Talking “Masquerade” with Composer Anna Clyne

Anna Clyne

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing some of our favorite female performers, conductors, and composers. Today we’re featuring GRAMMY-nominated composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music, Anna Clyne. Recently, CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra had the honor of playing Ms. Clyne’s cinematic overture Masquerade at the 2022 Gala and will be bringing the piece on tour with them this summer.

Social Media Team members Alyssa Shih (Symphony Orchestra, violin) and Abigail AuYeung (Concert Orchestra, cello) sat down with Anna Clyne to discuss her piece as well as her approach to composing. 

How did you get into composing?

Clyne as a child in 1987, the year she began composing her first pieces on the piano

I started composing when I was seven. Some family friends gave us a piano and as soon as I started playing it, I started writing little pieces for myself to play with my friends. One of my best friends was a flutist, so one of my first pieces was for flute and piano. I’ve always loved writing for specific musicians. So yeah, it started with good friends and a piano.

What are some influences on your current composing style?

I love collaborating with artists from other fields, be it choreographers or visual artists or filmmakers, so I find inspiration there. I’m currently writing a piece inspired, actually, by calligraphy—Japanese calligraphy in particular. It’s a different art form but that has a sort of very gestural approach to creativity and mindfulness, so [I’m] translating those ideas into music.

Has your composing style changed over the years, especially as you’ve grown into bigger roles as a composer?

It has! When I did my undergrad at Edinburgh University, I did a lot of electro-acoustic composition, where you go out and make recordings, then you take them back to the studio, you chop them up, you stretch them out, you pitch them up, all these fun processes; (but) you can do those same processes through orchestration, when you’re writing for the orchestra, so I think my music has evolved in terms of exploring more of those processes through the orchestration. It’s been a gradual evolution.

Black and white photo of Clyne looking at theramin next to Robert Moog
Clyne playing a theramin with electronic music pioneer Robert Moog in 2002

CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra recently played your 2013 piece Masquerade at our annual Gala and will also be performing it on tour in Europe this summer. Is there a story or inspiration behind Masquerade?

It was a piece that was commissioned for the BBC Proms—for the last night of the Proms, which is a very celebratory musical event in London, which is where I born. I wanted to create a piece that had a lot of energy and vibrancy. Back in the 1800s in London, they had these pleasure gardens where they’d have people from all walks of life: acrobatics, street artists, musicians, theater people, all these different arts coming together in a melting pot. So in Masquerade, I wanted to create a piece that sort of takes you through a maze of these different little worlds, so it’s [like a series of] very short scenes, almost like going through a very quick-fire movie.

How did you come about composing for the BBC Proms?

I’m really fortunate that Marin Alsop [Baltimore Symphony conductor] has been very supportive of my music. We first met in 2010 at the Cabrillo Festival of Music in Santa Cruz, which is a festival that presents music entirely by living composers. Then Marin was also invited to be the first ever female conductor for the last night of the Proms. It was a historic event, and as part of that, I was invited to write a piece to open this occasion so really it’s thanks to Marin Alsop that it happened.

Anna Clyne speaks with Marin Alsop at the podium
Anna Clyne (right) with conductor Marin Alsop (left)

As we’ve been rehearsing the piece, we’ve been discussing the descriptors you’ve used in the score, for example, you use words like “dark and ominous.” How did you land on these words instead of the traditional Italian descriptors?

I think that the challenge as a composer is how to convey your intention. It can be through notes and rhythms and textures, but also language is a really strong tool to quickly convey a mood that you want, like “ominous.” Some described the music as vigorous and thorny, but I chose that because I’m not quite sure how that would translate into Italian or French. Also, English is a language I’m more comfortable with. I like to combine that with some more Italian and French words. It’s a bit of a mishmash of languages, but yes, the reason I do that is to try and quickly convey a mood.

Does that mishmash of words come from any personal experiences with music? Or, because you started in electro? Does your combination of words come from any of that experience?

I think it helps when you are playing, especially a new piece, to get some direction as to the mood. There’s a lot of music that actually has no notation, which gives you a certain amount of liberty to create your own interpretation, but I think it can be helpful to have that extra musical layer.

How did you demonstrate your personality in Masquerade?

That’s a great question. I like to explore lots of different hobbies and during the pandemic, for example, I took up banjo, Irish fiddle classes, and some drawing classes, and I just mentioned Japanese calligraphy. I like to dabble in a lot of things and my imagination goes to a lot of different places, sort of like a stream of consciousness, and I think that comes through in my music, especially in a piece like Masquerade, where you’re really going for all kinds of music, and sort of through different mind-spaces.

Collection of photos, text, and music taped to a wall
Ephemera collected on Clyne’s studio wall, from a New York Times profile.

What was going through your head when you were composing Masquerade, what were you thinking about?

There’s two musical ideas in Masquerade: one is the melody, which opens the piece where I imagined looking towards a masquerade, and the rhythm correlates to that context. The second is actually a borrowed melody, it’s called the Juice of Barley, but that was a real source of inspiration because it has such a buoyant character to it, and draws from my experience taking fiddle lessons. At the time I was writing it, I was actually living in Chicago, and went to the Old Town School of Folk Music for old time fiddle lessons. That really inspired me to look towards old fiddle tunes. Juice of Barley is very awesome, it’s from 1695.

Why did you choose to incorporate Juice of Barley into Masquerade?

There’s a couple of reasons. One is that the history of it, it’s from the John Playford’s The English Dancing Master and it’s an old drinking and dancing song. With the occasion of the last night of The Proms, I wanted to write something that was very celebrative and upbeat and like a good tune to sort of toast a drink to. It also has that really great 6/8 bouncy feel to it that I thought would be fun and would help to get an upbeat feeling out of the orchestra.

Since you’re incorporating all of these different themes and feelings from your audience, is there a way that you’re visualizing the orchestra while you’re composing?

Definitely. We spoke a little about the context of coming from electro-acoustic music to orchestral music, and one of the things I love about electro-acoustic music is the idea of spacialization. Like, if you put on your headphones and you listen to a pop song, for example, and you have the bass coming from one side, the guitar coming from the other, (and) the drums in a different space; that sensitivity to the spacialization of sound is something you can have in mind when writing for the orchestra. If you have your violins to your left, and the basses to the right, you’ll have little motifs that kind of jump around the orchestra which is really fun to play with.

Maestro Tinkham was actually talking about how detail-dense the piece is during our rehearsal. How did you even start the compositional process? Was there a single motif that you built everything around?

The piece is sort of a roller coaster ride for five minutes. There’s only really two main melodic ideas. There’s a sort of “welcome” to the masquerade which is that really lush, cinematic theme that I think we hear first in the violins, but then there’s also this Juice of Barley song and everything was sort of spun out through that, but it is very dense, and there are lots of layers. Which, again, comes from my background in electro-acoustic music. You can just have the melody playing in one instrument when you start layering on other instruments, you get all these new sorts of sonorities. That’s something I love about composing, it’s like painting with sounds. It’s really fun and you can get these big textures.

Anna Clyne smiles on stage next to Inbal Segev holding a cello
Clyne with cellist Inbal Segev after the world premiere of her concerto DANCE

Did you ever expect that a youth orchestra would be playing Masquerade?

I’m so excited that you guys are playing this piece! It’s really a challenge, so I never imagined that a youth orchestra would take it on, and I’m sure you’re going to do an amazing job.

Do you think there’s anything different that a youth orchestra can add to the piece as opposed to a professional orchestra?

I think that there’s this sort of youthful energy—I’m sure you’ve played Juice of Barley with great oomph. I love that you all love playing music and you’ve joined this orchestra because you love being part of an orchestra. I think that youthful exciting energy is really exciting for audiences. I love going to hear youth orchestras. I live in New York and I get to see the New York Youth Symphony. So, yeah, you definitely have a special quality that youth bring to your concerts.

Do you have any advice for CYSO students, composers, and instrumentalists alike?

It’s wonderful to be exploring music as part of your identity and yourself. Keep making music and connecting with other musicians that inspire you, your colleagues within the orchestra. If you’re a musician that loves working with composers, seek composers that are excited to work with living, breathing musicians too. Find your people and your community!

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