Andrea Clearfield — An Interview

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

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

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

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

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
[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

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

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

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

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

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 Rel‚che
ensemble. Is that ongoing?

AC: Yes, I have been playing keyboards for Rel‚che 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 Rel‚che. 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

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.

More information can be found at

image_description=Andrea Clearfield [Photo by John Hayes]
product_title=An Interview with Andrea Clearfield
product_by=By Tom Moore
product_id=Above: Andrea Clearfield [Photo by John Hayes]