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Interview with Clara Olivares, PhD candidate in music composition

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Clara Olivares - Photograghy by Olivier Vax

Les Gens de Berkeley met with UC Berkeley PhD candidate in music composition Clara Olivares, who is enrolled in a doctoral program (similar to an artistic residency) from August 2017 to June 2022 under the supervision of Prof. Franck Bedrossian. With a strong interest in opera with live-electronic treatments, Clara tells us more about her experience at Berkeley, her idea of music composition and her favorite spots on campus.

GDB: What was the application process like? What do you study at Berkeley? What diploma will you obtain?

CO: For the application process, I was required to prepare some recordings and scores of my past pieces and explain in a cover letter my project and aspirations. I’m currently a PhD candidate in Music Composition. I also work as a Graduate Student Instructor for the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, and I was a Graduate Student Researcher at CNMAT (Center for New Music and Audio Technology) last semester.

GDB: Could you describe your experience at Berkeley?

CO: My UC Berkeley experience is being amazing. I have been learning and discovering a lot of new things in a short period of time. I especially enjoy the diversity of students on campus, the almost unlimited possibilities in term of ressources. More specifically in my department, I like the responsibilities given to Doctoral students; for example, we can organize concerts on our own at Center for New Music and Technologies.

This year, I’ve decided to be involved in different things, so I’m also a Graduate Student Representative at my department’s committee and a Graduate Assembly Representative at the BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), which means I am part of the Board of Trustees as an Ex-Officio member.

GDB: What are your favourite eat outs and/or cultural events and/or places to visit on campus?

CO: My favourite place to eat around campus is definitely Thaï Basil Cuisine, on Durand. You can eat a delicious amount of thaï food for less than $10. I also enjoy going to Sheng Kee Bakery, on Telegraph. It’s a taiwanese bakery. Being in Europe for a few weeks, I’m going to miss their red bean mooncakes a lot.

Some cultural events I enjoy particularly are Cal Performances concerts. They always bring high quality artists, and it’s right on campus! The first concert I saw there was Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which gives an idea of the incredible level of musicians they invite to perform. UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra concerts, led by Professor David Milnes, are also something to go to. Working for them as a Personnel Manager, I can definitely say that the student’s performance skills are amazing and their engagement in music in truly impressive.

The best place to be on campus is Moffit Library. For a night owl like me, having a working space open 24/24 with a cafe (open until 2am), printers, computers, a ton of books (in Main Stacks) and even a sleeping room is a very valuable opportunity.

GDB: Could you describe your music (style, influences, etc.) for our readers?

CO: My music is largely influenced by my mentors Philippe Manoury and Daniel D’Adamo, who were my professors at Strasbourg’s Haute Ecole des Arts du Rhin (HEAR), and Franck Bedrossian, who is my current professor at UC Berkeley. I feel also very inspired by composer Philippe Schoeller, who has taught me essential aspects of music. Finally, my interest for live-electronic music started with my professor Tom Mays (HEAR)’s classes and I can feed my curiosity and interests at Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) with Ed Campion (UC Berkeley)’s advice.

When I started composing, my main focus was toward human voice, which I use to consider as the most pure and intimate instrument possible; I especially enjoy writing for a singer in particular, in a very personalized way, because every singer’s voice is different, with its own characteristics. I also write for ensemble and orchestra.

Two years ago, my fascination for human voice and live-electronic music combined and I composed an opera for ensemble, live-electronics and puppets, which was premiered by Ensemble XXI.n. I am now working on a new opera and I feel extremely attracted to this particular genre and the panel of freedom in creativity that it can offer.

GDB: What have been the highlights of your experience at Berkeley so far ?

CO: It would be too long to name all the artists invited this year in my department that I had the privilege to meet, but I name some of them, who truly inspired me: Pascale Criton, Pamela Z, John Luther Adams, Martin Matalon...UC Berkeley is place where you can also go to a broad range of events, not always related to your studies. That’s how I went to a talk given by Dilma Rousseff (former President of Brazil) and I how I visited a synchrotron at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A completely different kind of event that I enjoy are the games. In France, we don’t have the culture of university games, and it is fun to be part of a cheering crowd and watch baseball, football or basketball games. For example, I loved going to the Big Game (Cal VS Stanford in November 2017), which took place at Stanford University. We lost, but it was great.

GDB: What is your approach to music composition?

CO: I would like to share a little text I wrote at the end of my Masters that reflects my approach to the act of composing music:

First, the good pencil. Very fat, not fat, thick or fine. Attention to paper grain, stiffness, immaculate white color or yellowing and dry appearance. The long rule carefully placed for the execution of the act, then others, the rights, the net, the nets, as the grave to the blade of a knife. The gum, a little rounded, impeccable new and virgin of any rature, colorful and brightening or on to cancel any distraction. The most beautiful, finally: the pen in black ink, the one of which one grasps to get rid of the doubt, to let go of its gum and its anguishes, and to throw itself in the testimony of our inner listening. On the tracing, one decides, destroying the infinite possibilities of gestures, imagining others. These tools are offered in our rigorous madness. They are a delicious fetishism inherent in the act of composer. They are the link between the ear and the trace.”

GDB: What in your view are the challenges and opportunities in the contemporary music world today?

CO: One of the challenges and opportunities that today’s world has to offer to the musical world is technology, in all its shapes. I’m extremely interested in seeing how we can develop more live interactions between electronic treatments and instruments or voice, for example. New technologies are now involved at every stage of the creative process of composing music. The audio supports are evolving (people are going less often to concert halls, and music can be very easily listened on small audio devices such as cellphones).

This quick access to music has also another consequence: we are now able to connect extremely fast with performers, producers, composers, non-professional music lovers that live on the other side of the world and to communicate, share and create with them. This opens a huge window of possibilities.

As an example, a few years ago I sent my application to a composition call for scores in Venezuela, for a festival led by clarinetist Ivette Géraud. They premiered my piece in Caracas, and I became friends with Ivette after that. I wrote a piece for her that she premiered in Paris’ Cité des Arts in 2018. This wouldn’t have happened without internet being involved in the process.

GDB: What are your news? Any album launch coming up or orchestral piece in the making?

CO: I had a piece performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France the 23rd of June 2018 at the Cent-Quatre in Paris, which was also performed in Berkeley by the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra very recently. Apart from that, my opera Mary was played again in December 2018 and May 2019 in the East of France by Ensemble XXI.n. Also, another piece I have been working on will be performed by Eco Ensemble and Quince (vocal) in April 2019 for five instruments, four singers and live-electronics.

* Article based on a written interview with Clara Olivares (December 2018).


Teaser of Clara Olivares' opera Mary :

Tentation des Limites (for clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussions) by Clara Olivares:

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