Andrea Clearfield and her Salon


Andrea Clearfield is an award-winning composer of music for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensemble, dance, and multimedia collaborations. Clearfield creates deep, emotive musical languages that build cultural and artistic bridges. She has been praised by the New York Times for her “graceful tracery and lively, rhythmically vital writing”, the Philadelphia Inquirer for her “compositional wizardry” and “mastery with large choral and instrumental forces”, the L.A. Times for her “fluid and glistening orchestration” and by Opera News for her “vivid and galvanizing” music of “timeless beauty”. Her works are performed widely in the U.S. and abroad. Among her 150 works are ten cantatas including one commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra. She is a recipient of a 2016 Pew Fellowship and a 2017 Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts and has also held fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and the Copland House among others. Her music is published by Boosey & Hawkes, G. Schirmer, Hal Leonard, Seeadot and International Opus. Passionate about building community around the arts, she is the founder and host of her renowned Salon, featuring contemporary, classical, jazz, electronic, dance, and world music now celebrating its 32nd year and winner of Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best of Philadelphia” award.


About you: Background and education

My father, Harris Clearfield, is a retired physician and my mother, Louise Clearfield, an artist. Both are living in Bala-Cynwyd, the suburb of Philadelphia where I was raised. Beginning with early studies on piano at the age of 6, discovery of synesthesia in grade school (seeing colors when hearing musical pitches—and vice versa), and a deep curiosity about all things musical…I was led to play chamber music, rock, folk, improvisation, music for dance, contemporary and world music, and pursue degrees in Piano (Muhlenberg College, BA as a student of Margaret Garwood, The University of the Arts, MM as a student of Susan Starr) and Composition (Temple University, DMA, as a pupil of Maurice Wright). I started arranging and composing in my teens but it wasn’t until I met my mentor in my first year of college, composer Margaret Garwood, that I began to change my focus to the creation of new work. 

My eclectic background has shaped my musical language. As a collaborative pianist performing chamber music, I learned the instruments, their repertoire and valuable lessons in orchestration.  Since the late 1980's I have enjoyed performed music by living composers as the pianist for the Relâche Ensemble (Relache celebrates 40 Years at the end of June). Although trained classically, in my late 20’s I learned to improvise by playing for modern and contact dance. My work draws on these experiences, and also has been influenced by composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Brahms and Stravinsky. I feel a particular aesthetic connection with Béla Bartók, who made field recordings and synthesized what he heard and notated into his own work. The evocative sound worlds of Debussy, Takemitsu, Crumb, Scelsi and Saariaho impacted my approach to musical timbre, an essential element in my work. As with composers Messiaen and Scriabin, the synesthetic extra-sensory information also informs what and how I write. I owe a great deal to my two mentors, composers Margaret Garwood and Jonathan Kramer. Garwood’s idiomatic and beautiful writing for the voice in choral, vocal and operatic works as well as her attention to musical “color” were major inspirations for my own vocal writing. She was an important role model as a female composer and she encouraged me to “listen” and “follow my own voice”. Jonathan Kramer taught me how to refine my writing for orchestra, and to better understand an orchestra’s “psychology.” Some of my recent works were inspired by my fieldwork and horseback treks in 2008 and 2010 documenting Tibetan music in Lo Monthang, Nepal. Lo Monthang is in a remote Himalayan region of northern Nepal (just over the border from Tibet) and is one of the world’s last remaining enclaves of old Tibetan culture. With funding from the Rubin Foundation, anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Katey Blumenthal and I recorded the previously-undocumented repertoire of the last remaining court song singer, Tashi Tsering, whose gar-glu (court songs) were passed down aurally for generations. Aging and with no heirs to learn his music, these songs were in danger of being lost. My exposure to Tibetan folk and ritual music, along with the landscape, the people, and my experiences on the Himalayan treks, had a significant impact on me as an artist and led to a new body of work beginning in 2008. This work explores an expanded tonality and more complex rhythms, informed by what I had heard and documented. I have engaged in much artistic experimentation over the past ten years. The Tibetan inspired body of work led me to treat my field recordings within the context of chamber works. This exploration led to new ways of thinking about sound. I became interested in longer development of one idea, allowing it to unfold organically, and integrating field recordings and indigenous Tibetan instruments as well as original amplified instruments that I have commissioned from an instrument builder.


About your music and interest in Ethnomusicology

The earliest of this new body of work is Lung-Ta (The Windhorse) (2009). In 2008, in preparation for a commission by Network for New Music in collaboration with visual artist and Fulbright Scholar Maureen Drdak, I trekked to Lo Monthang for the first time. I went to research the indigenous music and art. Working with Maureen Drdak and Group Motion Dance Company of Philadelphia, we created a fusion of music, art, and dance, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist folk and ritual music, iconography, and cham dance that we experienced on our journey. The music, commissioned and premiered by Network for New Music, is scored for chamber ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and percussion), and incorporates field recordings from the trek. It is a 25-minute work celebrating the common themes of eastern and western philosophy. Lung-Ta was premiered in Philadelphia in 2009. The work has been performed around the country as a prayer for peace. It was presented as a gift to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an initiative for world peace in 2009. Following the premiere of Lung-Ta, the community in Lo Monthang became interested in having all of Tashi Tsering's songs documented. This repertoire had been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years, telling the story of the culture. Formerly many Emeda musicians played the gar-glu repertoire. Now, old ways were being replaced and only Tashi Tsering remained. Aging, and with no heirs to learn the music, the songs would have been lost if he were to pass. With a grant from the Rubin Foundation, I returned with anthropologist Katey Blumenthal to record Tashi Tsering's complete repertoire. Our work is now included in the University of Cambridge World Oral Literature Project, a global initiative to document endangered languages before they disappear without record. I was commissioned in 2010 by the Mendelssohn Club and Pennsylvania Girlchoir to create a cantata as a way to bring some of these songs to the U.S and received a grant from the American Composers Forum to involve the Tibetan community of Philadelphia in the premiere; they also taught traditional Tibetan song and dance to the young girls in the choir. The cantata, Tse Go La (At the threshold of this life) (2012, rev. 2013) explores a deeper emotive music language than Lung-Ta and employs a more distinct use of colors and textures, including elements of Tibetan ritual and folk music and integrated electronics. The central movements incorporate songs from the gar-glu (court) and tro-glu (common) folk traditions, sung in the Mustangi dialect of Tibetan, translated and transliterated by Katey Blumenthal. The outer movements, “Birth” and “Death” are set to poetry by distinguished anthropologist and writer, Dr. Sienna Craig, and sung in English. Based on rites of passage, the theme is illustrated by seven movements that journey from birth to death with particular attention to musical transitions that relate to these thresholds/transitions in our lives. The music that emerged from these more liminal “transition moments” fascinated me, and I continued to pursue this thread in my next piece, Rabsong Shar (2016). 

When I was invited as McIlroy Composer in Residence at the University of Arkansas in 2016, I was commissioned to write a piece for the New Music Ensemble, Jamal Duncan, Director, on the theme of "music as story". I chose to write a work inspired by the song “Rabsong Shar” (The Eastern Room of the Palace), a favorite of the last King of Lo Monthang, Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, whom I was honored to meet. Part of a lineage dating from 1380, the King died in 2016 symbolizing an end to an era. When I recorded Tashi Tsering singing this song he accompanied himself with a pair of skin drums called nha. Fragments of the traditional Loba words, melody, vocal ornaments and drum rhythms are incorporated into this work, which deals with memory, loss and change. It is also a celebration of song as a way to convey the story of a people and to honor, respect and preserve a culture and its language. Additionally it is a response to the region's change that I witnessed during the Tibetan music fieldwork. 


Your Salon series

As a child, my parents and I played music in the home. My mother played piano, my father clarinet and I joined on piano and flute. We played all kinds of trio arrangements. I created my own versions of classical and popular tunes and invited friends over to play them and improvise. As an outgrowth of these early living-room music experiences, and my longtime interest in the Salons of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I started a Salon in Philadelphia in 1986 as a way to continue the European tradition of music in the home, to foster collaboration amongst artists and to help create and build a vital community around music and the arts. Although harkening back to the Salons of Europe, this Salon was conceived with a contemporary spin; by integrating different music genres as well as other arts, the diverse programming draws a diverse audience –intergenerational and intercultural, and many are exposed to styles of music that they may not have heard before. I'm a strong advocate for creating hubs for the arts, bringing people together to celebrate the human spirit and creating a platform for contemporary music. In the thirty-two years since, there have been more than 7000 performers and 17,000 audience members at the Salon. The Salon’s longtime home was put on the market in Spring 2014. Investors and contributors from around the country came forward to purchase the property. Since the Salon celebrated its 25-year anniversary, patrons and organizations around the country have hired me to help them start their own Salons.


Current and future projects

I am currently completing my first opera, MILA, Great Sorcerer to libretto by Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden, commissioned by Gene Kaufman and Terry Eder, Kevin Newbury, director.  The opera is based on the story of the venerated 11th Century yogi, Milarepa, who lived in the Tibetan plateau, not far from where I was recording music.  His murders, sorcery, travails, and ultimate enlightenment translate into a wide-canvas dramatic opera. When Mila’s vengeful mother commands him to destroy their entire village, he obeys. Then he desperately regrets his deeds. Mila’s transformation is hard earned. MILA tells the story of a young soldier returning home from America’s wars spiritually destroyed. After you’ve killed, how do you redeem your soul?” – Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden. 

In addition to the opera, I’m also working on a new piece for the Music from Angelfire festival in northern New Mexico, where I am composer in residence this August and a commission for the renowned classical guitarist, William Kanengiser (LA Guitar Quartet) as a re-imaging of the traditional Tibetan dramyin for classical guitar. This piece will reflect on my perspective on issues of musical and cultural identity as part of a larger project on “Diasporas”, or scattered musical cultures. I was recently named Composer in Residence with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and will be composing new works for their 2018-19 'Migrations' series including an electric guitar concerto.