Arrive in the Berlin Philharmonic hall for a regular concert and you'll find yourself in a vast, bright space that seats nearly 2,500 people. Last Sunday, though, the hall felt smaller, swathed in an intimate gloom that signalled an unusual performance ahead.
Within minutes of appearing, five wind musicians from the German ensemble Musikfabrik – with the help of all manner of mutes in their instruments – transformed the hall into a haunted house, a deserted factory and as many soundscapes and landscapes as there were audience members.
All leaned in, transfixed by the malevolent beauty they were hearing and fascinated by the ensemble members interacting more like a troupe of actors than musicians. Even the hallowed Berlin hall seemed intrigued by the prepared piano and harps, the soaring clarinets and violin strings played to their limits.
Imagine three circles – musician, scientist and engineer – and, where they intersect, you'll find her composing, thinking, tinkering and teaching
Sitting in the hall, almost out of sight, is the Irish composer responsible for it all: Offaly-born Ann Cleare, a sought-after talent all over the world, particularly in continental Europe. Next year in Munich sees the premiere of an opera about Brexit she is writing with Scottish writer AL Kennedy, but more on which later.
In a Berlin cafe two days after the concert, we have a lot to talk about. Above all: how big a deal is it to hear your music performed in the Berlin Philharmonic?
She laughs, saying she tried not to think about that in rehearsals, instead focusing on the musicians in order to get the most out of works she was hearing for the first time since early 2020.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of musicians or conditions – acoustically it is superb,” says Cleare (37), cheery, soft-spoken and always engaged. “There’s only a handful of venues like this in the world.”
No one else in the world is making music quite like Ann Cleare. Imagine three circles – musician, scientist and engineer – and, where they intersect, you’ll find her composing, thinking, tinkering and teaching.
In Trinity College Dublin she teaches music and media technology, not in the music department but in with the engineers.
“You don’t have baroque or classical engineers, they’re very much future-focused on how to be innovative, sustainable, imaginative and this mentality suits me so much more,” she says. “I’m interested in the sounds of now.”
Growing up outside Shinrone, Co Offaly, Cleare remembers her father as a “beautiful ballad singer” and regular visits from his poet friends. When she began music lessons aged seven her impatience to learn western classical and Irish traditional music was soon overtaken by an urge to escape its tonal and rhythmical limitations. Instead, she wanted to explore what she heard around her: the rhythms of farming, the mire of the bog, the charge of a magnetic field.
When Cleare works she makes field recordings or improvises with objects or instruments, exploring their material characteristics and seeing how far she can go
Studying music in UCC, she caught the composing bug by chance in her second year when she was hospitalised with a literal bug – viral pneumonia. On her return to university, she had fallen behind so far on other courses that taking composition was the best way to avoid repeating the year.
Encouraged by her teacher, John Godfrey, a composer and member of the Crash Ensemble, Cleare realised that composition could be anything she wanted it to be.
“I thought composition was going to be about me writing fugues, so it was mind-blowing to me that you could make up your own governing system,” she says. “It didn’t have to be be this western male white tradition I felt no connection to.”
So it was like realising there is more than black tea out there? “Exactly. Previously it was only Barry’s Tea and now there were all these mind-blowing teas.”
When Cleare works she makes field recordings or improvises with objects or instruments, exploring their material characteristics and seeing how far she can go. She knows the centre she is aiming for in a new piece, and has a clear structure, but keeps it open to a multiplicity of interpretations. Rather than get lost in the intellectual ambition of some from modern music, she works with a diverse audience in mind.
“I very much want people to get it, I am not trying to alienate anyone. I always ask myself: Have I given the first-time listener enough time to get this and connect, and is there enough for the multiple listener, to keep learning if they go back?”
Germany has been crucial to her career. It was here she had the first proper concert of her work performed in 2007 and Sunday's concert took place as part of Berlin's prestigious Musikfest.
Winrich Hopp, the festival’s artistic director, says he was “simply elated” when German composer Enno Poppe recommended a programme of Ann Cleare’s work.
Just as Brexit has rewired Ireland's economy, it is recalibrating the country's cultural focus, too
“Her music is unique and incomparable,” says Hopp. “She has a way of decelerating time, bringing things down to a slow, natural spectacle, it’s like eavesdropping on nature.”
Ann Cleare wasn't the only Irish influence at this year's Musikfest: German composer Heiner Goebbels premiered a new work, "A House of Call", drawing on James Joyce and late Samuel Beckett texts.
Next year Cleare will be back in Germany with a commission from the Munich Biennale. The Little Lives, an opera with a libretto by AL Kennedy, is about four people trapped in a Scottish city park by a keeper who keeps changing the reason for their imprisonment.
"It's a meditation on these years of uncertainty, constantly wondering what's going to happen, with people being fed information and disinformation, feeling like pawns," says Cleare. "The park keeper is constantly manipulating the situation. He is modelled on Boris Johnson, constantly telling everyone what they want to hear and changing what he is saying."
Nervous about working on her first political piece, Cleare is still working on the score. One key element, she says, will be the sound of fish rippling through water she recorded on a hydrophone.
“Once processed and amplified the rippling goes from quiet to loud,” she says. “It’s an oscillating sound, like the hum of anxiety that we feel from time to time.”
Just as Brexit has rewired Ireland’s economy, it is recalibrating the country’s cultural focus, too. A huge push for closer cultural contacts across all arts fields is underway from the Irish Embassy in Berlin.
"There's so much interest and fertile ground in Germany, it is the epicentre of contemporary music," says Candice Gordon, head of cultural affairs at the embassy. "As Ireland is in a growth phase of new music there is so much scope here for the future."
Cleare suggests that, in order to succeed, Ireland’s cultural push will need to mirror the Germans long-term approach to planning and funding. For her, Ireland’s ad hoc, short-termist approach reflects the absence of the arts in many Irish people’s lives. Not everyone is as privileged as her, she says, to have parents who could afford private lessons.
“Music is not fundamental in Irish politicians’ thinking, it never has been. I think it is a question of access at a younger stage, that it is a right to be able to explore the arts as a young person.”