Composer, pianist, and vocalist Clarice Assad kicks into gear at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music on Aug. 4 with a world premiere work, É Gol (Goal!), inspired by female Brazilian soccer player Marta Vieira da Silva. The new piece includes audience participation — contributions including singing, breath and body-percussion sounds, and “other fun stuff,” according to Assad.
High spirited instrumentation and vocalizations contrasted with mood-altering, contemplative silence or sustained notes, an emphasis on rhythmic and melodic textures that draw from multiple cultures and eras, and an unbounded enthusiasm for language — Assad speaks fluent Portuguese, French, and English, and sings also in Spanish and Italian — are signature features informing the score. The percussion section alone has musicians playing triangle, whip, bass drum, tamtam (gong), drumset, toms, snare drum, djembe, congas, cymbals, woodblocks, suspended cymbals, tambourine, xylophone, castanets, and more.
Assad, a native of Rio de Janeiro, carries pedigree, along with a Bachelor of Music degree from the Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, and a Master of Music degree from The University of Michigan School of Music. Her father is guitarist Sergio Assad, who often performs in the Bay Area with her uncle, guitarist Odair Assad. Her aunt is singer/songwriter Badi Assad. Surrounded in her childhood home by music, it’s fair to say Assad began her music training in infancy. From 2007 to 2017, she was the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s primary arranger, and was the orchestra’s featured composer-in-residence in 2008–2009.
A passion for sharing music with students energizes Assad, resulting in the creation in 2015 of VOXploration, an award-winning program that combines interactive activities and an accessible approach to provide music education for students of any level. With over 70 works completed, seven solo albums and an additional 30 recordings on which she or her works are featured, and numerous commissions, Assad responded while premiering a new work on tour in Brazil.
Other than the “beleaguered female composer” narrative, is there new energy or a feminist story to tell about women in classical and contemporary classical music? How are you and other women musicians, in ways other than as performers of music written largely by men, influencing the next generation?
There is a lot more incentive for women composers and conversations surrounding the topic of the need for more organizations to present and promote the works of women composers. More than ever before. The music field — just like so many others — has been dominated by men, so it takes time for old habits to change, but I definitely do see a very positive change that will eventually, hopefully, lead us toward a point where we don’t need to specify the gender of a particular composer, since it should be ultimately about the music.
In what ways has your participation in Music Alive residencies altered your awareness of the imbalances in access for young people? What surprises, pleases, or concerns you about opportunities for students to experience classical and jazz instruments and education?
I feel extremely grateful to have been able to participate in all the opportunities that have been awarded to me as a young composer. No matter how much we learn in a classroom, it is in real-life situations that we get the experience needed to improve our craft. I wish there were more of such opportunities available for more young musicians, because the truth is that there aren’t enough, in my opinion.
I’ve been fortunate also to have worked as an arranger for an orchestra in the Bay Area for a decade. Even though I wasn’t writing my own music, I was dealing with real life experiences in orchestration, and this taught me a lot more than all of my years in college combined. These are the types of residencies that should be encouraged. Imagine if every orchestra, chamber group, no matter how small or big, had those opportunities available for young musicians?
People often ask you about the use of voice in your compositions, and you’ve spoken talk about admiring the hum/percussion vocalizations of your aunt, about the use of percussive body sounds in your work, about interest in double-toning in instruments. What textures have you found recently that are most exciting and where did you find them?
Are you mentioned, I learned a lot about creative ways of using the voice through my aunt, Badi Assad. And through her, also, I found other musicians who were in that same boat. Bobby McFerrin was one of them. The first time I heard him as a child in the ’80s, I couldn’t believe my ears. So what does a child do? They imitate. And it was through imitation of all [the influences] that I thought sounded “way cool” that I began developing my own voice. I loved George Benson’s vocalizations with his guitar solos, so I tried that out on piano. Once I got the doubling down, I began playing with more difficult intervals as I improvised melodic lines. Eventually, I was able to sing in minor seconds and now I am going for the microtones. To me, it’s always an exercise in how far I can go.
Please talk about your VOXploration projects and the developments currently happening or upcoming. What are you seeing in the bodies and hearing in the voices you are encountering in the program’s workshops and classes?
VOXploration is my creative refuge. It is a class, a workshop that mixes music, theater, dance, and other art forms to spontaneously create situations using all these elements in an improvisatory way. Some [participants] find it really therapeutic because they are tapping into not only their creativity, but sharing that with others as well. I think that in our society, we don’t share enough. At least not in a very deep level, because we are tied to our phones and computers, hiding behind screens. VOXploration frees us from that tech bubble for a moment, and puts us all in touch with our own bodies.
You have researched dreams, the brain and sleep disturbances, social oppression and change, and you use vocal techniques including scat, hip hop, and voice-altering technology like TC Helicon Live Touch. You explore improvisation in sound and movement, including sound painting created by deaf students. Is it fair to say your curiosity is average for musicians today, or are you unusual? What drives your charge into new territory?
I love to explore uncharted territory, but I am far from being different in that way from other humans, because I think that’s what we do! I believe we got to the point where we’ve created all that we have, simply because of our curiosity. I am not a mainstream artist, and there are many downsides to that, but the good news is that I get to be in a creative space where even though there are less public [audiences] for what I am doing, there is space to be more bold and do whatever seems to be a good idea at the time. You are freer from labels and conformism.
When you receive commissions, now that you have established your career, are the presenters and commissioning entities coming to you with a “do something like this piece you’ve already written” approach, or are you more often given carte blanche?
It depends so much on many things. Sometimes I get carte blanche; sometimes I like to discuss with the artists what it is that would make their hearts sing. They are going to be the ones delivering that message to their audience, and they must believe in that message. I am keen on getting inside their minds and getting to know them; and having them to know me. It’s a beautiful exchange. Sometimes, I get asked to do something specific, but I don’t ever mind. Because even if it seems to be something along the lines of a theme that I’ve already explored, I try to find an angle that I had not yet seen it from. I learn so much in that process.
Who are your primary vocal giants in music history — people whose work you return to again and again?
Elis Regina, a Brazilian singer; Sarah and Ella Fitzgerald; Aziza Mustafa Zadeh; Bobby McFerrin.
Let’s dive into É Gol, the work on the program at Cabrillo. Will you describe the external structure of the work?
It is an interactive piece. It takes place inside of the brain of the [female Brazilian] soccer player Marta Vieira da Silva. In a way, it’s a programmatic piece because it tells a little story. It’s a simple, imagined story of how a day she needs to prepare before a game might be. It begins with an anxious, nightmarish dream and ends in the sweet victory of a game she wins. It’s all in her head, of course. We get to spend the day with her doing many activities — going for a run, meditating, walking through nature, etc.
The inspiration comes from da Silva and the thoughts that happen in her mind: Can you tell us what elements of her story caused you to believe it would translate well into musical form?
I don’t know much about Marta personally, but I know about performance. The mindset of a performer, in any field, is very similar because we share the same emotions. I felt compelled to be guided by my own emotions of anxiety, joy, butterflies in the stomach, doubt, and spacing out, concentrating. In sum, the story I am telling is a story that everyone can relate to on some level or another. Who hasn’t felt butterflies in their stomach? Or been scared? Or been in a total place of bliss?
And in what ways did your original ideas modulate, change radically, or remain steady as you wrote this piece?
I had to be mindful of the fact that this is the first time I was inviting an audience into the piece as protagonists. There were ideas I had to modify just based on that alone. I worked hard on creating a balance between how much participation versus how much the orchestra would play or I would sing. It’s a fine balance that can throw the whole thing off. Yes, there were many re-writes involved.
Your teaching method combines the Takadimi system based on South Indian Carnatic tradition with geometric shapes to make learning rhythm and music notation accessible to people without formal music theory training. Did that influence this piece?
Not this time! But that is because I am saving this idea for something else I’m cooking up! There is some simple beatboxing involved in this piece, but it is mostly going to explore soundscapes and singing.
Vocal participation from the audience is a part of É Gol. Will you tell us two or three of the sound effects and percussive movements they will perform?
The most obvious ones are the call-and-response. When I sing something, and they sing back to me. They’ll be asked to make quiet, whisper sounds, breath sounds, and recreating the sound of a downpour of rain, for examples.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Cabrillo?
That I am super excited at the opportunity to premiere this work with such a phenomenal group of artists, and staff. From the artistic and executive directors to the musicians, producers, volunteers, and the audience, this festival is a gem, a pure work of love. I am always so grateful and proud to be a part of it.