing changed over the years?

When I am composing music, I usually start at the piano - finding a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic idea which I then develop away from the piano. I particularly enjoy projects that are collaborative as it allows me an opportunity to see my own creative process from a different angle. Whilst the basic tools of composition have remained the same over the years, my collaborators continue to shift and change over the years, which I find wonderfully inspiring and refreshing. 

Ellsworth Kelly’s River II (2005).

You have worked several times with violinist Jennifer Koh, who performs with the NZSO in November. What it’s like working with Jennifer?

It’s inspiring to compose for music for a musician with such a depth of emotion and incredible technical proficiency. One thing that I’ve always loved about Jennifer’s playing is the broad range of emotions and colours that she brings to her playing - from incredibly tender music to more extreme aggressive and thorny music. 

What advice would you give to young composers who are just starting out?

The best way to learn and refine your craft is to get your music heard – cultivate relationships with other young musicians, composers and artists who will inspire you to move forward. Never be afraid to try something new – even if it doesn’t sound as you imagined, it will certainly push you in a new direction. 

The Planets: NZSO, with conductor Edo de Waart, Susan Graham and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir; music by Anna Clyne, Berlioz and Gustav Holst, Auckland Town Hall, March 29; Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 30.