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Andrea Clearfield [Photo by John Hayes]
31 Dec 2010

Andrea Clearfield — An Interview

Composer and pianist Andrea Clearfield is a fundamental presence on the contemporary music scene in Philadelphia, with a long collaboration with the Relâche Ensemble to her credit, as well as a monthly salon in her home (with close to 25 years of concerts) that brings together artists from various disciplines, not only music.

An Interview with Andrea Clearfield

By Tom Moore

Above: Andrea Clearfield [Photo by John Hayes]


We spoke via Skype on April 13, 2010.

TM: Did you grow up in a musical family?

AC: Yes, I did. My father is a physician and my mother is a painter; they are both amateur musicians and there was always music in the house. When I was growing up they would invite people over to play chamber music. I was a pianist very early on. My mother also played the piano, so when I learned the flute we could play trios — my father played the clarinet. We would play through various arrangements including the Bach Double Concerto — whatever we could find.

TM: Where did you grow up?

AC: In Bala Cynwyd, a suburb of Philadelphia.

TM: Had your family been on the Main Line for a long time, or had they moved to the area?

AC: They had moved to the area. I was born in Wynnfield, which is just outside Philadelphia.

TM: Farther back, were there musicians in the family?

AC: Not that I know of. My father’s mother loved to dance and she loved theater. She introduced me to musicals and plays when I was a kid. But I don’t know of any other musicians.

TM: Did you start on piano because your mother was an enthusiastic pianist?

AC: She was actually a very shy pianist. She studied when she was younger, but didn’t have the nerve for performance. Her childhood piano was moved to our house when I was five, and I sat down and started to play something that I had heard at school. That stimulated my parent’s interest in giving me lessons, since I seemed to have a natural interest in playing. I began lessons at that time.

TM: When did you start on the flute?

AC: In junior high school. I practiced, and somehow became first flute in the school orchestra. I really enjoyed playing in the orchestra. I played flute and piccolo, and was also the pianist/accompanist for the choirs, starting in second or third grade. And because I was already there, I would be called on if the percussionists were absent. So by default I was playing percussion as well. Later somebody had figured out that I had perfect pitch, so I ended up by the timpani.

TM: This was all in the public schools in Bala?

AC: Yes, at Cynwyd Elementary, Bala Cynwyd Junior High, and Lower Merion High School.

TM: Do they continue to have strong music programs there?

AC: I hope so. One of my mentors was Dr. Herman Giersch, the choir and music director at Lower Merion High School. He is in his nineties now, and still playing and tuning pianos. He was an inspiration — his passion for music, his encouragement, and the training he gave all of us, so that we could become the best musicians that we could be, was an integral part of my musical development. Later on I was privileged to have great teachers. There were music theory classes in my junior high school! I don’t know how many schools still have a theory program. Leonard Murphy was another important and supportive teacher in junior high school.

TM: Were you writing compositions in elementary school?

AC: I never thought of myself as a composer — sometimes I wonder if that was because I didn’t have any female role models as a young woman — but I was always writing. It was a natural extension of a love of collaboration, which has essentially continued into my work today. I would take pop songs off the radio, pieces that I liked by various artists, and arrange them for voices, and harmony and strings and percussion, and bring my friends over to play them. We would perform them on the talent show at school. I had a proclivity for bringing people together around the ritual of making music. Those arrangements were really my first compositions.

TM: Do you still have those at home in your archives?

AC: There might be some cassette tapes. I’m not sure if I’d want you to hear them! They are probably somewhere in my parents’ garage.

TM: You mentioned pop music. What were you listening to as a teen?

AC: When I was making these arrangements I was about twelve, and listening to my first LP’s — Carole King, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg; a little later, the group Renaissance, a classical-rock crossover ; when I got into my later teens I was very much interested in fusion — classical-jazz-world music fusion — Chick Corea, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis.

TM: Were you interested in making music like that fusion? Or was it music that you were listening to?

AC: It was music that I was listening to. The arrangements that I made were an exploration of the sounds and colors that I could create from the instruments that my friends played. I would write small chamber orchestra pieces, not really thinking of them as compositions, but as a way of bringing life to these songs that I liked when I was very young. My first real pieces were written in college, for my best friend who was a dancer. I was self-taught as a composer. As a pianist I played every style of music, graduated with two degrees in piano, and went on to be a collaborative pianist, working a lot playing chamber music. In college I was just writing on my own. I look back at that time and I was not thinking of myself as a composer. It was not until I met the woman who would become my most important mentor, composer Margaret Garwood, in undergraduate school, that I thought “Oh, this is something that I am already doing, and I guess that I can really do it — be a composer.” My first piece was for one flute and dancer. I played the flute and my best friend danced. My second piece was for two flutes and dancer — I played one of the parts, and she danced. I started adding on from what I knew, and by that time I was very interested in poetry, and started to write a lot of vocal works with instruments.

When I met Margaret Garwood at Muhlenberg College — she was piano faculty there, and I was a piano major — I was immediately compelled to find out more about what it meant to be a composer. She was writing operas and was very, very encouraging of my work. I started to show her the pieces that I was writing, sort of under-cover, and she encouraged me to come forward and explore what was there. She remains my mentor to this day. She is in her eighties and has just finished her new opera, The Scarlet Letter.

TM: You went on to graduate school in piano. It was not until after you finished that you started to think seriously about composition as a career direction?

AC: Yes, it was after my masters’, although I was writing throughout that time. I was studying piano more seriously as a student of Susan Starr and supported myself as a collaborative pianist, playing chamber music, contemporary music, working with theater and dance. But I was writing, and it was during that time that I wrote many pieces for voice and chamber ensemble, and was very interested in poetry. A little bit later I started to write for chorus and chamber orchestras. At that point I applied to Temple University for a doctorate in composition. That was in 1995, so I was an older student. I had already been out of school for quite some time teaching and performing. I had had a number of pieces published, had commissions and so forth. Some earlier formal training was at the Aspen festival, where I studied with George Tsontakis.

TM: What was the focus of your study with Tsontakis? Were you studying serial techniques?

AC: Coming into composition from having been a performer first, I was already writing in my own language. The teachers that I did have were interested in working with where I already was, so we didn’t do particular studies in serial techniques because I wasn’t working that way.

TM: Please talk about your study at Temple.

AC: I really enjoyed my studies there. It was a chance for me to work with Maurice Wright, who was the chairman of the composition department there at that time. I was writing orchestral works, and was also interested in working with electronics. (I studied C-Sound with him). I had a lot of gaps, being a self-trained composer, and pursuing my first degree in composition as a doctoral degree. It was so exciting to have all these opportunities to learn, with courses in post-tonal theory, and seminars in Bartok and Ives — it was quite a stimulating time.

TM: What would you describe as your “opus one”, whatever that might mean for you?

AC: Probably my first large-scale work, scored for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra to the inaugural poem by Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning.

TM: Who was that commissioned by?

AC: It was written in 1993 for a chorus in Philadelphia, Voces Novae et Antiquae, but not commissioned. It was a piece that I submitted as part of my doctoral application.

TM: What is it about that piece that makes it a landmark, a divider of waters, for you?

AC: It put together my love for poetry, for the sound of voices, particularly chorus, the colors of the orchestra, the expansion of traditional techniques into large-scale form — those are threads that have continued through many of my more recent works. I have been writing a lot of cantatas and oratorios over the last ten years, and this was perhaps the first of those large-scale works which combined those forces, and also gave me the chance to expand into a larger dramatic trajectory.

TM: You had had a lot of experience working with choruses.

AC: I started in my early years as the pianist for the chorus, and the sound of voices has always been in my ear. It is very powerful, very emotional, very immediate — being an accompanist from elementary through graduate school made an indelible mark.

TM: What do you find that is successful, or perhaps less successful, in writing for voices? What is effective in writing for chorus?

AC: What makes a difference to me is to sing every part. I can experience what it feels like to put that music in the voice — it has to feel good in the voice. And having a meaningful text, where there is space in the text for a deeper rendering. The work should resonate with the singers, so that they are engaged on many levels, musical, emotional and otherwise.

TM: To return to Temple and studying with Maurice Wright — I know everyone says that you can’t teach composition — but what did he bring to you?

AC: I came in with a natural ear for what was compelling to me, and he didn’t try to change those things, but encouraged me to look at the material that was arising in a deeper way. He would say “let’s look at a microcosm of that — what is that made up of?” and we would take a zoom lens into my material, the essentials of it, the DNA, the core, and analyze it with various techniques. He inspired me to look at what was coming up intuitively and then consider how it could be more successfully developed.

TM: Composers can be divided into two camps — those who have an architectural approach, where the detail comes from an overarching structure, and those who invent details, which generate larger structure, perhaps a more narrative approach. Which camp do you belong to?

AC: It’s hard to say — I might actually be a hybrid. For me the form is extremely important. When writing a piece that is an hour long, it is essential to have a trajectory in mind, and to think about how this large work will be structured. At the same time, there are seed materials that will come in and inform the larger structure. I will go back and forth with those. There might be a five-note motif that in some way generates the hour-long work. It might be the research on the text, and the implications behind the text, that then shape the large-scale trajectory.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about some recent pieces. How did Awake at Dawn [2000] come to be, and what were the esthetic influences on that piece?

AC: There was a seven-note motif that corresponded to seven evocative words from the poem, written by Manfred Fischbeck. That motif, layered, created a harmonic foundation for the work. The color of the sound was essentially driven by the words.

TM: Another piece that I was intrigued by was Women of Valor [2000]. Could you say a little about that?

AC: I have composed several Jewish-themed pieces, and this is the largest. It was written for the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony — Noreen Green is the conductor. She and I had met at the Aspen Music Festival, and this piece was an outgrowth of our friendship and our desire to do a project together. It was a very interesting project, because the idea was drawn from Proverbs 31….

TM: “A woman of valor, who can find?”

AC: Yes, there is a midrash that links each line of that poem to a different woman’s story in the Bible. The form came first, because after discovering the midrash, it occurred to me “What an ideal form for a large-scale piece!” The biblical text could be the recitative, so to speak, and the biblical women’s stories would be told in arias, interspersed after the appropriate line. I highlighted ten women, since using all twenty-two women referred to in the twenty-two line acrostic would have turned into a marathon. I separated it into three movements, and worked with this dialectic between the ancient texts and newly-written texts by contemporary Jewish women writers.

TM: Did Jewish musical styles, or music for the service, have an influence on the style you used for that piece?

AC: Most definitely. It was appropriate for that particular work. I studied the trope melodies sung for the liturgy, and like many Jewish composers, including Bernstein, I used some of those trope melodies in the piece, as well as other ancient melodies –Sephardic, Ashkenazic, folk material. There was pre-existing source material that I used and fragmented — various melodies that were sung to Women of Valor over the years.

TM: You are Jewish. What did that bring to you musically?

AC: I am not a practicing Jew, but was born and raised Jewish. My early years at the synagogue were particularly meaningful because of the passion of the music and the cantors. There was a yearning, a resonance, almost a crying in the music that really moved me.

TM: A broader question — does being Jewish have an effect, not just on your Jewish-themed works, but on your production more generally?

AC: I wouldn’t say that. I think that I grew up in an environment that was generally conducive to music making, and there were so many elements that contributed to who I am. Certainly part of that would have been a love of the music at the synagogue when I was younger, but I don’t think of myself as a Jewish composer, or even a woman composer.

TM: It strikes me in listening to your music that in a certain sense you have more of an attraction towards energetic, dynamic music, more so than something that is more lyric and evanescent.

AC: A number of my works embrace a rhythmic, vital energy, but I also have a deep love of lyricism and I love color — the colors of the sounds, and the textures. There are works that combine this sense of rhythmic energy with soaring, lyrical lines, exploiting colors of the instruments.

TM: There is a work which featured Sanford Sylvan — the Golem Psalms. [A golem is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, made from clay, and brought to life by the magical use of Hebrew letters or words. The most well-known golem is connected in folklore with the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, in Renaissance Prague]. He seems to be the epitome of lyrical singing. How did he come to be the soloist?

AC: It was the artistic director’s decision (Alan Harler) to ask Sandy to be our soloist, and I was thrilled. He is so wonderful to work with, and has the most beautiful voice. He articulates the words so beautifully. It was premiered in 1996, and he sang it again a few weeks ago at Verizon Hall with the Temple University choruses and orchestra. It’s interesting that you mention that he has such a gift for the lyrical line, since in this piece the first three movements involve driving rhythms depicting a primal being. Sanford found a way to sing that role with lyricism and a kind of pointedness that it needed. He wasn’t such a brute.

TM: That’s is the tradition of Frankenstein, isn’t it?

AC: That’s right. In the libretto that was created for the work by Ellen Frankel, (where the Golem traditionally doesn’t have a soul), she really wanted to shed light on what was happening in his soul if he had one. You observe the inner life of the Golem, so in that way it was just perfect to have Sandy be the soloist, because he could do that with such sensitivity.

TM: Is there a brand new piece that you would like to talk about, or a piece that is in process?

AC: About a year and a half ago I received a commission from Network for New Music, which is one of Philadelphia’s contemporary music ensembles. It’s an excellent ensemble made up of many Philadelphia Orchestra players. Linda Reichert, the artistic director, had a vision for a season called Mix, consisting of composers and artists who were paired together. I was paired with artist Maureen Drdak, and was happy about that because I loved her work. Maureen derives her inspiration from the iconography of Tibetan Buddhist art, and travels to Nepal for her research. When she discovered that we were paired together, she asked if I would like to join her on an upcoming trek. We trekked through the Himalayas on horseback, and spent time in the restricted area of Lo Monthang, in Upper Mustang, Nepal. It was a life-changing experience in so many ways — culturally, spiritually, physically, musically. After returning from that trip, I wrote a piece entitled Lung-Ta, which translates as Wind-Horse and refers to the Buddhist prayer flags that are hung in high places and serve as blessings and protection. The piece became a collaborative work with Maureen Drdak and Manfred Fischeck’s Group Motion Dance Company. Collaboration is important for me as a composer and in everything that I do. This piece was the epitome of that — a beautiful working relationship all the way around. The piece was inspired by the field research that I conducted in Nepal, and some of the field recordings are heard juxtaposed with the live instruments. The musicians are not only playing their own Western instruments but also Tibtetan Buddhist ritual instruments that I brought back from the trek.

The continuation of Lung-Ta is that after having traveled originally with Maureen Drdak and an anthropologist from Dartmouth, Dr. Sienna Craig, it became of interest to record the royal singer, Tashi Tsering. He is in poor health, and it was important to document his repertoire of 100 songs so that they would not be lost to the world when he passes. Anthropologist Katey Blumenthal and I received a grant from the Rubin Foundation to go back to Lo Monthang for the recording project. I will be leaving next month for another trek (this time on foot) to record the music, and will write another piece commissioned by Network for New Music, based on these songs, that will be performed in Philadelphia next year [2011].

TM: Does the piece have a name?

AC: Not yet. I will be writing the piece after I return from the trek in June, at an artists’ colony in Bavaria.

TM: You have had a long collaboration with the Relâche ensemble. Is that ongoing?

AC: Yes, I have been playing keyboards for Relâche since the late eighties. You think about what your pivotal experiences were as a young person, what turned you on as a young musician, and one thing that occurred was in 1976, when I was a teenager: I walked into a theater, on South Street in Philadelphia, that was then called the Painted Bride. All the lights were off, the audience was sitting on the floor, and there were these woodwind players walking around in the dark playing long tones. Each time they would approach each other it would turn into a chord or an interval, and they would improvise. The whole thing was so wondrous to me. I couldn’t believe that this was music. Something clicked inside me with this interest in ritual and the ceremonial and finding alternative settings for music in hearing this ensemble, which turned out to be Relâche. I started to follow them, to go to their concerts, and the director at the time, Joseph Franklin, asked if I would be interested in playing piano as a second pianist to John Dulik, one of the original members for this group which has been around for over 35 years. I started playing with the ensemble, and when John decided to retire I was brought on as the primary pianist for over twelve years now. When I am too busy to play, we call on other pianists to sub. The early group was dedicated to downtown music, and has now expanded to other styles of contemporary music.

TM: The concerts I have heard seemed far from downtown.

AC: Originally it was music that incorporated jazz, world music, and minimalism. I wrote some pieces for them early on.

TM: I suppose it should be called Center City music. Final thoughts?

AC: Another outgrowth of my interest in collaboration has been a Salon series that I started in 1986 and hold monthly. The idea was to provide a space that was not just another concert, but a place that celebrates the diversity of performers and audiences. There’s a vitality that happens when different genres come together, and for an intergenerational and intercultural audience. It happens in an intimate space, my living room, where artists can talk to other artists, and audience can meet the artists and each other, and build community. Here in Philadelphia, this 21st Century spin on the Salon features music and other art forms from different cultures and time periods and of varying styles, genres and cultures: classical to jazz, folk to world, chamber to multi-media, old and new and also features composers presenting their original works that importantly reflect what it means to be alive in this present time. It gives professional artists of all kinds an opportunity to try out new things, make connections and build audiences. It offers the resulting diverse audience an opportunity to be together in a unique setting that breaks down the formal walls between the performers and audience — and provides an inclusive alternative to more formal situations like the concert hall or the jazz club. It brings together a cross fertilization of performers and audience members creating a ritual of personal expression — a powerful sharing with the larger understanding that the world connects through the global language of art. Since its conception in 1986, there have been over 215 Salons featuring over 6000 performers and over 16,000 audience members passing through my living room. The Salons, ultimately, are about the expression of the human spirit and how we can create vital connection by sharing that personal artistic spirit in community.

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