Composer Clarice Assad talks with Picture this Post here about her upcoming work commissioned for Chicago Sinfonietta's Trademark performance, premiering on September 16 and 17.
First, some background- you are a Brazilian-American composer who has been nominated for countless awards and performed all over the world. What originally brought you into composition and music?
I was born into a family of musicians and there was always music playing around the house. I was exposed to it at an early age, in the most organic form. No one really pushed me to become a musician. My father simply sparked a musical light in me, we ‘composed’ a lot of music together when I was a child. Music always had a powerful effect on me, so the choice to become a professional musician later in life was quite natural.
In which area of music (which genre, composition vs vocals, etc) did you originally focus? How has your work evolved over the years?
Being exposed to many kinds of music as a youngster (jazz, classical, Brazilian, choro, Portugese fado, Arabic, Indian music, pop, rock , etc) led me to ultimately think that my conception of music was already evolving to encompass many of these styles of music into my own, and to learn how to weave them together. My development as a composer and a vocalist are very much the same, as I do not see them as two separate entities: I compose when I sing and I sing when I compose.
Where specifically did you grow up? How did your childhood background contribute to your work and success today?
I was born and grew up in the state Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in two different parts of town – Rural/suburban and later, when I turned 11, I moved to the big city.That move in itself was a big upgrade in my cultural and musical formation because there was not too much happening in my original home town. Rio in the 90’s afforded me many more opportunities to learn.
Then at the age of 15, I moved to Paris to live with my father for a year, and again had the opportunity to explore different traditions. By 18 I moved to the US and a new process of immersion in another culture happened once again.
Having lived in many places during these early periods of my life contributed to my adaptability to new cultures and exchanges, which eventually led to a better way of communication in general, with a wide variety of people.
Communication is an essential part of music, I believe, because it connects people and widens our understanding of each other’s feelings, emotions and intentions without ever having to say a single word.
Could you go into a bit of detail on your musical training, both in Brazil and America? As a master of many forms of creating and performing music, how have you chosen and perfected your focus throughout the years?
I was self taught for most of my life, though I did have a few music teachers who were more friends than mentors, but who were essential in teaching me how to listen; to appreciate music in a deep level. So rather than spend endless time developing instrumental technique or playing works by other composers, although I was pretty young (around 13), I had an incredible amount of exposure to great music.
I was going to jazz clubs every week, sometimes subbing for my teacher as a pianist for a jazz orchestra she played in, for example. At home I’d hear a record 100 times, memorize every note of it, spend hours trying to reproduce what I heard with the piano and/or voice, so my early training was 90% aurally based. I could play so well by ear, I was too lazy to read or write anything down. But things became formal when I went to France, studied jazz piano with a professor at Le Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, and later became extremely serious when I went to college in the US for my Bachelors and a Masters degrees in composition.
As far as perfecting my focus, I never made a conscious decision to follow any path in particular, and in retrospect, I think that was a good thing. What I did was to garner information, and then learn how to structure them into coherent forms. I see my formation in music like that of a child who learns how to speak and then learns how to read and write later on.
What spurred you to create this piece for Chicago Sinfonietta? Had you worked with the Sinfonietta in the past? How does the Sinfonietta’s message of diversity and inclusion compliment your work as an artist, and especially your work on this piece?
I was approached by the Sinfonietta as a prospective candidate to receive a commission, curiously, at the time when I was moving back from NY to Chicago after 15 years. I felt that we were a great match right away after visiting their website, reading about their vision and spending some time talking with the great folks who run the organization. I also went to a concert last year to get a sense of their playing. I loved Mei-Ann’s energy, she was so inspired to watch. When I went to a Sinfonietta concert at Symphony Hall it was clear I had never seen an audience as diverse and cheery before. The whole experience made my heart smile.
When we talked to Wilfredo he told us a bit about your piece and its movement through different musical cultures and styles. Would you like to expand on the creation and final product of your piece?
In the liner notes, I wrote that SIN FRONTERAS (Without borders) in its own way, carries the inclusion and diversity message of the orchestra - and emerged from an utopian state of mind in which I found myself one day, daring to erase imaginary lines that disconnect us geographically, culturally and morally: Boundaries that the human race has willingly subscribed to for thousands of years.
As a South American woman living in the United States for two decades, I chose sounds of places that felt closest to home: The Americas. So we journey from the bottom of South America, traveling up both coasts and navigate all the way to the Northern hemisphere via Central America. The piece follows no storyline, but its main concept begins with a shocking reaction between two or more distinct cultures coming into contact for the first time. After the initial resistance, everyone collectively begins aggregating each other's ethnic fragments into their own culture-spheres to create something new - while still preserving their original roots.
This year Chicago Sinfonietta is putting a specific focus on showcasing female performers. Would you like to comment on what may be some of the challenges of succeeding as a Brazilian-American female composer in the music world?
The short answer to this question is that I don’t see myself as a Brazilian-American female composer in the music world. I see myself as a human being who makes music. The long answer is that it so happens that I was born a woman in a patriarchal society, though I believe that we, as a human race have the capacity to eventually move past that and become more equals. Maybe I would have had more opportunities and visibility had I been born a male composer in an economically potent country, but I would never know, as this was never my reality.
I make the music I make because of the experiences I’ve had, by being exactly who I am. Challenges in succeeding in any career can happen to anyone and at any level, so it is difficult to predict anything in the realm of successfulness. What I can say about the orchestra’s lead in taking on this project, is that I feel extremely grateful to be living in a time when orchestras like the Chicago Sinfonietta are making such a delightful effort in showcasing the works of female composers, because we are too often not heard, though this music should be heard, because there is a lot of great music out there being composed by women, which is as profound and sophisticated as music by any fellow male composers.
We also spoke to Wilfredo a bit about the process you two have gone through working together as you develop your piece and Cerqua Rivera develops theirs. Would you like to comment a bit on this process as well? What have been some of the challenges of working with dancers whose sole purpose is to show what your music looks like? What have been the positive outcomes?
So far I have not seen any of the choreography! But we have discussed extensively about how to tackle this. It’s a work that is both subtle and dense, and that has a lot of room for interpretation. More than anything, it pays homage to different musical cultures from the Americas, and so there is a wealth of rhythmic ideas to play with. I am really curious to see how this will be translated in the dance world.
You are clearly a well-sought-after composer and vocalist all throughout America, Brazil, and the rest of the world. What drew you to this commission by the Chicago Sinfonietta?
Many things contributed to this collaboration. I already had a Chicago connection, having gone to college here – Then, I had recently had a work recorded by the Cavatina duo, on Cedille Records - produced by Jim Ginsburg whom I met at the premiere of my piece in Ravinia. He mentioned to Jim Hirsh, the executive director of the Sinfonietta, that I was moving back to Chicago and I became a candidate composer for this project. There was also another key person who played a crucial role in making this happening, a friend and a and fierce supporter of new music, Tom Baron.
How does Sin Fronteras compare to other pieces you have composed? What creative and practical factors have brought together this form of artistry with this form of showcase (specifically through Chicago Sinfonietta and with Cerqua Rivera Dance Theater)?
I think this work is particular and different because I thought about it as a dance piece, rather than just a piece of music to be passively listened to. It was a work to be experienced with more than one sense. This way of thinking opened a whole new world to me. I have collaborated with dancers before, but more as an improviser (performing live for dance classes or shows), and I have had my music choreographed by other artists in the US and Brazil, but the music had already been written. So, this is a special case for me, in the sense that both the orchestra and Cerqua Rivera Dance Theater had as much to do with all creative ideas and process involved along the way. It was a very joyful experience for me, because I love collaborating.
Do you have any other comments, anything you would like our readers to know?
That I am grateful for this opportunity and cannot wait to see what they have come up with!
Experience Clarice's music as well as the rest of Chicago Sinfonietta's talent at Trademark.
September 16 at 8:00 PM
September 18 at 7:30 PM
Saturday at Wertz Concert Hall
171 E. Chicago Ave
Monday at Symphony Center
220 S. Michigan Ave
$20-$62; $10 student tickets
For more information visit the Chicago Sinfonietta Website.