Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Pursuing a career as a composer isn’t the most prudent or practical choice—not if you want to make a living. Opportunities to have new work performed by institutions that can pay enough to live on are so scarce that competition is fierce—the people who buy symphony subscriptions generally want Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, not Francois Bayle, Johanna Beyer, or Earle Brown. Living composers almost all get left out in the cold, and even if they can succeed in the classical world, it often takes decades. Today many of them resort to presenting their work in unorthodox settings—rock clubs, art galleries, loft spaces. Sometimes, lacking not just a performance space but also performers, they start their own ensembles to get their music heard.

This bleak situation makes Anna Clyne‘s story all the more remarkable. Though she’s just 31 and took her first serious composition class only a little more than ten years ago, her newest piece, Night Ferry, will be premiered tonight by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti, one of the classical world’s greatest conductors and most celebrated figures.

In October 2009 Muti chose Clyne and Mason Bates as the CSO’s latest Mead Composers in Residence, and their two-year terms began in September 2010; last week they were re-upped for second terms. Clyne wrote Night Ferry as part of the job, and the orchestra will perform it three times at Symphony Center before taking it to San Francisco, Palm Desert, and San Diego; it’s part of an otherwise all-Schubert program. Clyne admits she’s thrilled that her friends in California will finally get to hear her music in big concert halls. “The fact that maestro Muti programmed my piece and Mason’s piece on the tour before he’d received them is a real vote of confidence and an honor in itself,” she says.

In a December New York Times story about the profusion of young composers trying novel ways to be heard, critic Allan Kozinn singled out Clyne and Bates as two who’ve gotten very lucky. Clyne herself won’t rule out luck, but it’s hardly a complete explanation—not given her work ethic and her idiosyncratic, wide-ranging talents. When she first moved to New York after graduating from college in 2002, she pieced together a living waiting tables, making flower arrangements, and picking up freelance gigs as a cellist—she even cleaned the halls in her apartment building in exchange for reduced rent. Not till she moved to Chicago to take the Mead position did she finally quit her last day job.

Clyne grew up in a working-class family with no special investment in music—the records she remembers hearing as a child include Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Lou Reed, and Nina Simone. When she was seven a friend gave the family a secondhand piano missing several keys, and Clyne was immediately drawn to it. Though she took piano lessons from the father of a child her mother had nannied, they were hardly the kind of rigorous training that many classical musicians and composers receive from a young age. Soon she began studying the cello at school, and when she was 11 she and a flute-playing friend began writing simple folklike tunes, calling their group the Ice Blues after a favorite flavor of Jelly Belly. Composing allowed Clyne to create a kind of alternate universe. “It was more about entering another world than escaping this one,” she says.

She went to college at Edinburgh University and at 20 chose composition as her focus. She spent her third year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she developed her fascination with electro­acoustic music, now a defining feature of much of her work. Before returning to Edinburgh in fall 2001 she spent a summer in New York, living hand-to-mouth and playing cello on every session gig she could find. She liked it so much she decided to move there once she graduated. “I feel that I discovered a new world in New York City,” she says. “I think it was the people and the openness to new ideas that drew me back. . . . This summer opened my eyes and ears and, in many ways, shaped who I am today—both as a composer and as a person.”

In August 2002 she returned to the Big Apple to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where she earned her master’s studying under Julia Wolfe. Right away Clyne engaged a wide variety of artists—video makers, choreographers, visual artists—in collaborative projects, a practice she’d developed a taste for in Edinburgh. “One of my first pieces was a collaboration with a visual artist named Joshua Bryan,” she says. “He did these beautiful stop-motion animations and I wrote a piece for cello, viola, and metronome.”

Not long after arriving in New York, Clyne went to see the Hysterica Dance Company of Los Angeles. Though she almost didn’t make it—she was caught in a rainstorm on the way, and she’d mistakenly thought it was free—an employee took pity on her and let her in without paying. Impressed by the show, she gave choreographer Kitty McNamee a CD of her work. A month later, when Clyne had almost forgotten about the disc, McNamee e-mailed her to say that she’d choreographed two pieces using Clyne’s music. This led to an ongoing relationship with Hysterica, and soon two of the company’s New York-based dancers were working with Clyne on their own projects.

Clyne’s eagerness to work with artists in different disciplines helped her create opportunities, and her list of publicly performed works got longer and longer. Along with it, her word-of-mouth reputation grew, till some pretty prominent folks considered themselves converts: Clyne isn’t much of a self-promoter and doesn’t like dropping names, but Steve Reich, John Adams, Bjork, and critic Alex Ross have either supported or programmed her music. Those connections opened doors too: Clyne’s compositions have been performed at avant-garde New York arts institutions like Roulette and the Bang on a Can festival as well as in unconventional venues like Galapagos and the Cornelia Street Cafe, and in recent years they’ve begun to grace seriously highbrow stages: Carnegie Hall, the Barbican in London, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA. Prestigious music publisher Boosey & Hawkes signed Clyne in 2008 and submitted some of her scores to the Mead program—though she didn’t know they’d done it till the CSO contacted her about the position.

Another famous fan is avant-garde reedist and composer John Zorn, who asked Clyne in summer 2010 to release something on his Tzadik label. Blue Moth, due February 28, is an impressive overview of her music, filled with exhilarating collisions between electronics and acoustic instruments—played not only by soloists on, say, cello or clarinet, but also by string ensembles, among them New York’s Ethel. The electronic element comes from field recordings that Clyne usually processes beyond recognition—everything from rain and thunder on “Rapture” to sounds from an industrial plant (mechanical crushing and screeching noises, an interview with a worker) on “Steelworks,” which is enhanced by video when performed live.

Another part of Clyne’s job as CSO composer in residence is curating and hosting (in collaboration with Bates) the Music Now series, which presents four concerts a year at the Harris Theater. She and Bates have focused on new music, but with a wonderfully catholic sensibility: among last year’s bookings was German electronic group Mouse on Mars, and an upcoming Music Now show on March 5 will feature Angolan-Portuguese instrument builder and composer Victor Gama.

Anna Clyne works on the abstract paintings she made to help her compose <i>Night Ferry</i>.
Anna Clyne works on the abstract paintings she made to help her compose Night Ferry.Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Muti asked Clyne in February 2011 to write something for a Schubert program, and nine months later she finished the score to Night Ferry. Clyne says she doesn’t listen to music during the weeks she spends composing a piece; instead she researched Schubert’s life for inspiration. She learned that he suffered from cyclothymia, a mild form of manic depression. “My previous experience with his music was at the university,” Clyne says. “In his songs was this total tension between dark, melancholic turbulence and these sort of joyful, enchanting melodies. . . . I was curious about what was behind it. He only lived until 31, which is how old I am, and it’s amazing to think about how much music he composed in such a short lifespan. In his 20s he would fall into this violent, turbulent anger and real despair and then he could shoot up to the complete opposite, so he was kind of on this roller coaster of emotions, which I was fascinated to learn about because that kind of extreme polarity is quite dominant in his music.”

She wanted the piece to reflect both upheaval and calm, for which the sea provided an obvious metaphor. She read about other cyclothymic artists—Lord Byron, Hector Berlioz, Virginia Wolfe, Robert Lowell—and named her piece after a line in Seamus Hea­ney’s poem “Elegy,” written for Lowell: “You were our night ferry.”

Night Ferry is Clyne’s first piece for full orchestra, and writing for so many instruments is far more complicated than writing for a chamber group. To help wrap her brain around the whole composition, she tried something new. As she worked she created a run-together row of seven abstract paintings, using paint, pencil, gauze, ribbons, and snippets from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with bits of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for it. She composed in one-minute segments, with two or three minutes represented by each painting; first she’d do the visuals, then the music. “It was a symbiotic process where certain images or color combinations would inspire harmonies or melodic gestures,” she says. “The rhythmic ideas from the music might direct the visuals in a different way. It really allowed me to see the form and structure of the piece, because I wanted to write it as one movement.”

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As the year unfolds, Clyne’s work seems certain to play before larger audiences. A recent composition called “Within Her Arms” will be performed in Saint Louis, London, and Birmingham, Alabama, over the next few months. A new commission for the Houston Ballet will premiere in May, and in March she’s releasing a vinyl-only recording of The Violin, a suite of seven short pieces for multitracked violin. For most composers, being in Clyne’s position would feel like a dream come true, but she’s held onto a more down-to-earth perspective. “Lots of people ask, ‘When did you know you wanted to be a composer?’ and a lot of composers have great answers for that,” she says. “For me, I never thought I wanted to be a composer. It’s just something that I really enjoy doing.”