Feature: Chicago Embraces a Major Talent: Clarice Assad

Composer, performer, and educator Clarice Assad brings a rich musical palette to Chicago. Photo by Cynthia Van Elk. One of the more recent arrivals to Chicago’s vibrant art music scene is a product of a musical family in Brazil. Clarice Assad had lived in Chicago on and off with her father Sérgio Assad, who, with his brother Odair, are the Assad Brothers, a premier classical guitar duo. After living in New York City for ten years, Clarice moved back to Chicago in 2016 and has quickly become a fixture in our music scene. Her compositions have been performed and recorded by many Chicago performers and ensembles, including the Chicago Sinfonietta, Cavatina Duo, and Chicago-area native Matthew Lipman. Most recently, Assad, her father, and Third Coast Percussion collaborated on Archetypes, a wonderful CD that features all the artists entering a whole new milieu. COVID-19 has delayed the world premiere public performance of this work, but they are in rehearsals to film it. Clarice Assad and her father Sérgio have always been close. Photo by Anne Hamersky. Her first exposure to Third Coast Percussion occurred at the Ear Taxi Festival in October 2016. She had just moved to Chicago, and she attended an event that solidified her enthusiasm for Chicago’s art music scene. In an interview in March, she recalled, “Okay, I have to go to this festival, check it out so I bought the pass and I watched every performance. And one of the most amazing performances was, …” Unable to prevent myself, I jumped in, “Saturday night! That was one of most amazing, memorable concerts I’ve ever seen!” She nodded enthusiastically. “I was like, oh my god! I love them!” She paused to reflect. “So, starting there a seed was planted.… Fast forward to 2019. I really love collaborating with my father. We get along really well in real life and musically. My father and I were thinking about a project that would involve us writing something together and collaborating with others." Clarice and Sérgio Assad collaborated with Third Coast Percussion to create Archetypes. Photo by Carolina Mariana Rodríguez. Their initial thought was to emphasize myths and legends from Brazil. After discussion with other potential collaborators, they recognized that few people outside of Brazil know these characters and myths. Their idea shifted. “Let's work with something that connects all of us, and I thought of the 12 main archetypes." She explained how the collaboration with Third Coast Percussion emerged. “When we first approached them, they were very in demand, really busy. They had to really think about it, is this worth undertaking?” As it happened, Third Coast Percussion seemed very intrigued. “It was supposed to be just my dad and myself writing the music,” recalled Assad, but when they got together with TCP, “They all wanted to write music too,” she laughed. “And that made me so happy. It meant they really are into the idea.” As it happened, Clarice and her dad each wrote four pieces for Archetypes, and each member of Third Coast Percussion contributed one. While these 12 pieces are song-length miniatures, they are not songs, or, even, songs-without-words. The juxtaposition of Clarice and Sérgio Assad’s compositions with those by Third Coast Percussion creates a wonderfully varied panoply. Acoustic guitar, piano, and Assad’s vocals enhances Third Coast Percussion’s sound, as does the infusion of Latin and Brazilian rhythms. Assad learned a great deal working with TCP. “We listened to each other so much in the process because we had many conversations about instrumentation, timber.  It was really beautiful workshopping with them,” she recalled. “It's one thing when you are listening to their music, and another looking at their scores. … Playing their music together, a whole other level of getting to know people. Their personalities really come across in the writing of each piece that they have done. And it's really incredible.” They ended up becoming good friends. Excellent release on Cedille Records. Archetypes by Third Coast Percussion, Clarice Assad, and Sérgio Assad. The pieces in Archetypes focus on general human characteristics with one-word titles, somewhat rated to those developed by Carl Jung. When asked about “Jester,” one of her compositions that stands out, Assad said, “Archetypes is a very serious project for the most part. … The Jester had to bring something light, and fun about the whole thing.” She noted its placement in the middle and suggested it separates the CD into two parts like an intermission. When it’s performed, Assad declared, “I am the Jester, I become it.  The act involves the audience who also interact with us. … The Jester character is like a frustrated conductor who can't get the music to sound right.” The piece following “Jester” is “Caregiver,” which goes in a completely different direction. It has a deep feeling of solace, which one would expect in a piece about her mother who survived cancer. “I remember going to be with her and help her,” Assad recalled. “I wrote the first draft when I was in her house while she was going through a difficult time … I was playing piano quietly in the other room and this melody came to me. There's a quotation there from a children's song from church that I used to play. This soothing passage became part of the piece.” Third Coast Percussion will be performing their arrangement of "Hero," another piece Clarice wrote for Archetypes, as part of Music Institute of Chicago's Live from Nichols Concert Hall concert series. This live stream concert will take place on Sunday, April 25, 3:00pm. Born in 1978, Clarice Assad grew up 40 miles outside of Rio de Janeiro. She wrote, “My grandfather moved from his native state of São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and left everything behind to pursue the careers of my father and uncle, in music.” While her grandfather Jorge Assad studied mandolin with Monina Távora, her father Sérgio and uncle Odair, as children, learned how to be a guitar duo with this same teacher, who had been a pupil of Andreas Segovia. Although her grandfather remained an amateur musician, her father and uncle went on to earn great renown as a classical guitar duo. Assad Brothers Guitar Duo. Photo Courtesy of the Assad Brothers. When asked if she had tried her hand at guitar, she responded, “No, I was very bad at that and they were too good,” she said with a smile. “My father did not want me to go learn an instrument I didn't have facility for. Piano was a lot easier to see things from a harmonic perspective. I have more of a mind for creating than playing. I'm not a virtuoso.” Assad did not start life as a classical musician. As she grew up, she heard her father and uncle practicing guitars, focusing on the classical guitar duo repertoire. “Actually,” she recalled, “I was going towards a pop, rock, popular music direction. Jazz-ish music, you know, Latin jazz.” In finding her musical home, she was not pushed or directed, but was allowed to go her own way. When she was an adolescent, recalled Assad, “I fell in love with jazz, I was 13. I was like, ‘This is it!’” One big influence was Herbie Hancock’s "Round Midnight," a soundtrack to a movie of the same title. She wrote, “I fell in love with the entire experience. I studied that album for so long, and learned a lot about jazz and improvisation from transcribing the solos and the re-harmonization of the music. There was a lot of variety in it.” Clarice Assad performs in New York. Photo by courtesy of Clarice Assad. Clarice got into classical music composition accidentally. She moved to Chicago in 1997 to join her father, who had moved here a year earlier to be with his future wife. Soon after coming to Chicago, she was accepted into the Berklee School of Music in Boston to pursue a career in scoring films. “I thought I was going to write for real people,” she explained, “but film scoring meant that you write music for computers. It was about music production. And I thought, ‘oh, I don't want to write music for computers I want to write music for human beings.’” She ended up leaving Berklee after one semester and returned to Chicago where she enrolled in Roosevelt University's music school, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She earned a master’s degree at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. To this day, Assad doesn’t consider herself to be a classical composer. Her catalogue is filled with classical compositions that many classical musicians have performed and recorded, but her solo CD releases do not include her classical compositions. Imaginarium (Adventure Music, 2014), which she characterized as experimental, features pop and jazz songwriting and performance. It is sung mainly in Portuguese with Brazilian and Latino rhythms and percussion. The CD release Home (Adventure Music, 2012) features her jazzy style. She’s presently recording a new release as a member of Off the Cliff, a jazz ensemble with Keita Ogawa on percussion, João Luiz Rezende on guitar, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, and Vitor Gonçalves on accordion. Original members of Off the Cliff pose at the Grand Canyon. Left to Right: Yasushi Nakamura, João Luiz Rezende, Keita Ogawa, and Clarice Assad. Photo by Andrea Santiago. Asked whether being a woman has affected her career, Assad replied, “I wasn't aware of it until I was much older. As a woman composer, I realized there weren't so many of us in college when I was one of two other female students. But I was coming up at a really lucky time, I think, because this issue started being addressed when I was out of college. And I also happen to be collaborating with women who made a big difference in the music scene, like Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Marin Alsop.” Alsop is presently the Chief Conductor and Curator of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Assad worked with her in Brazil and at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, which Alsop used to lead. Assad is also inspired by other women composers of contemporary music. Having experienced Ear Taxi Festival after she had just moved here, she was very impressed by Augusta Read Thomas, who provided the inspiration for and was the lead organizer of ETF. Thomas was also the composer of the octet Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), which Third Coast Percussion premiered with Spektral Quartet that Saturday night. She’s an incredible composer,” said Assad, who is also inspired by Joan Tower. “She's not only a phenomenal musician, she's also great person,” said Assad. “She has paved the way for so many of us I think you know she was doing this before anybody else was. She's like a warrior, you know, in the good sense of the word.” Augusta Read Thomas has inspired Clarice Assad. Photo by Anthony Barlich. Assad’s compositions are reminiscent of tone poems that emerged in the Romantic era of classical music. When asked about this, she said, “Yes, but mostly because I'm a storyteller,” she explained. “It comes from my upbringing in Brazilian popular music, listening to the lyrics… There's always a story to be told.” One thing very noticeable in Assad’s music is the subtle integration of tonality and atonality. When she’s hearing original music in her head, it’s tonal, but the titles of her pieces are not accompanied with key signature. “It's not random, it's often based on the instruments I'm writing for,” she explained. “When writing for strings I am mindful of where it will be better to play.” She ascribes her blending of tonality and atonality on her background in jazz. This comes out in Sin Fronteras, a dance piece that appears on the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project W (Cedille Records, 2019) which starts out in a semi atonal, dreamy space but then breaks into a lively waltz. Assad recalled, “That was a piece that they commissioned for the Sinfonietta, with the Cerqua Rivera Dance group.” On Project W, the Chicago Sinfonietta performs works by diverse women composers, including Sin Fronteras by Clarice Assad. “I was thinking about the frontiers, meaning the barriers between regions,” she explained. “I wanted to create something that would connect the music from the all of the Americas—a little bit of elements from all over these continents and put them into one place, as if they had no barriers.” She also wrote Sin Fronteras with the orchestra in mind, “because everybody in the orchestra comes from a different place, and so did I. This is where we connect in music.” She pointed out that, “There is a theme that runs through the whole piece which is the same. Essentially, it's a theme and variation using all these different integrations. When one culture comes in contact with another and they collide, but then, essentially, later on they integrate.” Dreamscapes is another work that wonderfully blends tones. It is her musical interpretation of what happens when one falls asleep until one fully awakens. It starts with going to sleep and emerging in an REM state. A nightmarish sequence occurs is in the middle of the piece. Dreamscapes came to her in the fall of 2006 while she was at the Copeland House, a residential training program for emerging composers. Set in New York’s Hudson River valley where Aaron Copland lived for last 30 years of his life, the house has large windows that overlook dense woodlands. “During the day, it's gorgeous and you see nothing but trees,” she recalled. “And then, at night. You don't see anything out there, it's pure darkness. You have the feeling that you're being looked at from the outside. I was living in a constant state of fear because I was alone there in the woods, I started having horrible nightmares that became a part of this piece.” This performance of Dreamscapes is with New Century Chamber Orchestra and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has recorded several works by Assad. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycIVwe4MsS4 Dreamscapes inspired violist and Chicago-area native Matthew Lipman to commission Assad to write Metamorfose, which Lipman premiered on his first solo CD, Ascent. (Cedille Records, 2019). “He's amazing,” she exclaimed. “He was recording this album. and he wanted the piece to be in homage to his mother, who had passed. They have a beautiful story. I got to know him and really got to know his playing.” She paused and reflected, “It was a hard piece to write.” Clarice Assad composed Metamorfose for Matthew Lipman's Ascent on Cedille Records. Another Chicago-based group Assad has worked with extensively is Cavatina Duo, a flute and guitar pair who commissioned Clarice and her father to arrange music by Argentine composer Astor Piazzola, with whom Sérgio Assad had previously worked. This resulted in their release Cavatina Duo Plays Astor Piazzolla (Bridge, 2010). Assad has continued composing in a COVID-19 reality. When asked whether the pandemic affected her, she recalled, “In the beginning I was really nervous about not having the interaction with real people.” She paused. “Thank God I have this work as a composer or whatever else that I do, that doesn't require me to be on stage, to make a living, so I stepped out of it.” She recently completed a new vocal piece commissioned by the Albany Symphony, with lyrics by Mauro Aguiar. Sem Tirar Nem Pôr (Without Taking Away) is a samba that was recorded with the musicians playing and singing separately. Complying with the needs of a pandemic world, the musicians were not in same room at the same time when the piece was recorded. When did she knew she wanted a career in music? “I always knew. I was a very good child singer so I got gigs doing jingles, singing on everybody's CDs.” She continued, “As a child, I knew what the studio scene was like, and then I started playing piano on my own. I had some teachers, but I was mostly self-taught.” By the time she was 16, she was a professional musician, working as a substitute music teacher or playing piano in musical theaters. Growing up she was also interested in science and biology, which she thought might be a possible career if music did not pan out. But a career in music did pan out. As a vocalist Assad was also self-taught. She had no formal teacher until she got to grad school at Michigan, where she received training and mentorship from singer and composer Susan Botti. When Assad moved to New York, she trained with Judy Blazer. Clarice Assad learned piano at an early age. Photo courtesy of Clarice Assad. As Assad developed as a singer, she incorporated scat into her technique. “Sarah Vaughn was a big influence. She was still alive in the '80s when I first heard her voice, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is so amazing!’” She paused and reflected. “If you look at my natural taste for music, it's mostly music that comes from African origin. I love all the rhythms from Brazil, all the African polyrhythms. That goes for singing as well. My favorite singers were all African Americans.” Assad sings in many languages. Her native tongue is Portuguese, but she’s also fluent in French, which she learned while living with her dad in Europe. She did not learn English until she first moved to the United States when she was 18. She also sings in Spanish and Italian. While she does not consider herself to be a virtuoso, Assad does perform quite well, as she showed in a performance with her dad and uncle in 2016. “At some point I was getting invited to perform solo, play piano and sing, and I did this for a while, but it makes me feel vulnerable. …” Pre-pandemic, she mainly performed with other players as an ensemble. Sérgio, Odair, and Clarice Assad perform at NYU Skirball Center. Photo courtesy of the artists.
April 15, 2010 Assad first started composing and recording melodies in the studio at the very early age of six or seven years old. These pop-influenced jingles were similar to what she heard on the radio in the 1980s. As she matured and lived in many places and cultures she was exposed to new musical concepts. Today she composes and performs classical, jazz, and pop in many styles. When asked to label her music, she paused to reflect. “The only thing that I can come up with is fusion, I enjoy mixing elements from other places. Because I come from a different country and I've traveled to so many places in my life. If you see my DNA makeup, it’s all over the place.” She once received a nomination for Best Contemporary composition in the Latin Grammy Awards. She noted, “because I'm from Brazil I automatically fall into that category, there's just no way around it.” Clarice Assad's compositions cross stylistic boundaries. Photo courtesy of Clarice Assad. While retaining her Brazilian citizenship, Assad became a US citizen in 2010. When asked if recent shifts in American policies and attitudes toward immigrants have affected her, she said, “This is very complex. I was never directly affected by it in a way, but it was really hard for me to immigrate. It was a long process.” As an adult when she moved here, she had to go through a lengthy process to get a Green Card, and, ultimately, US citizenship. This did not apply to her two younger siblings, who came to the US to study as minors and easily became citizens with the help of her dad. Ironically, her siblings did not want to stay here, but she did. It took 13 years of student and tourist visas, which required her to leave the country every two months, before she became a citizen in 2010. She recalled, “It’s been a fight while, at the same time, I was also very well received in the US.” Assad is also a passionate music educator. In 2015 she started VOXploration, an interactive course that allows anyone to create spontaneous music with their body and voice. She uses it to allow participants to integrate theater, dance, and visual arts by combining body percussion and any vocal style. As part of the class, Assad teaches a variety of vocal styles, including beatbox and overtone singing. Participants learn body percussion and other effect-based sounds. VOXploration is open to anyone; one needs neither music experience nor knowledge of music notation to enjoy this class. “I wanted to teach music concepts to people who don't read music,” she explained. “I would add elements of educational value more than just improvisation.” She characterizes it as “exploring music through the voice, concepts like writing, and transcribing rhythms and using geometric shapes by just being very creative.” Assad was inspired by the seminar Instant Operas she took from Bobby McFerrin at Carnegie Hall in 2008. She has been a fan of McFerrin since she was a child. “I did this workshop with him and 20 other singers, with everybody coming from a different singing tradition,” she recalled. “That opened a whole realm of possibilities for me. There was a counter tenor, Beatboxing, a singer from Israel and a singer from Lebanon. I had never seen that before.” Students in VOXploration learn to make music with their voice and body. Photo courtesy of Clarice Assad. McFerrin led everybody in circle songs. “Basically,” Assad explained, “He sings a looping, melody, and he gives it to one singer, and then polyphony happens. All of the sudden, someone beings improvising.” She was attracted to the notion that anyone can do it regardless of musical training. She witnessed people getting the thought, “Oh, I can do that, too,” and jumping right in. She recalls one especially memorable experience using the VOXploration approach with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, which was trying to reach out to different communities. “They needed somebody who could facilitate that encounter,” she recalled. “We put our thinking hats together, looking at how can we get the orchestra to perform with kids, different institutions around the city, who may or may not read music. Who could connect them?” She agreed to do the workshop and a new piece of music emerged. “I wrote a piece without knowing the outcome,” she recalled. “It was like, literally, I had pockets of empty measures to fill with whatever the kids were willing to do. We ended up performing this live, the orchestra with kids from different institutions of the Boston area.” Assad is presently working to make VOXploration a non-profit. Unfortunately, it does not lend itself well to remote, virtual learning. “It is a class that involves people being together in the same space, singing and sharing a microphone so it’s the worst possible idea during a pandemic,” she wrote. “But I did put together a class on Skillshare, which I teach many extended vocal techniques for people interested in experiment with their voices, it’s free.” She is producing VOXploration podcasts during the pandemic. She explained, “It served as a platform for myself to learn more about artists I am interested in, whose lives are somehow tied to the idea of using the voice as an instrument.” Assad uses the podcast medium to introduce rising talent. Ronnie Malley is an amazing virtuoso from Chicago who has immersed himself everything from music composition, performance, theater, business, and teaching. He plays many instruments and speaks many languages. In Polyglot to Polymath, Assad interviewed Malley, who has woven music from his Arab background, India, western culture, and elsewhere into classical, rock and roll, and other musical endeavors. The Ear Taxi Festival Brought had a big influence on Clarice Assad when she moved back to Chicago in 2016. "Then, there's the older generation and all that history that comes with them, like my conversation with Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie," she wrote. "We are now exploring the idea of me writing a piece for her to narrate using her poems. It’s amazing how things connect in strange ways." In 2016, Assad established her residence in Chicago following a ten-year stint in New York City, which seemed a bit overwhelming. She found that Chicago has everything New York has. “When I came back to Chicago I felt like a relief,” she recalled. “Yes, there's all of that here too. But it's manageable. It's more like a community; you feel like you're part of everything.” She experienced this immediately with Ear Taxi Festival. When asked what about Chicago’s scene is compatible to her, she replied, “I would say, everything.” Clarice currently lives in downtown Chicago with her life partner Andrea Santiago. Joy recently entered their lives with a baby girl Antonia, who was born on January 23rd. “She’s a miracle in our lives,” wrote Assad. Being her mother gives me a whole new purpose in life.” Their home is close to her father and step mother, Angela Olinto, who is a Dean at the University of Chicago. Her birth mother Celia Vasconcelos still lives in Rio de Janeiro, which Clarice visits often. Outside of music, when asked what interests her, her answer was swift: “I love technology. I love, love to press buttons, coding, working with websites.” When asked about the music she listens to when seeking comfort, she said, “It's never the same. I like to readily find music. I’ve been listing to R&B a lot lately.” The recent release by Jazmine Sullivan, Lost One (Live) has appealed to her. Clarice Assad has always been close to her father Sérgio Assad. Photo courtesy of Clarice Assad. In these times of pandemic, Assad’s attitude has remained positive. “I’m feeling great right now, even though it’s a difficult time for all of us in the arts,” she said. “I feel hopeful that we’ll get out of this stronger. I’ve been talking to a lot of young musicians who are full of hope.” In addition to a film performance of Archetypes, with Third Coast Percussion and her father, this summer Clarice will be releasing an album with Danish musicians performing the music of Brazilian songwriter Milton Nascimento. She wrote, “I am excited about how it came out!” More information about Clarice Assad can be found at clariceassad.com
Picture of the author
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.