The Sonic Possible Worlds of Ann Cleare
Ann Cleare doesn’t like describing what she does as music. Despite the fact that Cleare has been widely celebrated in the social and institutional worlds of new music—she is the recent recipient of an Ernst von Siemens Foundation Composers’ Prize, one of the most prestigious awards given to living composers—she prefers to use other words to describe her artistic practice, which is often concerned with much more than the composition of notes on a page. Indeed, Cleare’s sonic practice concerns itself with assemblage of new sonic worlds: possible environments in which sound and light interact in space and time. The philosopher of music Salomé Voeglin might call these “sonic possible worlds;” as she contends, “in the ephemerality of sound the horizon between what exists and what does not is in doubt.” Cleare’s work dwells in this horizon between what exists and what does not, what is possible and what is not. Her writing for instruments and voice constantly challenges these dualisms, forcing a dangerous exploration that yields profound results.
Cleare often begins thinking about her practice by observing transient, ephemeral natural phenomena, such as patterns of wind, the sounds of water, or the settling of fog. Using recordings and images, she searches for morphological patterns that become metaphorical seeds around which her sonic practice can grow. These patterns evade easy notation, and indeed do not behave within widely-accepted conventions of musicality—especially music that evokes nature. As Cleare muses, “people think that An der schönen blauen Donau sounds like a river, but no river sounds like a waltz;” Cleare’s own imagining of nature and culture breaks radically with this tradition. Rather than metaphorical evocation within set social and aesthetic conventions, every work addresses the specificity of the performers, the space, and the concept at play.
Cleare says that this radical reimagining of sonic exploration comes not from a desire to confront audiences, but rather from a much more modest desire for a diversity of listening practices, and an attunement to everyday life. “I’m not setting out to alienate the audience; what I’m doing is rooted in everyday sound. Even though I grew up playing tonal music, it never felt like my language. […] I actually have created my own rules in the music—there’s a structure that makes it work. It’s like trying to hear people who speak, or move their body in a different way. Hearing tonality is like hearing the same person all the time; [my music] is like encountering a new kind of person.”
An example of one of Cleare’s possible sonic worlds is her 2011-2012 work, on magnetic fields, which instructs the ensemble to form three separate entities, spatialized throughout the performance space: “two kinetic whirlwinds represented by two different ensembles ignited through violin soloists, each oblivious to each other, and each moving through their own temporal evolution, and, at the centre of the stage, what is thought of as ‘a box of light’, formed by the harp, piano, and percussion.” At the center of each of the two whirlwinds are violinists that act like “a wiry voice that magnetically charges the electricity of the ensemble that surrounds it.” Each micro-ensemble develops its own type of electromagnetic energy, which is translated into the kinetic energy of the musicians. Yet Cleare avoids strict or predictable metaphorical interpretations of these natural and scientific phenomena: rather than acting as a “receiver” for these two sources of energetic and sonic intensities, the “box of light” in the middle of the stage actually acts as a contrasting force, behaving in ways that suggest alternative flows of energy, sound, communication, and intensities.
Cleare notes that “it’s stereotypical for composers to be obsessed by light. But all of these natural phenomena are ultimately metaphors for something psychological. When I say I’m trying to build a world, I’m trying to build a mind-set. It’s a hybrid between human and nature, a kind of natural sound color, but thinking in a more human way. This means exploring whether nature and culture are indeed binary opposites in human conception—depending on how the listener wants to hear it.” Cleare’s sonic possible worlds are speculative experiments that allow us not only to listen to sound, but also relate to it in other heretofore unknown ways.
Cleare’s recent Siemens prize represents a major recognition of her sonic practice in the world of concert music. With the resources now available to her from this prize, Cleare plans to extend that sonic practice from composition to more material applications: microphone technique, field recording, and working with metal and clay. In this way, Cleare will continue to explore the horizon between what exists and what does not.