MusicNOW Review – Three New Music Masterworks Inspired by Visuals

Andrew Norman's "Companion Guide to Rome" was inspired by the architecture of many Roman churches


Architecture, dance, a rare illustrated book—these were the visual inspirations for three works performed by CSO’s MusicNOW Ensemble. 


Andrew Norman’s “Companion Guide to Rome” was the attention-commanding opener played by Baird Dodge (violin), Joshua Zajac (cello) and Weijing Wang (viola).  In the video introduction by the composer Norman explained that he had attended the American Academy of Rome for one year and during that time was able to explore Rome’s many churches.  Norman explains, “..Some movements are architectural.  Others are intuitive.” 


Originally a violist, this work began with Norman scratching out improvisations on his viola.  From its architectural sketches he later came to see each movement as a friend with whom he traveled through Rome, naming the pieces for these friends—Teresa, Susanna, Pietro, Ivo, Clemente and Sabina. 


Composer Andrew Norman (right) with violinist Baird Dodge, violist Weijing Wang and cellist Joshua Zajac


Indeed the music did make us aware of the space before us.  In the Susanna movement, for example, the slightest scratching of viola notes gives the feel of sound coming to us from a great distance afar, a technique echoed by the cello in the Sabina movement at the performance close. 


It was extremely easy to latch on to Norman’s composition.  The scratchy whisper of the instruments and the upper register violin solo of the Clemente movement were particularly memorable.




What a treat “Fits + Starts” was for the audience!  Two talented dancers (Sara Silken and Christian Brower of choreographer McNamee’s Hysterica Dance Company) danced to live cello accompaniment by Brant Taylor and a tape of harpsichord and other instruments.   Originally composed in 2003 by Anna Clyne with choreography by Kitty McNamee, Clyne explains that she was “…drawn to her (McNamee) use of subtle gestures that are woven into the fabric of her work to form a narrative structure.  I took this as a source of inspiration for the motive cells that drive the music in “Fits + Starts”—harpsichord ornaments, angular rhythmic pizzicato figures in the cello…I am drawn to its core sense of sensuality—often shadowed by an ominous underbelly of tension.”


McNamee's choreography often centers on sensuality and undertones of tension, which draws composer Anna Clyne to her work


From McNamee’s perspective, working with Clyne in a collaborative fashion is what she treasures most about this work.  McNamee comments, “She wrote this music for me, with my style and choreographic interests in mind.  For example, I’d say I want more tension in this section and she would rewrite it as requested.   One of my goals is to get people who are not dance people to engage in dance.  Gesture figures in my work and how it is repeated as a way to engage these non-dancers.  When I used a gesture Anna would do the same with the music.”


McNamee's work also uses many repeated gestures--here the buttoning of an imagined shirt--to help make her work accessible to a non-dancer audience. Clyne's music creates repeats that amplify the gestures


McNamee calls her work with Clyne “a creative conversation”.  She recounts,  “I was in Los Angeles and she was in New York.  She’d send me a section of music and I’d work with it in the studio.  We’d talk about what we were each doing, but since we are so in synch we actually didn’t need to talk that much.  I would send her snippets of video and she would return music.”


Choreographer Kitty McNamee. Photo by Paul Smith


“Fits + Starts” tells the story of a relationship’s rocky course, McNamee says, “It’s a theme in lots of my choreography (i.e. the sensuality of which Clyne says is one draw for her to McNamee’s work).  It’s something that everyone can relate to on a very real level and everyone struggles with and thinks about.  It’s not a dance related theme. It’s a very human question and I’m drawn to it as is Anna—the psychology.”


McNamee shares, “While Anna and I are both very contemporary in our craft we are influenced by the baroque.  There is a sense of time in our work—a reference to the past.  When you hear the music and see the movement you’re experiencing a classicism that’s twisted and made into a new form.”


An ensemble of 15 MusicNOW musicians performs Oscar Bettison's "Livre des Sauvages)


Last on the program was a performance by fifteen MusicNOW Ensemble members conducted by Cliff Colnot performing Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages”.   This visual inspiration was a graphical book found in America and mistakenly taken to be art by Native Americans and taken to France.  In the video introduction Bettison joked at how the German notes in the book suggested that it was not genuine Native American work. 


Alas, the striking and unique images from this book were shown only briefly during the video introduction.  Even from the quick flashes of these images it was clear that they are very original and seeming to create a visual language connection from one drawing to another.  In lieu of projecting the images, Bettison’s remarks on the pictures were flashed on the screen as preface to each of the three movements, aptly titled, “Curious fauna, some of it murderous”, “Alchemy or a new religion” and “Treasure ships and heretical ceremonies”. 


In his introduction Bettison explained that the orchestra is divided into two groups led by two different violins.  This was a complex musical constructions with many instruments played in nontraditional ways.  One violin had a curious bellows attachment.  At one point a violin was played with a tuning fork on its body.  At one point a few members of the ensemble move to pluck the piano strings.  Throughout, we  watched the percussionist (Cynthia Yeh) move quickly from a family of gongs to a wide array of other instruments  such as air pumps, hotel desk bells and invented wrenchophone, among others.


As with all MusicNOW concerts, it continued in the hallways of the Harris Theater with electronic music performances and mixing with the musicians.  Free pizza and beer too!  This is probably one of the best $15 tickets in the city!


MusicNOW performances are held in the Harris Theater but tickets for next season are on sale at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan or by calling 312-294-3000 or online at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.




Photos:  Todd Rosenberg, unless otherwise indicated

Video:  Hysterica Dance Company 







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