15 may 2013

Clarice Assad Interview

Natural born talent
By Fernando Bartolomé for MGE

We are in need of good musicians and good composers who love music. We are in need of musicians who have a personal brand and with new ideas and perspective about music. If we have the good fortune of having someone who also focus her attention on guitar we are in absolutely luck. And I’ve found this person in Clarice Assad.
As we can read in her webpage she is versatile, sophisticated, and accomplished, Clarice Assad is a sought after composer, pianist, and vocalist of musical depth and ability. Her music embraces a wide variety of styles, including her own original musical concepts.

I also could add she is a natural born musician who fell in love with music from a very young age, with a very wide range of musical influences, among them improvised music, Brazilian music or contemporary music, in very different timbres combinations and with a deep knowledge of music and instruments matters.

So, we are talking about one of most interesting musicians of the world on her own merit. Those of you who are trying to make a connection because of her surname between she and the Assad brothers are right. She is the Sergio Assad’s daughter, so we can make sure Clarice knows something about guitar and guitar ensembles.

She enjoys music and she express naturally as she said me on the interview: I made music because I loved it from a very young age.  So it was a natural step for me to improve my skills in order to express myself better.

The poor violas and cellos always at the side of the violins during so much time and now it comes Suite for lower strings, composed by you for violas and cellos with violin accompaniment. It represents a twist in history. Don’t you think so?
Within these standard types of ensembles, usually the lower strings really don’t get that much attention... But, due to the high level of playing from every section in the orchestra I work for (New Century Chamber Orchestra), we thought about playing with the idea of switching roles, and we had a lot of fun with it. 

Maybe this type of twist is happening with guitar in solo and ensemble context. So much time as a solo instrument in classical circles but rarely important on chamber music, or playing a secondary role, the guitar seems to stand out in ensembles context. Why do you think this is happening now?
It's a tricky question! But I think there is much more room in the classical music scene for the violin to act as a solo instrument. It is a solo instrument by nature; and historically, there has been much more music written for the instrument with this in mind. Think of all the sonatas, concerti, etc that were written for the violin vs. for the guitar.

There are many reasons why the guitar has fallen into its own special category. For example, the guitar is a soft instrument, easily covered by others, and not an easy instrument to write for.
Also, because the guitar has a tradition of having an 'accompaniment' role, it probably has made it even more difficult for it to thrive as a soloist instrument alone, because it can do much more than just play a solo line above other instruments.

Also, we live in a time that is filled with spectacular musicians, full of talent and who are all deserving to have solo careers, but the truth is that it is not possible to have that many soloists. This is the case with many other instruments, not just the guitar. I think that many violinists who start playing at a young age and end up going to school for it, are trained to become soloists, but not all of them end up making it as soloists and many times, this has nothing to do with their capabilities of delivering.

So, what happens after the school dream is over and musicians are out on their own trying to make a living? They unite. They create groups, they create projects, they find outlets for their music to be played and heard. And form that, I think, come the various combinations of instruments and ensembles. Even though the reality of how many of these groups are formed is harsh, in the end, I believe it to be a great thing - We are then forced to come up with creative combinations of instruments, ensembles, colors and ways of making music which were not possible before. This can only enrich the musical world.

When you compose a work, do you have in mind the characteristics of specific musicians or do you prefer to think only in music matters?

When I am commissioned a piece by a group or a soloist, I always think about them first.   Who are they? What would they like to say? The music becomes the result of an encounter between us.  To me, this makes all the difference in the world, because it is the musicians who will go out there and perform the work.  They need to feel very connected to what they are playing; they need to embrace the music.

You belong to one of the most important musicians’ families in the world. Your father, Sergio Assad, your uncle Odair, but also your grandfather was a good musican… Can you tell us how did you introduce into the musical world? When did you think of becoming professional musician?
I think it is a calling.  And I think we all had it.  My grandfather Jorge for instances, even though he was never a professional musician, his entire life revolved around music.  And he passed his passion onto his children (all of them) and grandchildren (all of us are very musically inclined)

I was writing an article on how to introduce kids into music and I tried to make clear the importance of create the right environment for the kids. Aside of the technical matters, having a good teacher is really important, what it counts when you are so young is the support, in all senses, of the family and the people around you. What about you? What did it count the most for you?
In my case, what was ‘unusual’ is that I didn’t get pushed to do anything.  I made music because I loved it from a very young age.  So it was a natural step for me to improve my skills in order to express myself better...   Support came in the form of opportunities.  For example, my mother Celia moved our family from the suburb to the city so that I could get better piano teachers... Later in my life, I was given the opportunity to study in a very reputable institution in the USA, thanks to my father Sergio and his wife Angela.  So yes, support is essential and come in very different ways...

Aside from the composer role, you are an accomplished pianist and singer. What do you think chamber music can do in musical education of a student?
I’ve never really had formal chamber music training in the classical sense.  But I had experience in jazz ensembles while at school, which were very valuable to me.  But the time when I had the most amazing experience within an ensemble was in Ann Arbor, when I participated in an all improvised ensemble.  We really had to be tuned in and listen very carefully to each other in order to make music in the moment.  It was very liberating for me. 

Ann Arbor is the name of the city where I went to school , it's in Michigan, and it’s SO COLD !!!
But the teacher there was Ed Sarath - AMAZING improvisor and teacher - played from his heart; had lots of experience creating music on the spot.
This whole notion of totally improvised music is not new, but I think it's more popular now than ever. I see there are many groups that specialize themselves in improvisation, and put on concerts that are improvised from beginning to end. It is not easy listening, but it can be an incredible experience for the listener -and for improvisors, even more!

You are the principal staff arranger for the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and the responsible for most of the orchestra’s musical arrangements. How do you construct the arrangement process? What things do you recommend to make a good arrangement?
To make a good arrangement, I recommend that we have an open mind and that we love the music we are arranging and if we don’t... We find a way to do so!

Well... It helps that I love NCCO and I am so proud to be their staff arranger.  I think of arranging the same way as I think of composing.  Even though the music is there, you are still creating something new out of what already exists.  This compositional approach leads me to explore more possibilities all around.  In the way I can use the instruments, the musicians, etc. 

Do you keep a place for improvisations on your compositions?
Sometimes. And I am starting to incorporate this more and more into my music as a whole. 

Do you think improvisation should be present in the musical education training?
Yes, absolutely.  I think that for the most part, musical improvisation is very organic, and something we all know how to do instinctively when we are young.   But, as we get older we tend to become more self conscious and lose the ability to express it... I think that making improvisation part of musical education training would engage students in thinking of a more organic approach to music and their instruments. 

I think one of the best options for the guitar is to play in quartet ensemble. There are a lot possibilities and combinations of timbres, counterpoint, dynamics, etc. and little by little this ensemble is becoming a standard one. Your contribution to guitar quartets is Danças nativas and Bluezilian, comissioned by Aquarelle Guitar Quartet and LAGQ. Did they give you some suggestion or they give you the liberty for doing what you wanted? What did you learn in the process?
Yes, there are many possibilities yet to be discovered! I had carte blanche to write anything I wanted on both occasions, and I did learn a lot in the process. 

But here’s a funny story... Bluezilian was never really an officially ‘commissioned’ work.  There was a possibility of writing an encore piece for the LAGQ when they were considering the idea of doing an all Brazilian-American program tour, but for some reason, the project never took off and they never premiered the piece.

One day, a member of the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet asked me if I had anything for quartet; that they’d like to play something of mine.  I sent them Bluezilian and they recorded it.  Then lots of people started playing this piece, there were some interesting versions of it on YouTube, such as an arrangement for marimbas.  How random is this, that a group of Chinese students would pick up this tune and arrange it for marimbas? Makes me smile...

Anyway, later on, Aquarelle commissioned Danças Nativas, and we got a Latin Grammy Nomination for it, which is really cool.  I’d love to write them a concerto someday. 

The “Album de retratos” work is composed for 2 guitars and symphonic orquestra. For such a work like this in which the orquestra has a very active role I suppose that it was necessary micros to amplify the guitars. If so, ¿how did Sergio and Odair do?
The guitars are very soft instruments and can be easily covered.  I think that in a symphonic context, the best solution is to amplify the instruments.  Even when amplified, balance problems can still exist depending on how the orchestration is done.  There are very few problems in the concerto I wrote for the duo because I was highly aware of the many problems we could have and did my best to avoid all of the tempting traps. I think my father and Odair enjoyed performing the piece because they were able to hear the orchestra and themselves very well through most of the concerto. 
Let’s talk about composition. Do you have some type of routine in the creation process? Do you use the piano for composing? Do you write on paper or prefer a score editor?
When I am working on a new work, I like to devote my full attention to it.  It becomes an obsession to me... I can work without a piano, especially if it is on an idea that already started in my head before I touched the instrument.  I prefer recording myself sing (or play) what I have in mind and then transcribe the recording to a score editor. 

Many times I will skip the paper altogether, as most of the arranging will be done inside of the computer anyway.  I occasionally use paper when I think that the music will be corrupted by the midi sounds or rigidity, like it was in the case for my piece OBRIGADO, for string quartet and mandolin. 

Here I’ve collected the pieces I’ve found for different guitar ensembles. Is it complete?
Danças Nativas (2008)
For Guitar Quartet. 12 mins. Commissioned by the AQUARELLE GUITAR QUARTET
Bluezilian (2004)
For Guitar Quartet c. 5 mins. Commissioned by the LA GUITAR QUARTET
Brasileirinhas (2005)
For Guitar Duo  c. 10 mins. Commissioned by the ETERNA DUO
Valsas do Rio (2001)
For Guitar Duo  c. 8 mins. Commissioned by Robert Margo & Byron Fogo
Mercador de Sonhos (1993)
For Guitar Duo c. 6 mins.
Three Sketches
(Two Guitars + Violin)
Three Balkan Dances
(Solo Guitar + Flute)
(Guitar + Bb Clarinet)
(Guitar + Piano)
Suite Back To Our Roots
(Two Guitars + Percussion + Piano)

Yes! So far:) But soon we will have more! There’s the two guitar concerto and I am being commissioned to write a new solo guitar concerto, plus there will be the 6 miniatures for the 6 guitarists who won my Call For Guitarists Competition this year. So, lots of cool stuff happening! :)

Thanks so much!


Clarice Assad

Clarice Assad Scores

University of Michigan School of music, theatre and dance



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