New music mission continues for CSO's Bates, Clyne

Mason Bates
Chicago Tribune

John von Rhein

It's a good time to catch up with Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. With new albums in release, multiple commissions in the works and performances here, there and everywhere, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's busy composers-in-residence aren't exactly standing around waiting for their phones to ring.

What's remarkable is the extent that their own music, and the works of others they've championed during their time in Chicago, has taken hold across a wide spectrum of listener sensibilities. Riccardo Muti seemed to predict as much when he brought them on board in 2010.

Together, Bates and Clyne, with their very different styles, mirror the eclectic vitality that characterizes today's global village of new music. They are a big reason why Chicago's contemporary music scene is thriving and getting attention throughout the Midwest and on both coasts.

CSO Resound, the orchestra's in-house record label, last week issued a digital-only release containing Clyne's "Night Ferry" and Bates' "Alternative Energy," recorded at the CSO's world premieres of those works under Muti's direction here in February 2012.

The Clyne work, which the composer describes as "a voyage through turbulent darkness with moments of light," has grown on me. The score's roiling strings, jabbing brass and delicate Tibetan singing bowls now come together with an expressive impact I didn't feel at the premiere.

Bates' "Alternative Energy" is more immediately accessible, music shot through with electronica-infused sonorities and rhythms that owe as much to techno as Stravinsky. The big brass yawps at the end make you want to whoop along with the orchestra. You can download the album at iTunes and

Another recent recording, "Two X Four," on Chicago's Cedille label, honors Clyne's friendship with the brilliant, Chicago-born violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh, a musical soul mate who also believes in artistic collaboration.

The CD includes "Prince of Clouds," a duo for two violins and string orchestra Clyne composed in 2012 for Koh and Jaime Laredo, the violinist's former teacher and mentor during her days at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. A singing, six-note melodic figure is developed and finally exalted, with flurries of solo and group activity, distant echoes of old English consort music and spiky bits of neo-classicism coming together and leading to a luminous close. One of Clyne's most appealing works, it shares the disc with double-violin works by J.S. Bach, Philip Glass and David Ludwig. The performances and recording leave nothing to be desired.

For Clyne, Koh would appear to be a potent muse. In December, the violinist will premiere Clyne's "Rest These Hands," a violin chamber-concerto, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. And in May 2015, Koh and the CSO are scheduled to introduce Clyne's new Violin Concerto, a Chicago Symphony commission. She and Bates also will have new works on the CSO's MusicNOW series, which they co-curate.

"Mason and I are both fortunate that Muti brought us together as a team," says the British-born Clyne, 34, a Chicago resident for the last four years. "We have found curating MusicNOW particularly exciting and rewarding – there's such an enthusiastic audience for contemporary music here – and Chicago has been a great place for collaboration. The CSO staff has been incredibly supportive of our (efforts) to create an immersive digital experience that embraces all the arts."

"Thinking imaginatively about bringing new music to new audiences in new ways has been the biggest eye-opening experience for me and Anna," agrees the 37-year-old Bates, a Virginia native who's based in San Francisco. "The CSO invented the idea of a resident composer, and many other orchestras gratefully followed suit. I hope (those orchestras) look at the substance of this position with an eye to expanding their own."

A composer by day, a dance-club DJ by night, Bates continues to confound old-guard critics and classical music fogies who adhere to the hackneyed notion that classical new music that's actually enjoyable to listen to cannot, ipso facto, be any good. The recently released "Stereo Is King," containing six of the composer's acoustical and electro-acoustical chamber works, explodes that tired contention with subversive glee.

The Innova disc, which includes concert recordings of the title track and Bates' "Difficult Bamboo," taken from performances on the MusicNOW series, shows the composer's sly penchant for infusing classical compositional procedures with playful vernacular elements that energize and finally transform the classical elements.

"Stereo Is King" is a jumpy, high-energy conversation for marimba, Thai gongs and toy drums, overlaid with popping electronica. "Difficult Bamboo" imagines the dislocated rhythms, slashing chords and bent tunings of a strings-winds-piano-and-percussion sextet as an alien bamboo plant invading and ruining a sylvan landscape. The remaining works on the disc are hardly less distinctive and compelling, and are brilliantly played as well.

Next season, Muti is to lead the CSO in the world premiere of Bates' "Anthology of Fantastic Zoology," which the composer calls "a kind of psychedelic 'Carnival of the Animals' '' – "a suite of strange character pieces conjured by various CSO players, a bit like a concerto for orchestra."

Clyne does some of her most potent work when she has artists from other disciplines to inspire her.

In the aptly titled "Fits + Starts," presented at last week's MusicNOW season finale in the Harris Music and Dance Theater, two dancers from Los Angeles' Hysterica Dance Company lurched, crouched and intertwined in a series of robotic moves choreographed by Clyne colleague Kitty McNamee. The dancers took their cues from violent flashes of sound produced by a live cellist, the CSO's Brant Taylor, and doctored with electronic processing.

Clyne's six-minute piece shared the program with recent works for small and large ensembles by the gifted young American composer Andrew Norman (his evocative and absorbing string trio "The Companion Guide to Rome") and the British-born Oscar Bettison ("Livre des Sauvages"). Bettison's gimmicky instrumentation included both conventional percussion and invented noise makers such as a melodica (attached to a foot pump) and a "wrenchophone" (a xylophone made of wrenches). I came away from this half-hour of pile-driver dissonance feeling beaten down, quite the reverse of the composer's intended sensation.

All three pieces were performed at a high level by CSO musicians and guests, with principal conductor Cliff Colnot directing a remarkably tight account of the Bettison work. But the inclusion of sonic indulgences such as "Livre des Sauvages" suggested that Bates and Clyne need to adjust their programming priorities before launching their final tour of duty at the CSO.

Sharps and flats

Three instrumental ensembles from the Chicago area have won medals at the 2014 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition in Notre Dame, Ind.

The bronze medal in the senior wind division went to Chicago's Lincoln Chamber Brass. The first-place medal and scholarship in the junior division was won by the Quartet Fuoco of Midwest Young Artists in Highwood. The second-place medal and scholarship went to the Vox Quartet of the Music Institute of Chicago Academy.

The grand prize and gold medal in the senior string division was won by the Telegraph Quartet of San Francisco. The Akropolis Reed Quintet captured the gold medal in the senior wind division. Forty-eight ensembles from across the nation and around the world took part in the U.S.' largest chamber music competition.

Collectors will want to check out the array of prized vinyl recordings and compact discs for sale at the 27th annual Midwest Classical Record Show, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Holiday Inn Chicago North Shore, 5300 W. Touhy Ave., Skokie. Dealers from across the country will be selling thousands of collectible LPs and CDs. Admission is $2;