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This Is a Fascinating Look at Philadelphia-Based Composer Andrea Clearfield

Sanny Leviste
Composer Andrea Clearfield

Praised by the L.A. Times for her “fluid and glistening orchestration,” Andrea Clearfield has written more than 150 works that have been performed widely throughout the United States and around the world. And she’s based right here in Philadelphia—where she’s actively involved in the music scene, and has won innumerable awards.Andrea is always busy —with new commissions, performances, residencies, and, of course, composing. She sat down with WRTI's Debra Lew Harder to discuss her latest compositions, her fascinating immersion into Tibetan music, her synesthesia, the changing landscape for contemporary composers, and her renowned Salon.


A Tribute Concert in honor of Andrea Clearfield is at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, Sunday, March 10 at 3 PM, Admission is free.

Andrea, you’re having a big season. Two premieres of note: the first performance of your opera, Mila, Great Sorcerer, in New York City, and the upcoming premiere of your electric guitar concerto, Glow, with The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Is there a common thread between the two works?


Yes, there are some common threads, although they are very different works. The opera, based on the life of the 11th-century Tibetan saint, Milarepa, was the culmination of a 10-year body of work that began with fieldwork in the Himalaya documenting Tibetan music in 2008.


The electric guitar concerto does not employ Tibetan-related materials, however, I found myself interested in aspects of the music that resulted from that body of work, particularly a re-discovery of the liminal, evocative and potentially rich quality of transitions in music, and in our lives.



Both the concerto and the opera are influenced by my synesthesia.

I have had synesthesia for as long as I can remember, where specific musical pitches are associated with colors, and colors “sound” like notes. This neurological condition, in which one sense stimulates another, strongly influences the harmonies, pitch centers, and emotional qualities of these two works.

What is the appeal to you of Tibetan culture and religion?

I was introduced to Tibetan culture and religion through a commission in 2008. Linda Reichert, artistic director of Network for New Music at that time, had an idea to pair composers and visual artists in a season called “MIX”. I was to collaborate with Maureen Drdak, a local visual artist renowned for her dynamic Tibetan and Nepalese inspired works. Maureen was headed out on a trek to the restricted and remote region of Lo Monthang, Nepal, not far from the Tibetan border. She asked if I might consider joining her so that from our shared experience we could create a new work.


We traveled by horseback over 10 high Himalayan passes in 5 days along the deepest river gorge in the world (the Kali Gandaki) surrounded by 26,000-foot peaks. The people in Lo Monthang are ethnically Tibetan (from a time when that area was part of Tibet before the borders changed in the 18th Century). It is considered one of the last enclaves of old Tibetan culture.


Through various introductions, I was led to record the last of the royal court singers, Tashi Tsering, who knew a repertoire of gar-glu (court song). He was aging and had no heirs to learn his music. Some community members were concerned that if he should die, the songs, passed down from father to son for hundreds of years, might be lost. I recorded Tashi Tsering that year and again in 2010 with anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Katey Blumenthal. We also recorded others singing tro-glu (common dance songs) and the project grew.


Our recordings became part of the World Oral Literature Projectdedicated to the preservation of endangered languages before they disappear without record. I found myself interested in both the folk music and the Tibetan Buddhist ritual music.


My first works inspired by the treks, Lungta (The Windhorse), Kawa Ma Gyur (The Unchanging Pillar), Tse Go La (At the Threshold of this Life) and Rabsong Shar(The Eastern Room of the Palace) had more Tibetan music influence.

In the opera, I wanted to create a new world of sound, not specifically Eastern or Western, but rather something unique in response to the story. Over the ten years that I’ve worked with the Tibetan melodies, the Tibetan influence has become more internalized. I’m interested in giving an idea space to organically develop over time, exploring different timbres of a single note, and allowing for pauses and stillness.



You write for a great variety of instruments, as well as for voice, and for ensembles, both vocal and instrumental. Do you have a favorite to write for? Any instrument or ensemble type you haven’t yet written for that you’re dying to try?

If you had asked me a few years ago, I might have answered “cantatas” as I love writing for the voice and the orchestra together; composing for both can open vast possibilities for emotional depth, power and a wide range of expression, color, and meaning driven by the text.


Now, since I’ve now tasted it, I would lean toward opera. Having just completed my first opera, seven years in the making, and experienced a premiere where I had the incredible opportunity to work with excellent librettist collaborators Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden, and a fantastic company of brilliant artists: leads, chorus, orchestra, conductor, director and a large team involved in staging, film, set and design, I’m ready to write another.



A hybrid and less-explored form that I also find exciting is multi-media or performative cantata/oratorio. An upcoming project of this kind will involve soloists, chorus, movement, lighting, projection, and stage-size custom built instruments….

I want to mention your renowned “Salon,” that you host in Philadelphia and around the country. Why was it important for you to start, and to maintain this Salon, which is now in its, I believe, 32nd year?

I started the Salon in 1986 to honor and continue the tradition of gatherings in the home, to foster collaboration amongst musicians and other arts, and to help build a vital and joyful community around music.

I wanted to create a contemporary spin on the artistic salons of the 18th and 19th centuries by programming a wide variety of musical styles and disciplines on each Salon that might include classical chamber music, contemporary works, jazz, opera, American folk, blues, world music, improvisation, performance art, electronics, multi-media, dance and spoken word.


Connection, community, commonality, and sharing of the human spirit is what is at the heart of the Salon as well as education and building audiences for classical and new music. I believe that we can create global connection through music and arts. I also mentor, advise and start new Salons in other areas of the U.S. to assist others who wish to build communities around music.

You’ve been composing professionally for 35 years now. Do you see a change in the landscape for women composers? Is is even worth having the descriptor nowadays of “woman” composer?

I do see the landscape changing as more women composers are currently more visible  - there are more women composers on programs, composition faculties and at festivals. Quite recently a number of performing organizations have become dedicated to representing more women in their programming. A few years ago, women made up less than 10% of all composers. Now many gifted female composers are coming to the foreground and it seems this imbalance is changing.


When I was just starting out, I didn’t know that women could be composers. There were no women in the textbooks and I had no role models. I feel deeply privileged to have met a life-long mentor when I was 18, Margaret Garwood, a wonderful woman and a most gifted composer of vocal music and opera who saw the composer in me (I was majoring in piano then) and encouraged me forward in that creative direction. I am grateful to now have an opportunity to mentor other female composers at the Young Women Composers Camp, held this summer in Philadelphia along with acclaimed colleague Jennifer Higdon.


All that being said, I don’t think of myself as a “woman composer”. To me, writing music is an ineffable expression that is not gender based.

Finally, for fun, name five composers you’d love to invite to a dinner party.

Wow, it’s hard to limit them to five! Here is my list of living composers who, ostensibly, could take part in a fascinating dinner discussion: Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Missy Mazolli, Meredith Monk, and Steve Reich. I’ve taken the liberty of writing another list of non-living composers, if only I could go back in time! J.S. Bach, Clara Schumann, Giacinto Scelsi, Bela Bartok, and Olivier Messaien.


Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.