Andy Clausen is a New York-based composer, trombonist and 2014 graduate of The Juilliard School and Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. The New York Times has described his work as “sleek, dynamic large-group jazz, a whirl of dark-hued harmony and billowing rhythm…The intelligent sheen of Mr. Clausen’s writing was as striking as the composure of his peers…It was impressive, and not just by the yardstick of their age.”
As a composer, Clausen’s works for small and large ensembles explore what it means to grow up in a 21st Century America, in which both artist and listener are expected to be equally versed in the music of Bach and Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong and Leonard Bernstein. By embracing these seemingly disparate traditions with passion, balance, organization, contemplation, and judgment, Clausen is rapidly creating a body of work that connects them with a sense of playful nostalgia. Although jazz is woven into the fabric of Clausen’s music, his projects reflect a belief that Jazz isn’t a “what” but a “how” – how to share the most honest emotions possible with fellow performers and audiences.
Find out more about Andy Clausen at andyclausen.com
Andy Clausen on This Is Water
When presented with the opportunity to compose a piece for orchestra and select its companion piece, I immediately gravitated to Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. These little instrumental pieces, excerpted from the larger opera, are bursting with mystery and beauty. First encountering the opera in a 20th century music history course, I have been fascinated by its complex emotional themes, layers of meaning, and musical content.
In the opera, the interludes function both thematically and practically to bridge scene changes behind the curtain. They take us on a journey through various seascapes, from one physical setting to another, while evoking the complex emotional turmoil of the characters.
Grimes covers a wide range of 20th century musical vernacular; from the most striking dissonances and rigorous structures, to the melodic threads of English folk song, to vaudeville and Broadway. It weaves these disparate musical traditions into a profound commentary on the complexities of modern life and society. As New Yorker critic Alex Ross put it, “Grimes is an English Wozzeck, extending sympathy to an ugly man, using his crimes to indict the society that sired him.” Or in Britten’s own words: “The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.”
When I began to conceive of This Is Water, the 45th president of the United States was just beginning his terrifying reign. For my own mental stability, I was forced to tune out the chatter, to shield myself from the infuriating news of each passing day. Throughout my life, walks along the water have been an important therapeutic escape, and in recent months, they have become all the more essential.
The title of the piece, This Is Water, comes from a commencement address by David Foster Wallace.. He begins with an illuminating little story: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”
Finding meaning in the complexities of modern life requires a profound awareness directed outside of our own self-centered, brainwashed-by-modern-consumer-culture selves. He argues:, “the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water. This is water.”
In a funny way, it has often taken walks along the literal water to understand the proverbial water Wallace describes. Seaside walks, simple observation, and reflection have been profoundly useful in my daily life, so it felt natural to select three personally meaningful shorelines to serve as the settings for my sea interludes.
I. Carmel Carmel, California is a small beach town on the central coast that has been a gathering place for my family for several generations. I’ve spent many a sleep-less night pacing up and down the beach, listening to the waves, observing the stars, smelling the rotting seaweed that washes ashore, while the wet sand oozes through my toes. Like Britten’s Dawn, this first movement alternates between a slow, shimmering flute/violin melody, buoyant rhythmic interjections, and a sprawling brass chorale. Much like the stark contrast on the beach, from the tourist ridden sunsets, to the completely barren nights and sunrises.
II. Lopez Lopez Island, Washington has become the regular site of a creative retreat with my brass quartet, The Westerlies. The foggy mornings, stunning sunsets, and general stillness have proved to be the perfect setting for us to escape the bustle of New York City and develop new work. The primary objective of the second move-ment was to capture the morning fog that hangs over the water nearly every day. The orchestration of the underlying chorale, heavy on the low strings and bassoons, is borrowed from Moonlight. The rest of the woodwinds and the brass evoke the sur-rounding for, which is then transformed into the cacophonous fury of activity, much like my creative process while working on the island!
III. Harlem River In my current home in upper Manhattan, daily walks along the Harlem River help me center my thoughts. It’s not a particularly “scenic” setting, in the traditional sense. On my side of the river runs a giant freeway, jammed with aggressive New York drivers at any hour. On the other side of the river, train tracks, giant gravel mounds, used car dealerships, a recycling scrapyard, and a seasonal site of the Big Apple Circus (until their recent bankruptcy.) The frenetic pace of city life is the main character in this final movement. The continuous frenzy of commuters headed into the rat race by car and by train is embodied by the insistent, optimistic rhythms throughout. There is a beauty in the chaos of this city, and its people. But I think it encourages us to ignore what is hidden in plain site, as Wallace says. In the midst of this concrete jungle, there is a beautiful flowing river. There is also a bankrupt circus.
New York City, March 2017