Q&A: A Conversation with Composer Anna Clyne


Composer Anna Clyne's new work, PIVOT, will receive its U.S. premiere by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on November 19-20 (credit: Christina Kernohan)

By Eric Dundon


The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has a strong connection with composer Anna Clyne, from the rumbling and bustling This Midnight Hour to the mournful and reflective Within Her Arms.


In the 2021/2022 season, the SLSO adds three more works by Clyne to its repertoire. The virtuosic cello concerto, DANCE, opened the SLSO’s 142nd season with Music Director Stéphane Denève, cellist Inbal Segev, and, for the first time, live dancers. On the SLSO’s Live at the Pulitzer series, SLSO musicians will play “Rest these hands” from Clyne’s The Violin November 30-December 1.


Clyne’s new piece, PIVOT, an SLSO co-commission with the Edinburgh International Festival, will receive its U.S. premiere with the orchestra and conductor David Danzmayr in concert November 19-20.


This interview with Anna Clyne was condensed and edited for clarity and length.


SLSO: Talk about how you found out about the commission and a little bit about the genesis of PIVOT.

Anna Clyne: It's a co-commission between the Edinburgh International Festival and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to be writing a new piece for the SLSO because Stéphane Denève has brought several of my pieces to the orchestra. In terms of finding a concept for the piece, I wanted to find something that married Edinburgh, Scotland, and St. Louis, something that had a common thread.


SLSO: Do you have natural connections to Edinburgh?

Clyne: My actual starting point was my experience as an undergrad at Edinburgh University. I would have the opportunity to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is a branch of the Edinburgh International Festival. It's an exciting time of year, and every little nook and cranny becomes a performance venue, be it comedy, music, film, dance, everything you can imagine.


SLSO: What type of message did you aim to convey in PIVOT?

Clyne: I wanted to write a piece that reflected the diversity and the excitement of the Festival. I wanted to take the listener on a journey of sorts into different rooms within this short timeframe of five minutes. The title PIVOT refers to this pivoting between different musical and artists' experiences.


SLSO: The piece also takes inspiration from Edinburgh’s rich history, right?

Clyne: Yes, PIVOT also refers to the name of an old folk music pub and venue in Edinburgh, which is now called The Royal Oak. It's a 200-year-old venue that in the ‘60s was actually called The Pivot. In terms of inspiration, it's invented melodies and harmonies, but I also borrow a tune called “The Flowers of Edinburgh,” which is an old 18th-century Scottish fiddle tune. It's a fiddle tune, though, that's also been adopted into American fiddle music. I thought that was a really nice way to tie St. Louis with Edinburgh through this musical tradition that sort of migrated from Scotland over to the Americas.


SLSO: Is tapping into traditional or folk music something that you do throughout your body of work as a composer?

Clyne: I did it once before in a piece called Masquerade, which is also a five-minute piece, a concert opener for orchestra, and is also another piece that was asked to open an event. In that piece, I used an existing melody. Then I also composed a melody of my own, imagining the orchestra singing “Welcome to Our Masquerade.” I also did that for three other works last year, as part of Beethoven's 250th anniversary. I wrote three pieces that draw inspiration from Beethoven's work.


SLSO: You also have a nice collaborative relationship with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève. Can you talk about that relationship?

Clyne: Yeah, I'm excited to meet him in person. We have been in touch, especially with This Midnight Hour, which is a piece of mine that he brought to St. Louis in the 2019/2020 season. One of the things I love about working with Stéphane is he really gets inside the piece. I almost feel like he knows the music better than I do—he knows all the subtle details. I appreciate his attention to detail and how he brings my music to new context.


SLSO: Your body of work transcends a wide range of ensembles, from solo, chamber, chamber orchestra, and full symphonic forms. Do you find yourself drawn to composing for a specific medium or ensemble more than others?

Clyne: Yeah, I think there's two. Cello is my main instrument. I'm most comfortable writing for strings. I love writing for string quartet or string orchestra, especially string orchestra because you can create a homogenous sound or discordant sound. I have a piece called Within Her Arms, which is for 15 individual string musicians. So that's my favorite sound wall to explore. But in terms of having a real playground to be curious in, the orchestra is the ultimate palette of colors. I think orchestration is like painting—you can combine different instruments to create your own orchestral colors.


SLSO: You will be in attendance for the U.S. premiere of PIVOT. Will this be your first time to St. Louis?

Clyne: I've only been to St. Louis once before. A friend of mine grew up in St. Louis, so I spent a Thanksgiving there probably about 10 years ago, but I haven't been back since. I'm excited to be there this week.


Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.