A text about composer Ann Cleare, who has been awarded the Composer Prize of Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung in 2019. On October 24th, we’re going to play a portrait concert at Trinitatiskirche in Cologne with an open introduction by Ann Cleare and Helen Bledsoe.
When the Irish composer Ann Cleare – born 1983 in County Offaly – talks about her music, pictures are her preferred means of description. She speaks of “kinetic whirlwinds,” “silver haze,” “cobalt waves,” “grey matter,” “ocean of movement,” or a “box of light“. By no means, however, does Cleare use such metaphors to create vague approximations of her sounds, compensating, in some way, for the linguistic distance to the music through imagery. On the contrary: Her pictures describe with astonishing precision everything that can be heard. The metaphors resonate, the images become acoustically tangible. For example, the “kinetic whirlwinds” in the 2016 composition on magnetic fields are an exact reproduction of the sonic-spatial disposition of the music. Two ensemble groups form cyclones of sound, in the “eyes” of each hurricane stands a solo violine as the center of energy. And when Ann Cleare then speaks of these violins “magnetically charging” and “igniting” the ensembles surrounding them, it becomes clear how the composer understands her music: as an explicitly physical medium, as a phenomenon that resides between sound, physics and moving sculpture.
“My work,” explains Ann Cleare, “explores the static and sculptural nature of sound, probing the extremities of timbre, texture, color, and form, to create corporeal sonic spaces that encourage a listener to contemplate the complexity of the lives we exist within and to explore poetries of perception.” In this sense, Cleare composes intimate, artful music, which at the first moment seems almost impenetrable. A listener may at first feel unsure – as if observing a creature that thinks it is alone and that might be inadvertently startled. It quickly becomes clear, however, that it is easy to be part of this scenario: “My music,” says the composer, “may seem completely abstract, but for me, it is a spatial choreography that is alive with sonic characters.”
It is above all such “tangible” concepts that decisively shape the vibrancy of Ann Cleare’s work. “Composing,” she says, “feels like a very tactile activity. Once I choose a pitch or a chord or a rhythm, I then apply articulation, phrasing, timbral and registral details to it, in an attempt to imbue it with a strong sense of character. When I am doing this, I feel like I have some type of physical material in my hands, and I am sculpting it until it resembles what I am thinking of.
What concretely emerges out of such shaping processes is often oriented towards specific “objects” – both real and imaginary. Thus the 2014 composition “I should live in wires for leaving you behind” for piano and two percussionists, is based on the idea of a moving sculpture that Cleare calls “‘ball of wire’: a mammoth, tangled, metallic motion that spins relentlessly.” In her piece, the potential sound of this fictitious image is reproduced by instrumental means. In “eöl” for solo percussion and ensemble, however, the objects are not imaginary, but quite real – and built especially for the work by the Dublin sculptor Brian Byrne. The percussionist plays a not un-dangerous looking bed of nails-like instrument, while for other playing techniques he uses special metal constructions on arms and fingers, making the percussionist look quite a bit like Edward Scissorhands. The effect these “extensions” of the musician has on the listener is acoustic and haptic at the same time: one seems to feel what one hears.
The emphasis on the tactile, the choreography of the sounds, the delineation of a terrain in which the music engages space like a sculpture: these aesthetic constants determine the work of Ann Cleare. The concept of expanding the potential of what music can be continues to occupy her. She is currently learning about camera work, editing, and directing to pursue the visual aspect of her music. And when asked about an artistic vision, she would like – And when asked about her artistic vision, she would like – in keeping with the spirit of “expansive” music – to use the dramatic backdrop of a landscape as a stage: the marshland of County Offaly in the center of Ireland. A broad plateau in which Ann Cleare’s musical sculptures would look like milestones.