Ottawa New Music Creators: Sean Clarke is making meaning in music

The Ottawa New Music Creators are dedicated to the performance of new and existing Canadian compositions. The organization was formed in 2008 by Evan Ware, James Wright, Colin Mack, Gary Hayes and Joanna Estelle. For Christopher Goddard, the current artistic director of the ONMC, the focus “has been on maximizing opportunities for local composers.” On Mother’s Day ONMC are presenting a concert called Toward the Sea which features works by well-known creators such as Derek Charke, Jocelyn Morlock and Alexandre David. But there are also new pieces by young Ottawa area composers Kasia Czarski-Jachimowicz, Derek Horemans, and Sean Clarke. All performed by the ensemble Projet ISO. ARTSFILE thought it was a good opportunity to meet these young artists and make them known to readers. Each answered questions about their music and themselves. The following is an edited transcript of an email exchange with Sean Clarke.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself as a musician and composer. 

A. I started playing the flute when I was nine and became interested in composition during my undergrad. After further flute studies in England, I started focusing more on composition, though I still enjoy performing. My current compositional goal is to maximize the expressivity of my music, to have every element of a piece contribute to its overall shape, mood and emotional trajectory.

Q. Why is new music important?

A. What I love about new music is that almost all the musical meaning comes from the organized sound itself. In contrast to many popular music styles, there is not as much emphasis on a performer’s public persona through lyrics, videos, costumes or genres. The focus is largely on what the audience hears, which gives the composer a lot of control. It’s the difference between directing a movie and being the writer and editor too. That said, you still get the invaluable experience of hearing live performers inject their own musicality and interpretation into the music, giving it a richness that changes from performance to performance, from one performer to the next.

Sean Clarke

Q. Tell me about the piece that is being performed? 

A. My piece is called Blumenwiese and takes it’s title (Flower Meadow) from a lush 1904 painting by Gustav Klimt. Given the chance to compose for my own instrument (flute) and harp, for a concert on Mother’s Day at the Beechwood National Memorial Centre, I wrote this piece in memory of my grandmother, Helen Fiedler.

Several passages are transformed and return throughout the piece, including the opening harp chords, a gentle Berceuse (lullaby), a somber Lament, and a tonal Reverie that echoes Schubert, Schumann, Mozart and 1940s jazz standards. The Reveries act as strange yet sincere diversion and remembrance, in the tradition of Hollywood musicals and their modern successors (Dancer in the Dark, The Shape of Water). The overall shape of the piece traces its way through states of tenderness, grief, joy and instability, before fading away in the lowest register of the harp.

Q. Is this typical of your work?

A. This is the second piece in which I’ve used short quotations, in this case music of Schubert, Schumann and Mozart. These quotes occur in sections I’ve labeled Reveries, where I have also tried a new technique, mimicking an older musical style myself. Fused together with the classical quotes are fragments of an imagined 1940s jazz standard in the style of Vera Lynn.

These allusions to other musical styles are meant to broaden the emotional range of the piece, much like in film when a specific piece is inserted at key moments that differs sharply from the soundtrack as a whole, or when a different visual style or genre is referenced at key points of a film. There is a significant emotional gulf separating the mood of the delicate Berceuse (lullaby) sections of my piece and the somber Lament sections; but the gulf is even wider between the Laments and the sweetly tonal Reverie sections.

Another important point is that the sharper the difference between different musical styles and material, the more carefully they have to be woven together throughout the piece to create a coherent, dramatic whole. That has been one of my goals with this work.

Q. Who has influenced your musical thinking?

A. My teachers, certainly, including Ana Sokolovic, Allan Bell and David Eagle, as well as the composer I wrote my thesis on, Pierre Boulez. Each of combines elements of modernism with lyricism, dramatic form, and expressivity in their own unique way. This results in styles that are deeply expressive yet also rigorous and coherent.

They also all eschew passing fads and fashions, focusing instead on creating music that is increasingly personal, distinct, and singular. This has been a powerful lesson for me, one that I strive for with each new piece.

Q. What is your favourite piece of music all time?

A. Probably something by Mozart, who is often misrepresented as a composer of light, graceful music, with ‘graceful’ often used as a back-handed compliment. In reality his music is every bit as intense and emotional as Beethoven or Mahler, with expressivity entrenched in every detail, down to the smallest passing note. No one has done more with less. Some of my favourite pieces include the Piano Concerto #22 (K. 482); the Piano Quartet in G minor (K. 478), and the Divertimento for String Trio (K. 563). 

Q. Do you listen to all kinds of music?

A. I love listening to all types of music, since each style has its own unique approach to depicting emotion, mood and inner experiences. Each genre and tradition has novel ways of approaching musical expressivity; each has distinct expressive “moves”, or strategies. Everything you listen to enriches your own musical imagination and helps you create more creative links between disparate types of styles. I find inspiration in everything from Bach to Jimmy Smith’s jazz organ to the music of the new Twin Peaks season that includes The Nine Inch Nails, Otis Redding, and a syrupy salon-music piece for piano by film composer Angelo Badalamenti.  

Q. Have you heard your music played before? 

A. Hearing your own music played is an incredibly exciting and vulnerable experience. For me, composing is about representing inner, lived experiences in sound, about depicting emotional territory in as unguarded and vivid a manner as possible. So when your piece is played, you are also on stage in a way, even if you’re not performing. At the same time, it’s exciting to hear the performers make the piece their own with their personal interpretation and musicality.

Ottawa New Music Creators present Toward The Sea
Where: Beechwood National Memorial Centre Sacred Space, 280 Beechwood Ave.
When: May 13 at 3 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.