One of the hottest new music venues in the world, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music marks this year’s 51st offering with plenty of superstar excitement. Guest artists include wunderkind clarinetist Emil Jonasan, cellist Johannes Moser, flautist Adam Walker and the Kronos Quartet no less. Two world premiere festival commissions lead the bill, as well as U.S. premieres including Philip Glass’ Symphony no. 10. There will be an evening “in the Blue Room” devoted to the Kronos Quartet with guest artist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo. The intimate “Nestledown” in the Los Gatos hills showcases guest artists playing “outside the box.” And the Music at the Mission finale showcases premieres, virtuosos and the third appearance of London-born composer Anna Clyne bringing her ambitious orchestral work Night Ferry.
The only thing missing from this rich picture is Marin Alsop. An injury to her conducting hand has sidelined the maestra—unthinkable to be sure—from this year’s festival. While she is “deeply disappointed” that she will not be with us this season, Alsop has confidence that “the adventurous program we've put together will delight and surprise in the way only Cabrillo can.” Stepping up to the podium will be Carolyn Kuan, Music Director for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, who will conduct the opening weekend, Aug. 2-3, and composer/conductor Brad Lubman, former Assistant Conductor at Tanglewood Music Center, who will conduct the Festival’s closing weekend, Aug. 10-11. Derek Bermel will step in to conduct his own Dust Dances on opening night. In short, there is no shortage of talent at the baton for this year’s Festival, simply a heartbreaking absence of Marin Alsop’s inimitable company.
We spoke with two of the Festival’s precocious composers about the work they will be sharing this season.
Anna Clyne’s ‘Night Ferry’
Barely into her 30s, London-born Anna Clyne has collaborated with Icelandic phenom Björk, been premiered by Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony and wrapped her music around choreography for the Houston Ballet. Composing since the age of 11, Clyne comes to the Cabrillo Festival for the third year in a row with her most ambitious work to date, Night Ferry, an odyssey of contrasting orchestral moods in seven three-minute sections. Weaving a sinuous journey between chaos and lyricism, Night Ferry sails a sonic sea of moods and imagery.
“I'm a visual composer,” Clyne acknowledges when asked about the large-scale wall drawing she used as a graphic timeline of her Festival piece. “Composing is a visual process for me. Night Ferry began with an image of a dark wave, and the drawings are how I expressed it visually.” Dividing the proposed work into sections, Clyne worked through the piece using the material established in one section to create contrasting colors and atmospheres for the next. “It was the longest piece I’ve done in one movement, and structurally it was hard to keep it all straight,” she explains. “I found I could develop the three-minute sections by breaking it down visually.” And she literally did just that, both visualizing the journey and then transforming it into music.
Taping seven large canvasses side-by-side onto her wall, Clyne painted from left to right, moving “forward through time. I painted a section then composed a section, and vice versa, intertwining the two in the creative process.” Onto her wall the composer layered paint, charcoal, ribbons, gauze, fragments of Gustav Doré’s illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge and other visual markers of her musical journey.
“It starts out turbulent, and then becomes delicate and expansive. I was aided by the painting process, even though I don’t by any means consider myself a painter.”
Clyne created the mood alterations with a variety of compositional elements, such as orchestral texture and tempo, moving from full orchestra to solo instruments.
Night Ferry is written for full orchestra and was commissioned last year by the Chicago Symphony, where Clyne is currently entering her second year of residence along with fellow composer Mason Bates.
“When I started thinking about the piece, Muti told me he would premiere it on a program that included Schubert. I really don't like listening to other music when I’m composing, but I did do some reading about Schubert. I found a fascinating article about his illness, a variation of manic depression. Then I found I had a new context for understanding his work. I love the poems of Seamus Heaney,” she confesses. Clyne found the poem by Nobel laureate Heaney “very evocative of a night out on the ocean. And his Elegy, which deals with the manic depression of Robert Lowell, gave me the title—‘Night Ferry.’”
Now in her second year as composer-in-residence at Chicago, Clyne is engaged in curating a contemporary music series, and composing orchestral works which are performed by the orchestra. “The orchestra also plays some of our existing orchestral and chamber works,” she explains. “I'm also very interested in outreach, and I’m helping to teach composition to incarcerated youth as well as people with Alzheimer’s—people who might not be able to express themselves in other ways.” Clyne, whose multimedia collaborations have taken her across the globe, believes that engagement with different social and artistic communities is “a vital part of being a composer. I was supported in my work, and couldn't have done what I am doing without that help. I want to pass on that support, to bring hope to others. Music really is a universal language.”
Clyne's composing career came about in what she calls an unplanned way.
“I’ve always loved music, and while my parents weren't musicians, I grew up around folk music, lots of Beatles music, that informed my work. I had a piano starting when I was seven, and I started writing little pieces on it, purely untrained. I played the cello—I did lots of things musically,” she recalls. “I’ve always tried to find new aspects of music, new projects to keep it fresh. I bring in other media—dance, film—to help push me in new directions. I don't want to ever get stale.”
Clyne works a lot in electro-acoustic sound, involving live instrumentation as well as pre-recorded work. “I guess the Beatles did a lot of that. Layered and distorted, then live musicians played along with that. One of the things I do in this work—and the Beatles did this—is panning, moving sound across from left to right. I have three percussionists—one stage left, one in the middle and one on the right of the orchestra. They create the sound of a bass drum rolling from left to right. This sense of movement through time helps the audience to experience the journey.”
Clyne joins the Cabrillo Festival for the third time this summer.
“I can’t wait to get back,” she says. “There are so many unique things about Cabrillo. It’s incredibly welcoming for orchestras and musicians passionate about contemporary music. They’re all there because they really care, they’re totally engaged. Especially under Alsop’s leadership. We get to meet other musicians— to enjoy the experience and also the relationships we form with each other.”
Santa Cruzans are lucky, since most communities in this country lack exposure to new music. “This is a problem,” Anna Clyne laments, “but I believe, I hope, it is changing. Even though it’s moving slowly, events like the Cabrillo Festival show that it will change.”
Sean Friar’s ‘Noisegate’
Based in Los Angeles, 28-year-old Sean Friar is one of the youngest in a long line of luminaries to win the coveted Prix de Rome. His new work Noisegate is the product of meditations on the spectacular contrasts of life in and around Los Angeles. Scored for full orchestra the piece takes its name from the computer software used to control the volume of a sound signal. In the course of the opening night performance Noisegate will gradually reduce the high sound threshold of urban reality in order to reveal the delicate textures of natural soundscapes.
Immersed in music since he began piano lessons at the age of four, Friar feels lucky to have been encouraged to improvise rather than simply swallow the classics. “I played 12-bar blues and did lots of improvisation and started taking composition lessons in middle school. It just went from there. I never had an existential moment of decision—I was always a composer. It happened naturally and easily.” As an undergraduate at UCLA, Friar double-majored in music and psychology. “It was just a hedge, a safety net in case things didn't go well with music,” he laughs. “Now I'm almost finished with my Ph.D. in music composition at Princeton.” With the 2011 Prix de Rome came a year of creative work in Rome. Friar admits that the portfolio he submitted to the Prix committee was largely chamber music, “which is why I'm excited about the Cabrillo opportunity to make work for a full orchestra.”
Noisegate, written for full orchestra, is 10 minutes long. “L.A. was my muse,” Friar notes. “I live here, it’s my home. When I got this commission I began thinking about what direction to go. I knew the piece was going to be an opener, and it should be something short and snappy.” The idea came to him while on a hike in Topanga Canyon, 10 minutes from his house. “It's incredible that you can go very quickly from the thickness of urban L.A. to a hiking trail with nothing man-made in sight. While hiking, the silence struck me. And then gradually my ears adjusted, and tiny sounds began to emerge. I heard the wind, then birds chirping, and then animal sounds. I sat still and there were more rustlings, and by the end of my rest there was this nice complex blend of interesting sounds. That quick transition between the two environments is what gave me a clear idea of the form of the piece.” And the resulting sense of spontaneity in Noisegate is linked directly to that almost magical transition from the snarling metropolis to the idyllic canyon.
“I started with the raucous urban noise which then gets peeled away to quietness. Then the development into a world of their own, the small emerging sounds of nature—and then suddenly back. The piece follows that journey.
“I want [listeners] to come away with the experience itself—it contains a little flavor of what I was going through at the time. Then hopefully they can graft it onto their own life experience.”
Is it difficult bringing new orchestral music to the public’s attention? “Certainly our culture puts more focus on popular music. With contemporary recording techniques we’re on a much more level playing field, classical and new music. But we hear music more of the popular kind. It’s about the money,” he chuckles. And Friar agrees that it’s hard to be exposed to new music. “People are very excited about new music when they hear it. But they have to be able to hear it first. That’s the tough part—getting new music to the people. Especially because concerts cost money. Unless you already know about newer music, you tend to listen to what’s already established.” Friar looks forward to the Cabrillo experience. “It's an extremely impressive roster, a great group of composers—really unheard of. It’s also so diverse, not just one style of music being featured.”
Admitting that he now has gigs booked well in advance, Friar says he likes to be on hand when his work is being rehearsed. “I like to coach the ensembles whenever I can and be there for the first or second performances, so I can send notes to help fine-tune. One of the best parts of being a composer is you get to travel to so many wonderful places.
About his own music, Friar says, “I put myself on the medium to sort-of-hard part of the scale.” He gives his music a 7 on a scale of 10. “The music is visceral but it’s intricately put together. It’s intricate and things happen quickly. There’s a wide affectual range —musicians have to be able to turn on a dime. In general that makes my music hard, the affectual layers and the quick changes.” Most of his past work has been written for five to eight players. “That works well for my music because they can react quickly.” On the other hand, “music for orchestra offers a chance for sheer variety of sound. You can see how the colors relate to each other.”
Friar has been back in Los Angeles from Rome for one year, and sees plenty of momentum for new music, “even though the culture of L.A. is skewed toward the entertainment industry. We have fewer composers than New York. In Princeton I’m close enough to New York to go there every six weeks. You need to work with other musicians as much as possible.
“Getting the Rome Prize has gotten me attention,” Friar admits. “I've been approached by more people than ever before since the Rome Prize.” And he’s had more commissions. “I generally need the deadline. There so much mental work to be done writing a piece—I need a concrete goal to help push myself. So many directions you can go,” he says, savoring the creative possibilities. “Having boundaries helps you commit to making it happen.”
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
Santa Cruz Civic, Aug. 2-11