Anna Clyne
© Christina Kernohan
It seems like such a long time ago. In 2019, Anna Clyne’s chamber orchestra piece Sound and Fury was co-commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. The world première took place in Scotland in November of that year, the French performance followed in January 2020… and then the pandemic hit, resulting in the piece not being able to make it to Hong Kong. All that will change, however, later this month, when the Hong Kong Sinfonietta will finally present their long-awaited Asian première of the piece.

Though frustrating, for Clyne the pandemic turned out to have some positive benefits. “It was a gift of time,” she says. “It was actually the most prolific period: in 2020 I wrote about 15 pieces of music, some of which were quite large.”

Sound and Fury was composed before the pandemic, and the commission stipulated that Clyne should respond in some way to another work being performed alongside it, Haydn’s Symphony no. 60, often nicknamed “Il Distratto”. “They invited me to find inspiration in some form, they weren’t prescriptive in an way, and there were many different ways I could have explored that,” she tells me.

For Clyne, the way in was through the structure of the Haydn, as “that’s the first element that you have to be really mindful of. How are you going to frame your musical ideas?” She explains that the structure of the Haydn, unusually consisting of six movements, provided her with “a really strong framework. While Sound and Fury is in one movement, it does have six subsections that correlate chronologically to the movements of the Haydn.”

In addition to structure, Clyne also spent time with the Haydn, listening for what she calls “key elements” in the piece that could form the basis for material of her own. “It was definitely quite instinctual,” she recalls. “I had the score but I always start with my ear. It seemed a natural point of departure to just listen and become familiar with it. Each of the movements has a very distinct personality, so I was able to extract little ideas. Sometimes it would be a rhythmic idea; sometimes it would be finding how Haydn weaves themes together through the movements. He’s so careful with that, you can often find those threads.”

In addition to specific ideas like these, Clyne was also attracted to the symphony’s character. “One of the things I love about Haydn is that he has quite a strong sense of humour. In the final Prestissimo, he has the strings coming to a grinding halt as they re-tune, so things like that I’m able to play with. Towards the end of Sound and Fury there are very exaggerated glissandi in the strings, a little tongue-in-cheek reference to the Haydn.” The music also features a joke of Clyne’s own, not mentioned in her programme note, where she unexpectedly introduces a small phrase from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra during the fourth section of the piece.

Using existing music as the basis for compositional ideas is not Clyne’s usual approach, however. Typically she begins with a blank slate, and ideas are often formed through collaboration. She described how her new clarinet concerto, Weathered, began by writing etudes for Swedish soloist Martin Fröst: “Based on his feedback, I then expanded them into a conversation with the orchestra”.

Though it uses Haydn’s music as a starting point, Clyne says it isn’t essential for audiences to know Haydn’s Symphony no. 60 before they hear Sound and Fury. “My hope is that the piece stands alone. I think it’s fun and interesting to know the context of the Haydn and that it provided the backbone, but it’s not a prerequisite. But I do include an appendix in the score; if anyone is curious, it lists all the excerpts from the Haydn.”

Ken Lam conducting the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
© HK Sinfonietta Ltd
The other inspiration Clyne turned to, conspicuous in the title of the work, is Shakespeare, specifically Macbeth’s famous soliloquy in response to the death of his wife. Part of her reason for drawing on these words was due to their relationship with time. Anna explains: “The soliloquy says ‘tomorrow …yesterday …another day’. These references to time in the past, future and present, and the rhythm, sort-of trips off the tongue. So that was also an element I wanted to weave into the piece.” Crucially, though, Clyne also drew on this text as a direct response to political events. “I wrote it in 2019, when the political climate was very charged, and I couldn’t help but infuse that into the music.” The work therefore speaks not only as a playful interaction with past music, but also as a stern rebuke to world leaders whose rash actions continue to threaten global peace and stability. “The line ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ felt very relevant.”

To reinforce this stark point, Shakespeare’s text is not alluded to and reworked in the same way as the Haydn, but actively introduced, in full, into the piece in the form of a spoken text. Clyne was originally inspired to incorporate the soliloquy after watching a 1970s masterclass with Sir Ian McKellen, whose voice was used at the first performance. Subsequently, the words have been recorded by Irish composer Irene Buckley, and this is Clyne’s preference for performances, though there is another option. “There’s two ways that it can be delivered, one as a prerecorded voice, and the other is for an actor to come on stage. It’s actually notated, the text is written with the pacing of the text transcribed from the recording and written into the score.” As Anna points out, this provides a possibility for Macbeth’s words to transcend their origins. “There’s been some wonderful live performances. And it can be different genders, different ages, different languages; it’s great that it can be universal.”

The introduction of the Shakespeare into Sound and Fury therefore bestows on the piece an unavoidable narrative element. Clyne says that extra-musical aspects like this are important to her while composing. “The reason I write music is primarily to share a part of me with other people, and also to take the audience on a journey through my imagination. I have quite a vivid imagination, and I love exploring art in all its forms. It’s not so often that I’m writing music for music’s sake. I think there’s always some degree of narrative storytelling in my music.”

Having turned to a symphony for inspiration in Sound and Fury, I asked Anna if she’s interested in writing a symphony herself. “I haven’t really explored that yet. My music tends to be a stream of consciousness rather than a self-contained statement. But that idea of a multi-movement work is something that I’m exploring more, now. I would love the opportunity to write a symphony, it’s something I would definitely be interested in.”

Since the first performance in 2019, Sound and Fury has been played no fewer than 40 times in the UK, Europe and the USA. Clyne is understandably happy with the work’s story so far. “The dream of a composer is for a piece to have a life,” she explains, “so I’m really thrilled that it has gone on to have a life beyond its première. It’s fortuitous because it’s a chamber orchestra piece, inspired by the intimacy and virtuosity of the individual musicians of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and that lent itself very well to performance during the pandemic, with social distancing.”

And with regard to past compositions, she says that she’s not a clingy parent. “I’m very meticulous in the composition and rehearsal process. But once I’ve gone through one or two revisions, I want to move on, even if it's not perfect. You have to just let it be in the world, and hopefully keep evolving from piece to piece.”

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta has had to wait patiently for over two years to perform Sound and Fury, and Clyne is happy that they will finally get the opportunity. “I’m thrilled. It’s my first time having a première with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, and they’re an extraordinary ensemble.”

Sound and Fury is a piece that melds old and new, light and dark, and I asked Anna what she would say to audiences who might not be familiar with contemporary music like this. “Come to it with a sense of curiosity,” she says. “This piece goes through a lot of different landscapes. If one infuriates or bores you, not to worry, there’s a different musical landscape around the corner, so hang on tight and see if you like the next bit. There’s no right or wrong way to listen to or appreciate music. Just come with open ears and imagination.”


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This article was sponsored by Hong Kong Sinfonietta