As a new feature, every month ICA will be presenting a new “composer of the month,” featuring a living composer with a significant body of work for the clarinet
ICA COMPOSER OF THE MONTH, OCTOBER 2021
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
ICA: Welcome, Amanda Harberg, we’re very happy to have you as our October 2021 composer-of-the-month!
AH: Thank you so much for having me!
ICA: Tell us a bit about the featured composition.
AH: The featured composition is my Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which I am currently expanding into a concerto for the ClarinetFest 2022 Gala Concerto Concert, with soloist YaoGuang Zhai and the Reno Philharmonic. It will be premiered on July 2, 2022.
This is a deeply emotional piece for me, in which the main materials came spontaneously upon hearing about the tragic loss of a dear friend. The first movement has a nostalgic and gentle quality, almost as if looking into the past through old photographs. The second movement serves as a bridge into a darker emotional space, colored by sadness and loss. The final movement transforms the material from the opening movement into a restless yet rhythmic dance of anger and agitated energy.
The sonata was written for clarinetist Benjamin Fingland in 2015. It was a watershed piece for me. During the previous year, I had lost track of why I was writing music. While I completed several commissions that year, I felt so uninspired that I wondered if I should continue being a composer.
That’s when I ran into a friend who told me she had just heard Prayer- a meditation on healing that I had composed several years back. She had recently been diagnosed with a serious illness, she told me, and listened to the piece in the evenings, as a way to find healing energy. Hearing her story reminded me what I find most meaningful as a composer- connecting with others on an emotional level through music. The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was the first piece I wrote with this renewed sense of artistic purpose.
While I love the current scoring of clarinet with piano, I’ve long wanted to expand the piece into a concerto. Happily, the International Clarinet Association recently invited me to create the new concerto version.
ICA: What other works have you written for clarinet?
AH: In chronological order:
2021: Lucas’s Garden for Bb clarinet, violin, cello and piano
2021: Hall of Ghosts for solo Bb clarinet
2020: Tales of Lyra for solo bass clarinet (premiere scheduled for November, 2021)
2016: Sadie’s Birthday Adventures, for optional Bb clarinet or bass clarinet, bass trombone, double bass, percussion, piano and narrator
2015: Clarinet Sonata
2015: Tenement Rhapsody, for clarinet ensemble (1 Eb clarinet, 5 Bb clarinets, 2 Bb bass clarinets)
2008: Birding in the Palisades, for flute/piccolo, Bb clarinet and piano
ICA: Tell us a bit about yourself
AH: I’ve lived in Philadelphia PA, New York City, and Glen Ridge New Jersey, in that order. Growing up, I went to an academically challenging school and was very active in sports. But my heart was always in music. I stayed up into the wee hours throughout middle school and high school composing and practicing. In high school, I took college classes at the University of the Arts, studying piano with Marina Grin and composition with Andrew Rudin. I also played piano and saxophone in my high school’s jazz band, studying with jazz musician Anthony Hurdle.
At the Juilliard School, I studied composition with Stephen Albert, David Diamond and Robert Beaser. My piano teacher was Gyorgy Sandor (Bartok’s protégé!). Also, Sam Sanders was a transformative chamber music coach.
After graduating with a bachelors and masters from Juilliard in music composition, I freelanced as a composer and pianist for a number of years while teaching at summer festivals, Juilliard’s MAP program, and in my private teaching studio. I also started a family with my husband, documentary filmmaker Micah Fink, and we now have two delightful teenagers. In 2019, I earned my PhD from Rutgers University, where I currently am on the composition faculty. I am also on the summer faculty at Interlochen Arts Camp. My kids love being at Interlochen in the summers. Sydney is a bassoonist and a pianist, and Lucas is an avid horticulturalist and biologist, who enjoys working at Interlochen’s Conservation Department.
ICA: How would you describe your music?
AH: For the most part, my music is melodic and tonal, and its rhythms can be quite kinetic and energetic. While my work is influenced by the jazz and film and popular music that surround me, it is also connected to the classical Western tradition in terms of its form and technique.
ICA: What are some of the important influences on your work?
AH: I’m often influenced by music that I play. For example, I’ve recently learned the piano parts to Poulenc‘s Flute and Clarinet Sonatas. Now I’ve found myself reflecting on his wit, his beautiful and often unexpected harmonic turns, and the bubbling ways in which ideas banter and interrupt one another. I also recently played Valerie’s Coleman’s powerful Wish Sonatine, and this influenced the way that I think about story-telling through music.
ICA: What is your composing process like? Do you have a regular routine/time of day you like to work? What tools do you use to compose?
AH: I find it difficult to work without quiet and privacy. I compose whenever my house is quiet and when I’m not being distracted. Usually, this is during the morning hours. But I often go back to work at night. I always start out at the piano with paper and pencil, and later in the process I move it over to Finale.
ICA: What do you like about writing for the clarinet in particular?
AH: The clarinet is extremely inviting and appealing to me as a composer. It evokes musical ideas due to its uniquely mellifluous sound, its large dynamic range, its huge register, its many wonderful colors, and its abilities to be everything from agile, to singing, to powerful and percussive.
ICA: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your work?
Throughout the pandemic, I have felt a strong need to connect with colleagues and friends through music. Early on in the pandemic, I created the Prayer Project for Virtual Flute Orchestra and Harp. My husband produced and edited the film which features 95 musicians from 17 countries, and is conducted by Maestra JoAnn Falletta.
As the pandemic relentlessly continued, my collaborative efforts pulled me through. One notable project included the orchestrating and expanding of my Piccolo Concerto, which was recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra with soloist Erica Peel and Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin in January of 2021 for the Digital Stage, and will be premiered in December 2021.
After a prolific year, I ran into difficulty last January when it was time to write my Bassoon Sonata, commissioned by Adrian Morejon and a consortium of 29 bassoonists. The cultural and political events that were escalating all around us made it very hard for me to find an artistically compelling direction. In the bassoon sonata, I was forced to search in new places for my musical answers. The process of writing this piece was at times frightening, and full of unexpected discoveries.
ICA: Now that things are hopefully starting to return to “normal,” what is one thing you’re especially excited to be able to do again?
AH: I’m eager to attend and perform in live concerts. I’m also very grateful to be teaching my students in person again, and that my own kids are able to be back in school, participating in marching band, youth orchestra, and afterschool activities once again.
ICA: Tell us about a current project or two that you’re excited about.
AH: I’m looking forward to starting in on my Clarinet Concerto, and to collaborating on the project with my wonderful colleague and friend, YaoGuang Zhai. I greatly enjoy writing for woodwinds, and am happy to have a number of woodwind pieces coming up.
ICA: Are there other musical activities/projects that are important to you, beyond composing?
AH: I love helping young composers to explore their creative processes and artistic potential. Also, playing collaborative piano is deeply important to me. Performing repertoire by other composers helps me to find my flow, and working with colleagues as a pianist helps me find a deeper musical connection.
ICA: What non-musical activities do you enjoy?
AH: Family is very important to me, and being a parent is pretty great. This includes birding, hiking, cooking, exploring lots of music and literature, homework helping, volunteering, and detangling crazy hair. It’s all deeply satisfying.
ICA: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
AH: Since I was five years old, I knew I would be a musician. There is really nothing else I could imagine myself doing.
ICA: Where can people learn more about / hear / buy your music?
AH: Most of my works are published by Theodore Presser Company. If people can’t find what they’re looking for through Presser’s website, they can contact me directly at [email protected].
I also have a website: https://amandaharberg.com/
And I keep my YouTube channel up-to-date: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJZmDe1ZktQj8WQmTo6j_1Q
ICA: Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us! We really appreciate it!
AH: Thank you! It is a wonderful honor and privilege to be featured by the International Clarinet Association!
Is there a composer you think we should feature as our composer-of-the-month?
Are you one yourself? Email us and let us know about it!