Music For Writers: Anna Clyne’s Collaborations

iStockphoto / alenavlad
iStockphoto / alenavlad

“A Shower Of Celestial Delight”

London-born composer Anna Clyne talks warmly of her collaboration with visual artist Josh Dorman.

After all, “my passion is collaborating,” Clyne has said in the past, “with innovative and risk-taking musicians, filmmakers, visual artists…choreographers.” She talks “fluid artistic dialogue,” “creative environment,” “interaction” when she remarks on her love of working with others.

And we think we understand this, right? The chance to bounce ideas off each other, to build a concept together? Sure. Collaboration, we get this.

Anna Clyne. Photo: Javier Oddo
Anna Clyne. Photo: Javier Oddo

But in listening to her newly released The Violin, you may get a sweet chill of new understanding. Six of the seven sections in the suite were written in the six evenings leading up to the anniversary of her mother’s death, one part per night.

When you hear the composer speak her mother’s poetry in two sections — pieces written in the last year of her mother’s life — you’re hearing a child, in formidable command of her medium of music, turn to a parent’s verbal eloquence far beyond her own years for reach, range, and, I think, comfort.

And this, too, you realize, is collaboration.

The Violin has become an inaugural release of a new label, VIA Records, from the multimedia company VisionIntoArt. And it was chosen as one of Q2 Music’s Album of the Week.

In his Album of the Week write, Daniel Stephen Johnson refers, rightly, to the “handsome, witty” success of the music. This is, however, deeply felt wit, an emotional cleverness that many writers will find gently supportive of their own work. In short, there’s a highly verbal intelligence at play in Clyne’s music.

“World Weary”

It’s in the second section of The Violin, “Rest These Hands,” that you first hear Clyne voicing a short poem by her mother:

I rest these hands
World weary
Misunderstood

I rest these hands
Toiled weary
Long before they should

These hands
Palmed to palmed
With wonder

Surrendered

“I’ll Be Looking To Infinity”

One effect of these curiously direct, unsettling lines — Clyne speaks them with unnerving simplicity — is to make it all the more impressive that she was composing her suite for violinists Amy Kauffman and Cornelius Dufallo at a stunning rate of speed.

Clyne The Violin cover VIA Records VisionToArt
Josh Dorman’s cover art for VIA Records’ The Violin

While “Blue Hour,” the first of the seven sections, had been created earlier, “Rest These Hands” was the first result of that six-night run in 2009, which would culminate in the last section, “Lavender Rain,” being written on the loss of her mother.

Clyne tells me that working at such a rapid rate isn’t always the way for her. “Sometimes it’s very fast,” she says, “and sometimes it takes a long time.”

It was just after her mother’s death in 2008 that she found the instrument of her suite’s title. In her notes for the piece, she writes:

Shortly after my mother passed away in 2008, I found a violin in Oxfam, a charity shop in Oxford. It was in a dusty old case leaning up against a pile of vinyl records in the basement. Priced at £5.99 (approx. $9), the European baroque-style violin dating from the late 1800s, with a hand-carved lion’s head scroll was a bargain.

It was also an inspiration that has led her to generate a haunting evocation of remembrance and what certainly feels at times to be an isolation most authors know well.

“I Feel Very Fortunate”

When VIA Records releases the physical CD edition of The Violin, the company tells me — as with other offerings in its new catalog — the work will be packaged in a beautiful box created by the New York design studio Mogollon. It will include a DVD with the seven stop-animation films that artist Josh Dorman has made for the work.

As a reference point, think of the delightful animations Terry Gilliam created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and then imagine them transformed into a serious, lyrical, poignant world of fabulous vistas and dreamlike developments.

From Josh Dorman's "October Rose," The Violin.
From Josh Dorman’s “October Rose,” The Violin.

Among my favorites is Dorman’s animation for the third movement of the suite, “October Rose.” At one point a kind of bridge or ramp extends over water jumping with fantastic fish and a single rocking chair slides into view.

As the filigree of KaufFman’s and Dufallo’s strings accompanies the falling petals of roses, successive iterations of the rocking chair detach and float skyward. The effect is like a visit to a wild but safe, imaginative world, touching in its loneliness but glorious in its color and rich detail.

A trailer (below) made for the album that gives you a sense for the gentle, Old World imagery that Dorman brings into play. So lovingly chosen and rendered are the components of these works that I asked Clyne if she hadn’t worked with him on specific items, visuals, that he might use to reflect her mother’s world.

You’ll notice that in answering me, Clyne graciously steps around my questions of specific programmatic implications in this very personal composition, which is fine, of course. But she also offers us some intriguing sense of how intuitive Dorman’s own creative contributions really are. Clyne tells me:

The music was composed first and then Josh responded to the recordings with his art. There was an organic artistic relationship from our very first meeting.

I didn’t tell him the programmatic concepts (which is something I hold to myself in this particular case) but I knew from his artistic response to the music that he understood the meaning behind the notes, and I found this deeply moving. Such a collaborative artistic relationship is very rare, so I feel very fortunate that our paths crossed.

“On Your Journey Through The Stars”

If you have time to listen to only one section, I recommend you choose the fifth movement of the suite, “Tea Leaves.”

It’s in the opening of this wonderfully chatty, wry conversation for the two violins that Clyne uses the second of the two poems in the piece by her mother. The poem, “Love Letter To Beattie Toon Of Camden Town,” pictures a marvelous soul “b. 1885 Workhouse, Camden Town / d. 1975 Former Workhouse, Camden Town.”

Some lines from this one — again, delivered by Clyne on the recording with superb stillness (not easy to do):

Do you still gather kindness
to your old worn heart
on your journey through the stars?

Don’t come back here Beattie
It’s much worse, so much worse.

Are you there now dear one

Is it far?
Is it far?

Scatter me a shower
of celestial delight –
I’ll be looking to infinity

Where you are
Where you are.

While The Violin is its own tone poem of intense melancholy, its tender solace comes from continually rising lines for the two instruments, Clyne quoting Bach’s First Violin Sonata in G minor in the two sections that include her mother’s poetry. This music — at times tentative, occasionally inquisitive — repeatedly ascends into clearings of delicate beauty.

Akin to Dorman’s sturdy rocking chair, Clyne’s own voice, spoken and musical, keeps rising. And rising.

Clyne lives and works in the States. She is the Mead Composer in Residence with the Chicago Symphony, holds a similar post with the Orchestre National d’Ile de France, and heard her Masquerade premiered under the direction of Marin Alsop by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Last Night of the Proms program. Her visibility is rising fast as commissions come in and her work is heard worldwide through Q2 Music.

The exposure that Q2 Music provides to Clyne and her contemporaries in music — our contemporaries — is what makes the service such an important resource for authors and other artists whose own work is enriched by the aesthetic explorations of these composers.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have Josh Dorman close at hand, but The Violin, like the old instrument in that Oxfam shop, is a real find for any writer who could use a little collaboration. TC mark

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