Dusted Features

Composers Who Matter: Ann Cleare

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

Dusted checks out the densely noisy music of a promising young Irish composer.

Composers Who Matter: Ann Cleare

“It’s only recently that I’ve realized what little interest that I have ever had in being a musician,” notes young composer Ann Cleare.

That might seem like an odd thing for a... musician to say, but then Cleare’s music has never fit in easily anyway, at least not in her native Ireland. Actually, there probably isn’t a country where Cleare’s vivid, snarling, gritty textures would fit into the mainstream classical establishment, but even so, Ireland still wouldn’t be a likely home for music like hers.

“The main problem that I, and most Irish composers, suffer from is that the new music scene is so small,” she writes. “I don’t feel that stylistically I fit into the type of music that’s generally performed here... Irish people do tend to be surprised by the music I write and immediately assume that I have spent a lot of time studying abroad, which isn’t the case.”

Well, not really. Cleare recently finished a year studying electronic music at IRCAM in Paris, and she’s about to start a graduate program at Harvard, where she’ll work with Chaya Czernowin and Steve Takasugi. But most of her musical experiences have been in her home country. It’s not that Ireland hasn’t been an influence, but its landscape may have had a greater impact on her than its musical culture did. “I come from a quite rugged, wild, rural part of the country and I believe that this has had a profound influence on the sounds and textures that frequent my compositions,” she says.

A wild spirit most certainly is alive in Cleare’s music, most of which is concerned with timbre, which is the quality of a sound--whether it buzzes or hisses, or sounds breathy or full. She usually works closely with performers to make sure she gets the sounds she wants, often using extended techniques (unusual playing techniques, such as strumming the strings inside a piano). She owns a large collection of instruments and frequently gets inspiration from experimenting with them. When she composes, she says, “the instrument becomes the basis of, rather than the medium for, the music’s material.”

Whereas much popular music and jazz have explored timbre for eons (jazz, in particular, strongly emphasizes timbre as a key to developing a personal style), classical music came a bit late to the party. True, the choice of one instrument instead of another to play a particular part has been a consideration for centuries, and certain classical musicians have always been celebrated for their unique sound. But until recently, there hasn’t been any organized way of talking about timbre in classical music, and there isn’t any systematic way of approaching it in Western notation.

All this began to change with the advent of electronic music, and in the 1960s and 1970s, composers such as Helmut Lachenmann in Germany and Gerard Grisey in France began to explore timbre in detail. For young composers, particularly those of a European bent, it’s now a popular musical dimension to explore, but there are still the problems of how to discuss and organize it. As a result, Cleare notes that modern composers often create music that is sonically arresting but shapeless.

“I find the sounds that many composers use so captivating and otherworldly but... I find that they fail to place these sounds in any sort of interesting energy field, or infuse the sounds with any sort of physicality,” she asserts. “To my ears, a lot of contemporary music feels like a colorful but flat surface.”

This is, unfortunately, true--much modern classical music tries hard to sound immediately impressive but falls apart after a minute or two, when it runs out of the energy or inventiveness it needs to sustain itself. An institutional culture that prizes immediacy above all is partly to blame. Every young composer has heard horror stories about competition judges listening to only a few seconds of music by each entrant. But it’s also difficult to arrange sound in time without the formal conventions most non-classical music has.

For Cleare, pop music offers potential solutions to this problem. She lists a number of pop artists as influences (including the Smiths, the Arcade Fire, and the Pixies) and mentions that while the form of pop music generally doesn’t interest her, it often “possesses a very unique energy and physicality.”

Cleare’s music doesn’t sound at all like pop, but it’s easy to see what she means. At its best, her music sounds like it’s charging after you—it’s loud and tense, and it won’t stand still. The howling Dorchadas is close in spirit to the screaming, implacable textures of Iannis Xenakis or to the music of Romanian outsider Iancu Dumitrescu, whose fiercely harsh sounds are second in importance only to the way they’re placed in time.

More of Cleare’s music can be heard on MySpace.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Read More

View all articles by Charlie Wilmoth

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.