The Salon: An 18-Year Philadelphia Tradition
By Andrea Clearfield
Published in the Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), vol. 10/2 (2004): 15-18
The Salon, of which I have been founder, host and producer for the past 18 years, is a monthly performance series held in my Center City apartment in Philadelphia. I conceived the idea in 1986 as a contemporary version of the 19th-century European music salon, where composers such as Chopin and Liszt premiered their works for an elite group of invited guests in the home of a genteel patron/patroness of the arts. Unlike the salons of the past, however, my intention for this updated salon was to present a diverse array of musical genres as well as other arts in an inclusive and informal setting.
The Salon features not only traditional chamber music and opera but also jazz, original compositions, electronic music, free improvisation, folk, experimental and world music, poetry, modern and ethnic dance, multimedia works and various category-defying art forms. On any given evening The Salon features ten different soloists or ensembles; one might hear chamber music by Philadelphia Orchestra members, a new work introduced by the composer, an improvisational dance/music/spoken word collective, electro-acoustic music, African drums, a Brazilian ensemble, a jazz trio, a singer/songwriter and a scene from a Puccini opera.
The performances are of high quality; selected by audition or reputation, the performers are mainly established professionals with some emerging artists and talented students. Although most performers reside in the Philadelphia area, some travel from Washington, D.C., New York and Connecticut to participate; others come from as far away as California, coordinating a Salon appearance with other nearby concert obligations. The Salon always attracts a full house (80-100); an enthusiastic and open-minded audience arrives early to secure a good seat in the loft-like space. Near Philadelphia’s new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, The Salon reflects the rich tradition of music in this city while fostering new art forms in an intimate and supportive environment.
The Salon presents nine performances per year on the last Sunday of the month from September through May. Not a money-making venue, The Salon supports itself through donations from the audience which cover the monthly expenses such as piano tuning, refreshments, mailing, printing and cleaning, as well as equipment costs. Everyone who participates does so voluntarily. Since 1986 The Salon has offered approximately 153 concerts with over 3,500 performing artists and more than 11,000 audience members passing through my living room.
What motivated me to undertake such a series? From my youngest years I was drawn, both as a composer and a performer, to environments where music of varying styles could be shared in an informal setting. In my childhood I liked to bring people together. I can remember playing the piano in grade school for sing-alongs and organizing musical get-togethers around chamber music, musical theater and popular music. There was music-making at home as well; my parents, both amateur musicians, and I would play trios in our living room in the suburbs of Philadelphia. As a teenager, I enjoyed arranging pop songs that I heard on the radio for large ensembles, including vocalists, strings, and percussion, so that my friends could participate. While engaging in classical piano studies, I sang and played keyboards, flute and dulcimer in rock, folk and world music groups. I wrote my first compositions for my best friend, a modern dancer, and I was inspired in other early works by my mother’s paintings. This proclivity for the integration of other genres led to performances with various dance and theater companies as well as multi-disciplinary projects. In retrospect, I realize that my own performing and composing began in the spirit of collaboration, and this desire to work with other artists and create a community around artistic expression ultimately became manifest in The Salon.
The Salon serves other purposes as well: to help break down the barriers between audience and performer, to expose people to different styles of music and other arts, to build an audience for new music, and to invite a cross-fertilization of audiences and musicians.
The educational aspect is also significant to The Salon and has several implications. The mixture of genres results in a diversity of performers and audience, both intercultural and intergenerational. Listeners often attend for their special musical preferences, thus people who come to hear their favorite folk singer may hear chamber music for the first time. Those who normally prefer classical music might be exposed to avant-garde music or music from different cultures. The premiere of a new work is preceded by an explanation by the composer, who guides the listeners through aspects of the piece; an understanding of contemporary music opens the listeners’ ears to new sounds and structures. People are more eager to embrace new music if the presentation is informative and inclusive.
The Salon attempts to bring about a more dynamic exchange between the audience and the performers than in the traditional, more formal concert setting. Those attending, having removed their shoes at the door, are seated on chairs or on the floor, some directly in front of the performers. Artists are encouraged to speak about their pieces; composers provide a window into their creative process; unusual instruments or performance techniques are described or demonstrated; and sometimes the audience is requested to participate in the performance itself. The audience has an opportunity to provide feedback to the performers at intermission over food and wine, or after The Salon, when more socializing takes place.
What do the performers gain? There are several reasons performers enjoy participating. At The Salon, artists have the opportunity to try out recently learned pieces and/or experiment with new forms. Orchestral musicians appreciate the opportunity to play solo and chamber repertoire in an informal setting. Crossover groups without regular venues can perform here, and jazz musicians who normally play in clubs are delighted to have an audience that is actively listening. Some use The Salon as a way to stretch themselves in new directions: occasionally jazz artists are inspired to play classical music, classical musicians may engage in improvisation, and composers may write pieces specifically for The Salon. This year, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum and The Salon presented a joint commissioning opportunity where the winners of the award (Evan Solot and Zhou Tan) will have their works premiered at the 18-Year Salon Anniversary Concert in September 2004.
Each Salon includes one or two featured composers; some past composers include Jennifer Higdon, Robert Maggio, Cynthia Folio, Jonathan Kramer, Marty Rokeach, Robert Carl, Margaret Garwood, Marc André Hamlin, Eleanor Sandresky, Hannibal, Maurice Wright, Jan Kryzwicki, Tina Davidson and Diane Monroe. On occasion, I will also present my own works. A recording engineer provides digital recordings for the performers, an invaluable service for everyone.
The Salon can also be network-forming for the performers, and often enables artists from many styles and disciplines to form new collaborations. A number of musicians attending or participating in a given program have been inspired to work with other performers they met that evening. Duos and ensembles as well as cross-discipline relationships have arisen. After trying out new work at The Salon, some have gone on to perform at other venues, record and maintain long-lasting partnerships. Upcoming performances are announced; CDs are sold; and mailing lists for the artists are available so that performers can generate new audiences for their work. Although a number of musicians have admitted they are more nervous playing at The Salon than in the concert hall (perhaps due to the close proximity and attentiveness of the audience), they seem to be nourished by the general atmosphere of openness and appreciation among listeners as well as the large supportive community of artists that has formed around The Salon.
With all of its diverse elements, one aspect has remained the same for 18 years: shoes are removed before entering The Salon (the diversity of socks is striking). “It is easy to find your way to Andrea Clearfield’s monthly salon concerts,” writes Peter Burwasser for the Philadelphia City Paper (March 2003). “Once you enter her Center City walk-up apartment building across from the Kimmel Center, just follow the trail of shoes. This is not a salon of yore, of tuxedos and velvet and champagne….” Originally intended for welcome and cleanliness, the shoe-less gatherings have become a colorful part of The Salon rituals. Some long-time Salon-goers have purchased special socks to showcase on Salon evenings. Others leave their shoes, never returning to retrieve them, and one wonders how they get home. One artist was inspired to paint large collages of the multitudes of footwear that line the stairs; the works now hang in The Salon lobby area and will soon be the subject for Salon posters as a fund-raising effort for a sound system. Performers may cleverly work the shoe theme into their performance, and there is talk about a shoe-shining project for an upcoming Salon. Some artists claim that they play better barefoot; however, there is the occasional opera singer who insists that shoes are required for the act. Peter Burwasser concludes, in his article on The Salon, that “the music just wouldn’t sound the same if you had to listen to it with your shoes on.”
Over the years, there have been countless outstanding and unusual performances. Some past Salon favorites include an a cappella vocal group from the country of Georgia; an interactive electronic sound-scape triggered by movement; a South African folk singer sponsored by Nelson Mandela; Judeo-Iraqi liturgical music; a work for visuals, vibraphone and sampled sounds; a trio of Hang (pitched percussion) players; Balkan gypsy music; a children’s chorus with an “off-stage” soprano on the balcony; inter-disciplinary performances with music, poetry and modern dancers; and a number of exceptional solo, chamber and jazz musicians. A wide variety of instruments can also be heard, such as the didgeridoo, theramin, glass harmonica, lute, balalaika, Celtic harp, English concertina, riqq, hammered dulcimer, oud and sitar as well as hand-made, one-of-a-kind sound inventions. The Salon has also introduced young artists; for example, a recent concert featured a 12-year-old pianist who played a Rachmaninoff work in preparation for an international piano competition.
From my perspective, The Salon represents a commitment to spend a large amount of time organizing and producing a program every month, listening to demo CDs, keeping up with the mailing list, equipment needs and other necessary preparations for bringing people into the home. The Salons are booked eight to nine months in advance with waiting lists of performers for each program. In order to maintain a balance of the various styles, I must organize the programs with attention to the number of classical/jazz/world music pieces as well as new works. I must also consider the aspect of familiar vs. unfamiliar; I prefer to include some elements that might be challenging and/or stimulating for the audience. Although there have been times when I questioned the continuation of The Salon because of the amount of work involved (in addition to my career as a composer, performer and teacher), the beauty, wonder and joy that I experience each month is hugely rewarding and makes all of the effort worthwhile. I feel extremely fortunate and grateful to have heard so many incredible artists sharing in such a soulful (or should I say “sole-full”) and honest way, and the appreciative community created around this sharing is truly special. The Salon community offers a nice balance to my hours of solitary composing time in the studio.
The Salon continues to grow over the years. From a small group of 25 in my previous long T-shaped third floor apartment on Spruce Street, it quickly expanded to 50 attendees. After obtaining permission from the landlord to break down a wall to create more room, The Salon crammed in 70+ people, eventually making it necessary to move. (The time to relocate became clear when the only seat left was in the bathtub; in fact, one audience member was found snoring in the old-fashioned tub during intermission.) While I explored a number of options, my heart was set on a particularly unusual nearby apartment with 25 foot-high-ceilings and balconies on the third floor of a large 95-year-old house. During my summer tour last year, the apartment finally became available for rent, and to my utter amazement, a few very dear committed friends packed all of my belongings in boxes, had my grand piano moved, and helped me rent out three rooms on the second floor so that I could move into my Salon dream-house upon returning in September! A remarkable space, formerly a music conservatory, art school, theater and set for the movie “Mannequin,” it is the perfect home for The Salon. The renters on the 2nd floor offered two of their rooms for use as “green” rooms for the musicians to warm up and hang out. Upstairs performances can now happen on the various balcony levels in addition to the main “stage” area, which has newly-installed spotlights and twice as much room. To my surprise, after a year in the new space, The Salon is again at capacity seating.
I often ask myself, why is there such a need? It seems that people are hungry for personal contact and expression. Salons and other alternative “off the grid” performing venues are becoming more popular, and several Salon offshoots have been initiated in just the Philadelphia area. Performances in intimate spaces help create a balance with the increased commercialization and production of big artistic events. I believe that the direct connection between the performers and the audience, the educational component and the cross-fertilization among audience members and performers offer a vitality and freshness to music-making and listening. These new venues also provide a reflection of our diverse cultures, and they show the need for coming together and building a community around the arts in our mass society. I join Manfred Fischbeck (author of the accompanying poem) in the hope that the doors of The Salon will be open for many years to come.