It may seem a little ironic that on winning the 2019 Ernst von Siemens Composer Prize – and becoming the first Irish musician, ever, to do so – Ann Cleare was described as ‘making music that begs the question: is it music at all?’. An artist who describes composing as ‘shaping a sound’, her work has more to do with placing and locating, with building immersive settings for sound to be experienced in. With the dimensions she gives it, Cleare’s music seems to suggest that composers aren’t the ones responsible for sound – they just put it on its course.

Cleare’s compositions have contours; they have geography; sometimes they have their own tides. 2018’s Earth Waves does: the piece is reliant on intricate placements of speakers and musicians, set up so that singers – circling the ring of the performance area – become ‘waves’, ripples of sound that wash around the trombone played at the centre of things. The diagram for the piece is simple and beautiful, a demonstration of Cleare’s ‘tactile’ music approach – to treat music as if it were a ceaseless flow, in need of articulation.

Think about it this way, and you’ll be well equipped to see her work performed. on magnetic fields, a landmark work composed in 2011, is a meditation on the travel of sound; the piece positions two violins symmetrically, with one loudspeaker placed between them. The piece’s shape can be sparse or expansive; it was initially conceived with two ensembles on either side of the loudspeaker, violinists serving as what Cleare calls ‘electric currents’, charging their ensembles as if they were batteries. Recently, Cleare honed in on the violins themselves, creating a version without the ensembles. The experiment remains similar: to see what might differ in these separately developing currents.

Cleare describes each part of the piece as its own ‘character’, and notes that each one is ‘shaped differently, to create a sense of difference, to allow them to build connections’. The piece magnifies contingency and communication, using concurrent performances to create parallel universes where life is altered by force. It speaks to the give-and-take nature of her work – she guides the piece, but does not exert her will on it, interested in seeing what stories of nature develop from her organisations.

Weaving elemental stories with human ones, Cleare’s recent orchestral piece teeth of light, tongue of waves, is another nature story. It considers the changing histories of oceanography: ‘for centuries’, Cleare notes, ‘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 caused new concerns and understandings of the ocean.’ The piece evokes our changing relationship to the world – in how we have mingled its power with our own. As the world becomes a more and more precarious place for us to inhabit, Cleare considers the relationships we have with our natural histories.

Hearing these pieces, one gets an idea of Cleare’s work, but not the feel of it. Her music is best found on location, so the listener can experience the way she has choreographed it. Like stage directions in a movie script, a lot of her writing is hidden, as much about layout as it is the notes played. Her appearance at hcmf// 2019 puts this idea front and centre, with the Riot Ensemble preparing an interactive concert experience in which the audience takes up residence. Getting within the confines of the performance, audience members experience eyam iv as a structure, mingling with the ensemble as they perform around a ring of loudspeakers. Fixed positions exist, but personal stories emerge, weaving their way around Cleare’s structures.

Much like Earth Waves, this is another piece of music that has been shaped. Instrumentalists play into speakers, which respond with electronic filtering that mixes with the acoustic sound. Cleare even describes her performers as a ‘spatialised ensemble’, as if in being mapped out they have been alienated, spread around until it’s hard to discern what sound belongs to who. The speakers are telling: Cleare arranges her objects as if to put them in living relation to the people around them, to bring us back to the invisible energies, emotional structures and unnoticed worlds that form our lives with us.

Image (C) Justin Hoke