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MacDowell Downtown

Andrea Clearfield presents Tibetan recording project

Composer in her fourth MacDowell residency will share recordings, discuss a new opera, and talk influences of a rich but endangered culture

Andrea Clearfield, whose orchestral and choral works have been performed around the world, and who hosts one of the most popular music salons in the country, will talk about her current work at the Mariposa Museum on Friday at 7:30 p.m. for a special edition of MacDowell Downtown.

Clearfield, in Peterborough for her fourth MacDowell residency, will share audio and film footage from her fieldwork in Lo Monthang, a remote area in Upper Mustang, Nepal, which is home to an ancient horse culture of ethnically Tibetan people. She was there in 2008 and in 2010 to record the music of royal court singer Tashi Tsering, whose repertoire — passed down from father to son for hundreds of years — was in danger of being lost forever.

She’ll also discuss her current project, music for an opera on the life of the venerated 11th-century Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, and present other works that have been inspired by the Tibetan songs she collected in Lo Monthang.

The trip to Nepal to make recordings, supported by grants from The Rubin Foundation, American Composers Forum, and The University of the Arts, was part of a wider effort to help preserve the music, dance, medicine, religion, language, and art from the region. Just getting there was arduous, requiring several planes to reach Kathmandu, then two smaller planes before horse-packing for several days over 10 mountain passes to reach her destination.

“I didn’t realize the length and the challenge of the journey,” Clearfield said, explaining she was lucky her love of high-mountain hiking conditioned her for the trek.

Clearfield took along a digital recorder and an interest in ethno-musicology to research the music. John Sanday, a leading architectural conservationist who had been restoring the frescos in Lo Monthang’s monasteries, suggested that Clearfield record the court songs of royal court singer Tashi Tsering. These songs are considered folk music, yet each is sung with a particular purpose in mind. They’ve been an integral part of festivals held at royal court, from weddings to horse races, but in recent years, no young people in the region have been interested in learning these songs.

“The experience ultimately changed me as a person and as a composer,” Clearfield said, explaining that numerous compositions since her trips to Nepal have been influenced by the melodies and instruments she collected there.

The second trek in 2010 took Clearfield back to finish the trip on foot, this time accompanied by anthropologist Katey Blumenthal. The two recorded the court singer’s complete repertoire, and went on to gather songs suggested by community members, including dance and common folk songs. In all, 130 songs that had never been documented before were recorded and the research is now part of the permanent collection at the University of Cambridge’s World Oral Literature Project.

Clearfield sent cassette tapes of the songs back to the village along with boom boxes and batteries, making Tashi Tsering’s songs available in the local library where the repertoire might be taught to children.

“This has always been about going forward with respect and honoring this traditional music,” Clearfield said. “Something has shifted in me as a result of these travels. My interest in bringing people together and bridging cultures has deepened.”

When she played an early version of one of her pieces for Tashi Tsering in 2010, he told her, “This is a place where your world and my world meet.”

It’s that kind of response that has helped fuel Clearfield’s new body of compositional work, incorporating Tibetan instruments and melodies discovered on her treks to the Himalayas. Pieces like the large-scale cantata, “Tse Go La” (At the threshold of this life), reflect those discoveries. “Tse Go La” was co-commissioned by The Mendelssohn Club and the Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and premiered with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in 2012 with subsequent performances in New York, New Jersey, and Texas.

To find out more about Clearfield’s work, and get a view into how it is inspired by her desire to help preserve Tibetan culture, join us on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Mariposa Museum.

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