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Composer Portraits: Ann Cleare

Born in 1983 in central Ireland, Ann Cleare studied at University College Cork, where she received her master’s degree in 2008. She then took the foundation course at IRCAM and began doctoral studies at Harvard with Chaya Czernowin and Hans Tutschku. Her music has been played widely in the U.S. and in Europe, by ensembles including the JACK Quartet, Argento Chamber Ensemble, and Elision.

The program notes that follow are the composer’s.


Dorchadas for bass flute, bass clarinet, bassoon, trombone, percussion, piano, viola, cello, and double bass
Much of the energy and visceral force of my music stem from a struggle between firstly, a personal fear of ideas and conditions that petrify me, and, secondly, the artistic desire to explore these fears through sound.

Dorchadas (the Irish word for ‘darkness’) scales the density, gravity, and depth of a fear of the dark. This darkness is akin to a boundless, open space where the mind moves illogically between racing to find illumination and allowing itself to revel in fear.

The piece encapsulates an attempt to shine the light of sound upon darkness, probing a thought that the fear that scares one witless is the very same one that can bring understanding. As Feldman suggests: “Whereas in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it.”


the square of yellow light that is your window for alto saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano
This piece has a lot to do with eyes. Imagine these two different creatures:

The first is a dragonfly, with eyes so big they cover almost its entire head, giving it a helmeted appearance and a full 360-degree field of vision. Its eyes are made up of 30,000 visual units called ‘ommatidia’, each one containing a lens and a series of light-sensitive cells. It also has three smaller eyes, or ‘ocelli’, which can detect movement faster than the huge compound eyes can. These ocelli quickly send visual information to the dragonfly’s motor centers, allowing it to react in a fraction of a second. Although it is a tiny being, almost its entire head is covered in powerful light-detecting cells.

The second creature is a multiarmed, deep-sea being that lives in an aphotic zone of the ocean, where very little light infiltrates. Due to the extreme darkness of its habitat, this burrowing creature has adapted to life without sight, and relies on its other highly developed senses for survival. It has a dispersed nervous system in which each arm essentially has its own brain, and a complex mouth with multiple speech organs. When threatened, this creature can roll into a tight ball and draw its arms up over itself, forming a defensive web that covers its entire body.

Now imagine that structures similar to these are present in this piece, that a trio of piano, percussion, and electric guitar forms a self-contained, blinded, impermeable, sonic biosphere. And the saxophone, in extreme contrast, is a giant retina with thousands of light-sensitive cells, like that of the dragonfly.

Because of its powerful detection skills, the saxophone possesses a selfcontrol and agility that the trio cannot muster in itself; it can connect to the wild, untamed nature of the trio but also has the ability to pull itself back to a center of stability and focus. And most importantly, the saxophone can see a vital element of the trio that, because of both its pitch-black habitat and its other highly-developed senses, the trio itself has forgotten about: its eyes. For the saxophone, the sonic representation of these “eyes” provides a tiny window of light into the trio’s architecture, a light towards which it can guide the trio, encouraging it to tune into something different from its previous myopic, megalomaniac focus. The window that it opens reorientates and retemporizes the whole structure of the trio, allowing it to both see again and to observe itself and its surroundings from a different angle.

The compulsion to write the square of yellow light that is your window evolved partly from the thoughts of Oscar Wilde, who I think chose to see the world through some of the most observant and compelling windows imaginable. Particularly relevant to the piece is this one: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”


teeth of light, tongues of waves for solo voice, solo bassoon, guitar, viola, cello, and double bass
The sonic architecture and thinking within this work grew out of my interest in paleoceanography, the study of the history of oceans in the geologic past. For centuries, the ocean has evoked a sense of wonderment and fear as a vast unknown space loaded with notions of the sublime and the exotic. However, in more recent times, global technological and economic shifts have brought about new concerns and understandings of the ocean. Today’s oceans reveal more about the consequences of human actions than ever before.

With the use of early Irish poetry combined with prose from Doireann Ní Ghríofa, an Irish poet concerned with today’s world, notions of ancient and modern waters become intertwined in this piece:

A muir toirtig tonnmaraigh teindtigi
A toparaig trom-dercaigh toethanaig tidhnaicid toibertaig torannda…

— (Author unknown, early Irish Bardic poetry)

Lush, the ripple of liquid that catches the eye. Lush, it lulls us into itself, as water always does. Night will fall for us, and it will be followed by a new day we will not see.
—Doireann Ní Ghríófa: On Art and Apocalypse

These texts become woven sonic objects, evoking a hybrid form of nature being brought into being, the ancient and the modern forming a mouth with which to speak of the ocean after nature has been banished from it.


to another of that other for solo clarinet, solo trumpet, solo trombone, and large ensemble
This piece opens with the three soloists arranged as a quasi duet: the bass clarinet and trombone acting as one sonic entity, and the trumpet as another. As the piece progresses, this structure dissolves into three independent lines, which struggle to find a unified balance. Smaller, strained voices emerge that lead to a transformation for each soloist, as they metamorphose into each others characters: the bass clarinet slowly transforming into the pale trumpet voice of the opening, the trombone stuck between the bass clarinet and the trumpet’s characters, and the trumpet becoming a dual character, having simultaneously to embody/speak the harsh opening voices of both the trombone and the bass clarinet.

The soloists of the piece are often accompanied by their corresponding instruments in the orchestra. These identical “siblings” serve to highlight the voice of each of the soloists, as well as provide a protective haze around them as they transform in the orchestral landscape.

The timpani, the three percussionists, and the harp combine to form what I think of as a giant rotational device, which assists with the transformation of the soloists in the piece, slowly rotating them from one place to another. This axis comprises two components: the three percussionists forming one half of the axis, initially accompanying the trombone and bass clarinet, and the timpani and harp forming the other half, initially accompanying the trumpet. As the axis slowly rotates throughout the piece, these components begin to swap their accompanying roles, drawing each of the soloists into their new characters, and opening the door to the extensions of these characters: the background forces.

There are initially two main background forces in the piece with a third force developing later in the piece. These are thought of as three extensions of the soloist’s characters, giving further clarity to the narrative of metamorphosis that takes place in the piece, as if the soloists are at the tip of a much bigger sound mass happening behind them. The first background force is connected to the opening trumpet character – other upper-register instruments create a pale, still line, which the trumpet voice quietly emerges and develops from. The intensely raucous second background comprises middle and low instruments, a dense texture that the fractured voices of the trombone and bass clarinet evolve from. A third background forms, where the horns begin to represent the in-between-ness of the solo trombone, as it gets lost in the energy of transformation.

The piece being a quasi-palindrome, the transferences of these instrumental energies and characters combine to create a rich, intertwined sonic fabric of overlapping worlds, a state of infinite and immeasurable timelessness, between moving backward and forward, between hearing and rehearing, between the beginning and the end. Hence the title, taken from Samuel Beckett’s Company: “If the voice is not speaking to him it must be speaking to another. So with what reason remains he reasons. To another of that other. Or of him. Or of another still. To another of that other or of him or of another still.”


— Notes by Ann Cleare
Introduction by Paul Griffiths