Woman Offaly wows audiences with revolutionary sounds
Arrive at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall for a regular concert and you’ll find yourself in a large and bright space that can accommodate nearly 2,500 people. Last Sunday, however, the hall seemed smaller, shrouded in intimate darkness that heralded an unusual performance to come.
Within minutes of their appearance, five wind musicians from the German ensemble Musikfabrik – using all kinds of mutes in their instruments – transformed the hall into a haunted house, a deserted factory and so many soundscapes and landscapes. that there were spectators.
All leaned forward, fascinated by the malicious beauty they heard and fascinated by the members of the ensemble interacting more like a troupe of actors than musicians. Even the sacred Berlin Hall seemed intrigued by the prepared piano and harps, rising clarinets and violin strings played to their limits.
Imagine three circles – musician, scientist and engineer – and where they intersect you will find her composing, thinking, tinkering and teaching.
Sitting in the room, almost out of sight, is the Irish composer responsible for it all: Offaly-born Ann Cleare, a talent in demand around the world, especially in mainland Europe. Next year in Munich will see the premiere of a Brexit opera she’s writing with Scottish writer AL Kennedy, but later.
In a Berlin café two days after the concert, we have a lot to say to each other. Above all: how important is it to hear your music performed at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra?
She laughed, saying she tried not to think about it during rehearsals, instead focusing on the musicians in order to get the most out of the works she was hearing for the first time since early 2020.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of musicians or better conditions – acoustically it’s superb,” says Cleare (37), cheerful, gentle and still committed. “There are only a handful of places like this in the world.”
No one else in the world makes music like Ann Cleare. Imagine three circles – musician, scientist and engineer – and where they intersect you will find her composing, thinking, tinkering and teaching.
At Trinity College Dublin, she teaches music and media technology, not in the music department but with engineers.
“You don’t have baroque or classical engineers, they are very forward looking on how to be innovative, sustainable, imaginative and that mindset suits me so much more,” she says. “I’m interested in the sounds of the moment. “
Growing up outside of Shinrone, Co Offaly, Cleare remembers his father as a “handsome ballad singer” and regular visits from his poet friends. When she started music lessons at the age of seven, her eagerness to learn Western classical and traditional Irish music was quickly overtaken by an urge to escape her tonal and rhythmic limitations. Instead, she wanted to explore what she heard around her: the rhythms of agriculture, the mud of the bog, the charge of a magnetic field.
When Cleare is working, she makes field recordings or improvises with objects or instruments, exploring their material characteristics and seeing how far she can go.
Studying music at UCC, she caught the songwriting virus by chance in her sophomore year when she was hospitalized with a literal virus – viral pneumonia. When she returned to college, she had fallen so far behind other classes that composition was the best way to avoid repeating a year.
Encouraged by her teacher, John Godfrey, composer and member of the Crash Ensemble, Cleare realized that composition could be whatever she wanted it to be.
“I thought the composition was going to be about writing fugues, so it was mind-boggling to me that you could create your own system of governance,” she says. “It didn’t necessarily have to be this white male Western tradition that I felt no connection with.”
Was it like realizing that there is more than black tea out there? “Exactly. Previously there was only Barry’s Tea and now there were all these mind blowing teas.
When Cleare is working, she makes field recordings or improvises with objects or instruments, exploring their material characteristics and seeing how far she can go. She knows the center she is aiming for in a new piece and has a clear structure, but keeps it open to a multiplicity of interpretations. Rather than getting lost in the intellectual ambition of some from modern music, it is aimed at a diverse audience.
“I really want people to get it, I’m not trying to alienate anyone. I’m still wondering: did I give the first listener enough time to get this and connect, and is there enough time for multiple listeners to keep learning if they come back? “
Germany played a crucial role in his career. It was here that she gave the first real concert of her work in 2007 and Sunday’s concert took place as part of the prestigious Berlin Musikfest.
Winrich Hopp, artistic director of the festival, said he was “just delighted” when German composer Enno Poppe recommended a program of works by Ann Cleare.
Just as Brexit rewired the Irish economy, it also recalibrates the country’s cultural orientation
“His music is unique and incomparable,” says Hopp. “She has a way of slowing down time, of bringing things back to a slow, natural spectacle, it’s like listening to nature.”
Ann Cleare was not the only Irish influence at this year’s Musikfest: German composer Heiner Goebbels premiered a new work, “A House of Call”, based on texts by James Joyce and the late Samuel Beckett.
Next year, Cleare will be back in Germany with a commission from the Munich Biennale. The Little Lives, an opera set to a libretto by AL Kennedy, tells the story of four people trapped in a Scottish city park by a guard who keeps changing the reason for their imprisonment.
“It’s a meditation on those years of uncertainty, constantly wondering what’s going to happen, people being fed information and misinformation, feeling like pawns,” says Cleare. “The park warden is constantly manipulating the situation. He takes inspiration from Boris Johnson, constantly telling everyone what they want to hear and changing what they say.
Nervous at the idea of working on her first political piece, Cleare is still working on the score. A key component, she says, will be the sound of the fish rippling through the water that she recorded on a hydrophone.
“Once processed and amplified, the ripple changes from weak to strong,” she says. “It’s an oscillating sound, like the drone of anxiety you get from time to time.”
Just as Brexit reconfigured the Irish economy, it also recalibrates the country’s cultural orientation. Huge pressure for closer cultural contacts in all artistic fields is underway from the Irish Embassy in Berlin.
“There is so much interest and fertile ground in Germany, it is the epicenter of contemporary music,” explains Candice Gordon, cultural affairs manager at the embassy. “As Ireland is in a phase of growing new music, there is so much room for the future here. “
Cleare suggests that, to be successful, Ireland’s cultural push will need to reflect the Germans’ long-term approach to planning and funding. For her, Ireland’s ad hoc and short-term approach reflects the absence of the arts in the lives of many Irish. Not everyone is as privileged as she, she says, to have parents who could afford private lessons.
“Music is not fundamental to the thinking of Irish politicians, it never has been. I think it’s a question of getting to a younger stage, that it’s a right to be able to explore the arts as a young person.