Next Thursday, 14 May, we will present the second of our two spring concerts at Goldsmiths College, London. As well as pieces by Pauline Oliveros (her almost forgotten string quartet The Wheel of Time, of which we gave the UK premiere at hcmf// last year), Clara Iannotta (Limun for violin, viola, and two page turners), and Patricia Alessandrini (her string quartet De profundis clamavi [hommage à Alban Berg]), we are very excited to be playing the world premiere of on magnetic fields by Ann Cleare in a stripped-back version for two violins and electronics.
Ann teaches at the University of York and Trinity College Dublin, but managed to find time to talk to Tim Rutherford-Johnson about magnetism, sonic sculptures, and the scarcity of arts spaces in rural Ireland.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: I’m afraid I can’t resist starting with the pun: what attracted you to magnets?
Ann Cleare: Hah! I guess it had to do with dividing the large ensemble, which the piece was originally written for, into three smaller chamber ensembles, and then imagining ways that these ‘sonic places’ would connect. The groupings begin the piece as three, spatially separate, sonic entities, and as the piece unfolds some of their sonic language begins to ‘magnetically’ connect and bring them into dialogue. Technically, I see this ‘magnetism’ happening through harmonic and timbral structures that I have embedded in the piece.
TRJ: on magnetic fields was originally written for three chamber groups, but we will be giving the world premiere of a version of the piece for two violins and electronics. That’s quite a different setup – can you describe the relationship between the two versions? Are you compressing things, removing layers, or something else?
AC: At the centre of two of the spatially divided chamber groups lies a solo violin. I think of both solo violins as ‘electric currents’, wiry voices that magnetically charge the electricity of the ensemble that surrounds them, wrapping layers of various sonic materials around the violins, providing what I think of as an electric cloud for the evolving violin electricities to speak from. This type of expansion leads to a very densely orchestrated texture, and after hearing the large ensemble version I felt like the piece could also exist with only the solo violin lines, as they are the material from which everything else develops – that perhaps the ensembles around them comprised a type of protective layering that could be removed to reveal more.
The electronics take on the role of the third chamber group from the large ensemble piece. I refer to this in the score as ‘a box of light’, a mysterious force that has the power to intervene in the unstoppable temporal processes of the violin groups, and lead these parallel universes to moments of communication and realisation. In this new duo version, the box of light is represented by one loudspeaker placed in between the two violins.
TRJ: You often use sculpture as an analogy to how you work with sound. Can you say a little more about this – what aspects of sound are you sculpting, and how? And is a sculpture in three chamber groups different from one in two violins and electronics?
AC: Yes, I do use this analogy quite a bit! And I think it’s because composing to me feels like a shaping of sound, like a very tactile activity. Once I choose a pitch or a chord or a rhythm (perhaps, say, a raw material), I then apply dynamic, articulation, timbral, phrasing, registral details to it, in an attempt to imbue it with a strong sense of character and purpose. When I’m doing this, I feel like I have some type of physical material in my hands and I’m sculpting it until it resembles the shapes and colours that I’m thinking of.
In this vein of thinking, on magnetic fields presents three different sonic sculptures – I shaped each of these differently to create the sense of three different characters/places, though their differences allow them to build connections across these.
TRJ: Presumably the spatial arrangement of the instruments is also important? Your biography refers to an interest in ‘spatially choreographed chamber pieces’.
AC: Yes, the spatial element is important in communicating the idea of unity within groupings and the separation/distance between chamber groupings. To my thinking, my music has always been a place of invisible theatre. To many listeners it may seem completely abstract, but for me, it is a space that is alive with sonic characters and drama, and the visual spacing/choreography is an attempt to visually set this scene for an audience.
TRJ: Like a lot of composers these days you have roots in more than one country through your work and education – in your case, the US (via your PhD at Harvard University), the UK (as an associate lecturer at the University of York) and Ireland (your home country, and where you now teach at Trinity College, Dublin). How did you come to study at Harvard? Has this international perspective influenced your music, or do you even see things in those terms?
AC: The years that I spent at Harvard were a gift, and a gift that I am immensely grateful for. It was such an engaging, critical, supportive, and fun environment. Thanks to my incredibly insightful composition teachers and colleagues, my music developed in ways that I could never have predicted. The resources in the Music Department are things that most composers could only ever dream of having access to. It’s a very positive environment, from administration to professors, full of extremely bright people who want to learn and teach and share.
How this has shaped my work? I would say that the music I write now is a lot more detailed than previously. Also, the forms within my pieces have expanded in scope. I have a much more critical relationship with my work now. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have that, but I think it will be of much benefit to me in the long run. I would say that travel of any kind is so beneficial to an artist: rather than living in an environment that you know, spending time in a country that’s not your own and even where you don’t speak the language, helps you to understand who you really are, and that can only contribute towards forming the most focused and honest artistic voice that you can.
TRJ: Finally, if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?
AC: Oh … just like my dreams, the answer to this question always somehow eludes me! As soon as I think I understand it, it has become something else that I can’t fully grasp … I wrote a chamber opera a few years ago and would love to turn this into a short film – I’m currently training myself in the skills of filming, editing, and directing, so that I can build towards this, and it will hopefully happen in the next few years. And then I have dreams of creating an outdoor performance space in the rural boglands, near to where I’m from in central Ireland. As you can imagine, it’s a bit of an artistic wasteland, and few artists emerge from there. As in many countries, access to the arts badly needs to be decentralized from urban areas, and I would love to build a new type of arena to do this – one that significantly relates to place and history, so that it’s not just another concert hall, but the location itself asks for new ways of thinking about art and new ways of including community and audience within that art.
(Photo credits: Magnetic fields, Windell Oskay, CC licence; County Offaly, Douglas Pfeiffer Cardoso, CC licence)