Clara de Asís: ‘I like to consider music as a manifestation of life’

Clara de Asís is a Spanish composer and performer based in France. She has an approach to sound that highlights simplicity, non-intervention and active listening as a means of music-making. Her works display an extreme precision and intuitive openness that involves a dedicated attention to sound in its details and in its most pure forms.

During the first lockdown in spring, you travelled to Basel and recorded an album with Mara Winter called “Repetition of the same dream”. This record obviously was created in extraordinary circumstances. Can you talk about how it was created in terms of ideas and execution?

Repetition of the same dream was commissioned by Another Timbre as part of the label’s “quarantine series”. Simon Reynell’s invitation to create an album during that particular period came at a time when Mara Winter and I were already developing some of the pieces that, later, would be part of the album. As you mentioned, I travelled to Basel to join Mara as soon as the possibility of a lockdown became likely in France, considering the circumstances as an opportunity to continue cultivating our work together without interruptions.

Music-making quickly became our main activity during March and April, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a different context: because of the lockdown, we were able to record in very specific locations of the city, in almost total quietness, and explore the sonorities of those spaces. We first developed most of the pieces in a tunnel in the city centre where we’d go in the middle of the night. Later, we had the possibility of using an empty church to record all of the pieces in a more controlled environment. In these pieces, there is a very strong link to the space where they were produced, which has its own identity. There was also the idea of exploring a combination of instruments coming from very different historical backgrounds: Mara’s medieval bass flute and the different objects and electronics I was using.

In an interview about the record, you said: “Somehow it showed that everything can change – and so everything is possible.” Which is an interesting premise, not only regarding the particular situation in which you found yourself, but also in terms of music and music-making as such.

Yes. I think that everything we observe or experience in life has its resonance in music, and vice versa. I like to consider music as a manifestation of life, and I treat it as such. This involves a certain attitude of acceptance, of trust, of respect towards the autonomy of sound, if I can say it like that. As if sounds had their own course, their own existence, and we as musicians are there to facilitate it. If we look at this premise from that perspective, “everything can change – and so everything is possible”, it can be understood as the acknowledgment of a certain essential indeterminacy, which we can see as something that has the potential to bring us somewhere we wouldn’t have anticipated, rather than considering it an annoyance that we should struggle against.

You are also establishing a label with Mara, which should bring together historical and experimental music. Can you talk about it?

We recently established a label called Discreet Editions, which explores interactions between historically-informed aesthetics in music and experimental composition. There are great affinities between so-called early music performance and contemporary experimental practices in terms of a certain approach to indeterminacy, notation systems that integrate very open areas, tuning systems, stylistic improvisation techniques, and so on. We both find that this convergence is a territory that hasn’t been explored very much yet. We’d like to provide space for existing projects that share this interest with us, but also, and more particularly, find and develop ways to bring together these two aesthetics which, socially and historically, have been placed apart from each other.

Your music highlights “simplicity, non-intervention and active listening as a means of music-making.” Can you describe each of these things as a tool that can be employed in music-making? How can composers work with chance and randomness, and how can they work with active listening, which is required from the listener?

Rather than tools, I’d describe these elements as parts of a global attitude. They are quite interrelated: listening leads to non-intervention, non-intervention leads to simplicity. Of course, non-intervention is not something to necessarily apply literally, but it’s to be understood as a philosophy that generates a specific aesthetic – that of not imposing yourself on the sound, but letting the sound be. I’m interested in working with sound in its most pure forms, rather than applying too many transformations or audio treatments. Rather than this idea of “sculpting the sound”, I’m keen on the idea of the sound itself sculpting my listening practice. I don’t make a separation between composer practice and listener practice. In a way, listening is composing.

Chance and randomness are related to the position that the composer takes in their creative work. Those who don’t place themselves as the central, demiurgic instance of the musical experience, are probably more open to chance and randomness (something that’s out of one’s control). Considering indeterminacy and chance as a structural element of a composition is also refusing to perpetrate certain power dynamics and creating space for freedom.

What is the role of volume in your work? We live in times when music is getting increasingly louder; your works tend not to follow this trend.

I’m interested in exploring a form of music that doesn’t intend to have the exclusivity of the sonic space, that doesn’t try to erase or invalidate whatever “extra-musical” elements happen at the same time, but, instead, proposes a particular way to experience sound. A form of music that integrates other sounds in it, just the sounds of life itself, if I can put it like that. And then it’s up to the listener to focus their attention on whatever sound element they feel is a rich territory.

This indeed involves an approach to volume which, rather than getting its perceptive intensity from high signal levels, gets it from the listener’s degree of attention. The louder the volume you apply, the more impositional you are. Though loud volumes can be necessary, and even generate ecstatic experiences in certain forms of music, in my case, it’s rather the medium and low volumes that provide space to generate what I’m looking for. Which is: the listener going towards the sound, and not the sound coming to them. I also feel that there’s sometimes a direct relation between loudness and power dynamics, which I try to leave out of my work as much as possible.

What are you currently working on?

I have just finished writing a piece for the ‘quiet music concerts’ series in Helsinki that will be performed by Lauri Hyvärinen and Antti Tolvi this month. I’m currently working a lot with Mara Winter on Discreet Editions, and we’re also continuing our music projects together, developing new compositions. I’m also working on a piece by Léo Dupleix, called ‘Preludes pour guitare’, which I’ll perform on electric guitar. And there are a couple of collaborations to get ready for next year, with Ryoko Akama – we’ll work together on an album that will be released on Erstwhile Records – and with Rebecca Lane.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova
Photo by Francis Jimenez

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