Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement studied at the Peabody Conservatory Preparatory Department, The University of Michigan, and Columbia University. She holds B.M. and M.M. from Michigan, and a DMA in music composition from Columbia.  At Peabody she studied piano with Barbara Maris and musicianship and composition with David Hogan. Her principal composition teachers at Michigan were William Albright and George Balch Wilson; at Columbia she studied with Mario Davidovsky, Jack Beeson and Pril Smiley. For Sheree, composing analog ‘tape’ music opened up new ways to consider timbre, envelope and spatialization of sound in writing for live instruments. She studied with Pril Smiley at the University of Michigan and continued at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center with Mario, where she wrote a 4 channel work, Glinda Returns. During a summer course at MIT she wrote a short work in Music11. 

Sheree Clement’s music is intricately overlaid with timbral color and organized around a line or two. While the surface traces ample twists and turns and rhythmic complexity, the forms of her music frequently include ‘drive-by’ references to the shapes of various classical forms in miniature. Trios, Variations, and Ritornellos all have their place in her works along the way to revisiting familiar sounds in new contexts.


Aesthetic and musical elements

I’m fascinated with using perspective and structure, timbre and orchestration to build musical narrative from reimagined fragments of tunes. I want my audiences to hear a musical idea and then to rediscover it, whole- ly or fragmented, from a new perspective. I want the listener to come to understand the idea’s true contents and implications by hearing it in fractured perspectives, compressed time, and fractalized orchestration. I think of music as a portal into one’s pre-verbal interior, a language for sharing that experience with other people. The tools for that communication start with tunes and harmonies, pacing and rhythm, probably almost all based in some way on speech. When I think about music that way, it gives me permission to sketch freely and organize those thoughts in sharable form. 


About your Piano Preludes

These thirteen pieces, between one and eight minutes long, speak with a personal, often private and poetic voice, querying, asserting and exploring. They range from epigrams to torrid essays. 

Prelude No. 13: Moderato. 2014. 4′ 30″. Caught in a gradually closing aperture, slippery tunes, punctuated by pauses and chords, migrate up in tessitura, and are squeezed into precise and slightly harsh and hesitant phrases.


Your Story

For the last twenty years I’ve worked as a consultant programmer/analyst contracted to the City of New York working with software that supports our social ‘safety net’. Around the year 2005 I cut my hours back to three days per week, to have more time to write music. I split my work time between software that supports a social good, composing and participating in the New York new music scene. It is a relatively decent work-life arrangement, as these things go, in the U.S., these days.  I say this with a set of assumptions near at hand – that everyone should get to have a balanced life, to be connected to their neighbors and local community, to have time to reflect, make art, and share it. Being a software developer was at the end of a circuitous ‘plan B’; Plan A was to compose music and teach composition in a University, but like so many other people in my age cohort, with a doctorate in fine arts, I ended up not obtaining one of those sought after academic jobs. 

I think my personal situation fits into a bigger, systemic picture. Here is the U.S., taking on the role of ‘artist’ in our society requires significant economic resources, substantial personal sacrifices and passing admission hurdles set by gatekeepers - elders in the field.  It’s a structural feature of our version of classism. The selection process for this ‘artist’ role is as odd and oppressive as in any prior society. One must choose isolation from the rest of society – either as an outsider or as a person in an ‘ivory tower’; one’s work is typically not accessible to ‘regular people’; one is not FROM ‘regular people’; one often has some deep personal hurt that propelled one into the role, etc.  One must accept having drastically lower and deeply uncertain wages. One creates at the mercy of the latest aesthetic trend, aging into and out of popularity quickly. Conversely, art made by ‘non-artists’ (who typically don’t have access to the best training) is treated as lesser work, almost never preserved or valued. Like every oppression, this one has its enforcing institutions, some direct and identifiable, others less visibly so – think of the lack of arts programs in public schools.  For sure the big visible villains are those offering advanced degrees for artists. As usual in the U.S., It all comes down to money, and getting a job, and higher education institutions are set up to filter the field of candidates. 

My experience at the last institution I attended demonstrates this well although the same could be said about many other prominent institutions from that time. In the early 1980s Columbia University was famously difficult as a place to complete a dissertation – people created support groups just for that purpose. As I finished my DMA in the School of the Arts, with a nice clutch of national and one international award in hand, I could see that not only would I not get help with the dissertation, I would also not get help with getting an academic job – the very reason I had enrolled there - despite my ‘top awards.’ For me there was no ‘job pipeline’ when I completed my DMA, just a copy-editing job at a publisher and a few music-copying jobs that I scrounged for myself. I could find no one on the faculty willing to consider helping me to prepare for an academic career, find job openings or prepare a job talk. Maybe they were too busy fighting turf wars with each other? Independently I found the sad little office on campus with academic job offerings on index cards and the College Music Society’s newsletter, and learned the obvious thing, that these listings were almost all posted after the hire was decided on and that the packet the office would send off, containing my CV and confidential recommendations, was useless. Whoever had the inner track – some phone calls made to friends at the hiring institution perhaps? - it was plain to me that I didn’t, and my School had no interest in providing it, or at least, in providing it to me. And yes, I was the female in my cohort, and yes, those classmates of mine who are now tenured Professors, retired Professors, Department Chairs and Deans in Universities across the United States are all white men. The rest of us, including most of the few women enrolled and some white men, many working-class types, went over the cliff to non-academic, non-artist jobs. Some continued to compose in some form or another, others disappeared. Why did it feel Darwinian? As if the lack of employment in academe meant that one was less talented or worthy. Truthfully though, many Master’s Degrees in the arts at that time were lucrative ‘cooling off’ pools or doctoral audition pools, in which people are admitted with no real prospect of employment at the end of the degree.  In many cases Doctoral programs provide the same function – ample tuition paid in while the institution really just stalls people out so that they hate the field enough to leave. I have no idea how much this happens in graduate programs currently, but it was a widespread practice in many fields in the 1980s when I was in school. I’ve heard that it’s cropping up recently in community colleges. 

My first reaction was classic ‘rebound’:  I headed far, far, away from music and enrolled in Business School, at NYU, majoring in Finance, particularly Municipal Finance. This led instantly to a job as Associate in the Tax-Exempt Securities Division at Morgan Stanley - the less lucrative end of Investment Banking - for all of 15 months.  Within months of starting there, the stock market crashed, the economy shuddered and the market for municipal bonds collapsed. Morgan Stanley fired anything that moved and merged the Tax-Exempt Securities Division into its then-booming Fixed-Income Securities Division. Laid off, I paid off my student loans with my bonus and moved on to a more ‘normal’ job with the NYC Board of Education, working on their survey of school buildings and capital planning. Note that Business School and Investment Banking – both notoriously competitive and sexist - seemed easy to me compared to the personal torture of being a ‘female composer’. Thus began a series of very-full-time ‘day-jobs’ in which my employers thought of me as ‘an MBA / Finance person’ and had no idea I wrote music. I suspect that when they saw the DMA on my resume they mostly shook their heads and occluded it immediately, because it made no sense to them. I worked these good jobs by day, and returned home at night to face the demon of lost musical voice or to try to studiously deny the loss. Sometimes I could take a break and write music and at these times I worked on piano pieces. For about a decade I lived 15 minutes or less from Lincoln Center and never went there. I could not explain my choices to my music community friends and acquaintances. One night as I returned home from work on the subway around 10 PM, I ran into one of my former Professors from Columbia. After exchanging pleasantries, he looked at me (I was in full business-drag) and sneered, “I always knew you weren’t one of us.” At which point I decided to complete the piano piece I had been neglecting… Certainly all of this would have been easier if I lived in a culture in which it is ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ to have a big creative life inside and outside one’s employment, something you don’t have to hide. 

I composed intermittently and gradually built a life. As I made more friends and family outside music, there was enough safety for me to re-integrate my musical self. As I composed more, I found myself interested in employment that required less role-playing and personal commitment – less management - and more interested in ‘introverted’ work, like writing computer code.  I took some non-matric courses at Hunter, Columbia & NYU, ‘switched careers’ again and migrated toward jobs that were just about writing code, so I could fill my days with the balm of quiet, focused work and have more room for considering music after work. Two decades later I would say that patience and a pointed decision to be kind to myself-the-composer were the crucial items for making decisions to make more time to write, to use that time well, to create connections with people about the music I write, and generally, to be my own full creative self. During this time period, I was inspired by the battles, the resistance and the supremely intelligent campaigns by liberation movements, such as by the LGBTQ community in New York City, and more recently Black Lives Matter, and the wildfire of #metoo and #timesup. Their fights and successes have given me hope to continue with my fight to compose music, and to be known everywhere I go as a composer - a fight to be my true self, a fight for my very core identity.  Likely it would not have been any such fight if I were not female. 


Considerations on sexism

There’s tons more for all of us to do on becoming fully aware of sexism’s pervasiveness. The battle is barely begun, with some obvious obstacles that have been visible for decades still firmly in place:  most of us still find the idea of being lead by a woman unappealing. The ease with which even the blandest female political candidate is black-balled is astounding. When we don’t vilify women, we evaluate women solely in terms set by men and molded on men’s values. We evaluate women’s music (and other art) by comparing it to that created by men. Anything that sounds or looks ‘female’ is suspect. I’ve watched juries reflexively toss out anonymous entries because they sounded too ‘girly’ or used a ‘girly’ text.  In one instance of this snap judgment that I observed (and argued against), the composer of the ‘girly’ work turned out to indeed, be a woman. Later I read a essay by her in which she denied that she’d ever been the target of sexism. If she only knew! I still regret not managing to persuade the jury of the strength of her work. They just couldn’t hear it. They were mostly men, but also some women. 

We have a lot of work to do unearthing all the ways in which we’ve grown accustomed to hate women. It is my opinion that many of us don’t have our own minds about this: all of us have childhoods that include lots of experiences of seeing people hate, denigrate and abuse women and girls, and learning to survive by imitating and participating in that behavior. Pasted on top of that is the adult behaviors of ‘niceness’ and denial, political correctness and distance. The emotional morass underneath leaves us unwilling to connect with women in a ‘whole person’ way, and vulnerable to insinuations to mistrust, ignore and separate from women. Sadly, I would say that this applies to everyone regardless of gender, sex or orientation. It is as pervasive as racism.


Current and future projects

I’m currently composing Swimming Upstream, a chamber opera in 4 scenes with video. Imagine a water goddess discovering the current state of her favorite river – its fish, its people and the water itself. This work explores the condition of a few particular waters, and invites the audience to consider their emotional connection to water from the tap and in rivers and streams. Sixteen minutes long, it is scored for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello, audio and video. Commissioned by the Association for the Promotion of New Music, for a premiere in Queens County in October 2018 with additional performances to follow. This work is made possible in part by the Queens Council on the Arts with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.

In the future, I’m interested in creating multi-media works, with other musicians and videographers or animators. I’m also composing a work for prepared piano and another work for chorus is lurking in the wings.