EXCLUSIVE: Composers Mason Bates and Anna Clyne on Re-Imagining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's MusicNOW Series

By Louise Burton on Jan 31, 2014 08:28 PM EST

The audience at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW concert is in for a vastly different experience than is the norm at most other CSO concerts.

In the neon-lit lobby of the Harris Theater, there are live DJs spinning electronica. When audience members enter the concert hall, they will not be given anything as prosaic as a printed program.

"Instead, there are video program notes projected between pieces," said Mason Bates, CSO composer-in-residence and one of the curators of the MusicNOW series. The videos include composers talking about the new music the audience is about to hear.

MusicNOW, curated by Bates and fellow CSO composer-in-residence Anna Clyne, is the Chicago Symphony's nationally recognized new music series.

The next MusicNOW concert on Monday, February 3 will include Bates' bluegrass-influenced String Band for prepared piano trio, and Clyne's The Lost Thought, the second in a series of five Emily Dickinson poems set to music.

The evening also holds the U.S. premiere of Argentinian composer Martin Matalon's Traces II for solo viola and live electronics.

Clyne says that they try to program a representative sample of the incredible variety of new music styles that exist. "A fun part of this process is being exposed to so many different styles of music," she said. "The Chicago music scene is so diverse, and there's a lot of cross-pollination."

"The most important thing [at MusicNOW concerts] is the music you choose as curator of the event," Bates said. "But there's a real opportunity to rethink how the audience experiences this music, in ways that are far more relevant to audiences today."

As Bates points out, the symphony concert format was established in the 18th and 19th centuries and hasn't fundamentally changed since then.

"We decided to fast-forward a few centuries," he said. Bates and Clyne collaborated to re-imagine the concertgoing experience for a 21st-century audience.

Their new format includes elaborate lighting and stagecraft, as well as video projections that present important information about the music and provide a clear explanation of the unfamiliar sounds the audience is about to hear.

Bates likens the overall experience to a journey through new music, where the voices of composers act as guides through an eclectic landscape of contemporary sounds.

Another focus is on the musicians, themselves. Clyne said, "We also want to showcase the musicians of the CSO, who are some of the finest musicians in the world. So we look for pieces for solo instruments as well as larger ensembles."

CSO violist Weijing Wang will play the solo part in Traces II on the February 3 program, and Clyne's own work The Lost Thought has three voice parts that will be sung by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra chorus.

More information about the CSO's innovative MusicNOW concert series is available at


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TagsChicago Symphony Orchestra, MusicNOW, Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, CSO Composer-in-Residence, Martin Matalon, Traces II, Harris Theater, String Band, The Lost Thought, Weijing Wang, EXCLUSIVE

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