Blog of Alumni Team

Clifton Harrison - alumnus profile

Alumni Team - Posted on 13.05.2020

American viola and viola d’amore player Clifton Harrison (Viola, 2012) has performed as a chamber musician and recitalist, and in orchestras throughout Europe, the USA, Central America and Asia. He is the viola player in the acclaimed Kreutzer Quartet, with whom he has recorded extensively.

We spoke to Harrison about music in lockdown and his online series One Camera, One Take.

Tell us a little about your professional life since leaving the Academy.

I came to the Academy as a mature postgraduate student, having already had an orchestral career in the USA and abroad. Since graduation, I’ve spent my days travelling the world and working closely with friends and colleagues in a variety of guises. I am the viola player in the Kreutzer Quartet with Peter Sheppard Skærved, Mihailo Trandafilovski and Neil Heyde. We have a large recording catalogue and work with many of today’s most active composers. We’ve worked with students at Oxford University, the Royal Northern College of Music, Goldsmiths, the University of Southampton and Tianjin Conservatory of Music, to name a few. 

Outside of the quartet, I am a session musician recording extensively for film and television. I’m often invited to be a jury member for composition and instrumental competitions, most recently for the 2019 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. I specialise in period performance, working with some of the most creative early music performers in Europe. I freelance with many of the London symphony and chamber orchestras. 

I am also a researcher, focusing on 18th-century German viola d’amore music and string music by Black and Minority Ethnic composers. I have produced documentaries for the British Music Collection and Sound and Music. My series Identity & Aesthetic: Five British-Caribbean Composers explores the lives and works of five British women, all with Caribbean roots, who have carved unique paths in the classical music world.

As an educator, I’ve given masterclasses throughout the world and I’ve been a viola tutor for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta, Escuela Superior de Música y Danza de Monterrey and Future Talent. 

What has been the immediate result of the Coronavirus crisis on your working life?

Like many of my colleagues across the globe, all my work has effectively ceased as a direct result of the Coronavirus crisis. Recording sessions, quartet, festivals and collaborations have been postponed or wiped off my schedule completely, leaving me with considerable time on my hands. I’ve never spent so much time at home. 

At first, I was a bit shell-shocked. The barrage of emails, each beginning with ‘It is with a heavy heart that I must write to you to tell you that our concert/recording session at ________  on ______ has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic…’ was overwhelming. My heart sank every time my mobile phone pinged. The next phase was a numb silence – a quieting of the mind in a way. Following this I realised I had the choice to get up or give up. So, I got up and started making music and making plans.

Do you see this time as a hiatus in your activities, and do you think there will be lasting change in the music world? If so, what changes do you foresee?

Yes, in a way this is a hiatus from my normal activities, but I am not distanced from music itself. I’ve been using this time to find different ways to express myself and to find other avenues by which to share music to the world. I do miss the immediate and unobstructed response that is attained through physical interaction with fellow creatives and audiences. There is certainly a hiatus from personal contact. These tactile interactions cannot be fully replicated with screens and latency as barriers. Having said that, I am now experiencing new kinds of emotional and cerebral responses from working in isolation and in collaboration from a distance. The screen and separation have now become part of the material that I draw from as performance inspiration. This has directly influenced my lockdown online series One Camera, One Take

Lately, I’ve been drawn towards genres and ideas that are not part of my normal daily musical language. This is all music that I enjoy and that I’ve had around me all my life but just isn’t in my usual working-life repertoire. I’ve mixed this in with works that I have performed in the past on recitals and chamber music concerts. I’ve found peace in having time now to explore whatever comes to mind. There is a solace in that, and I think this will certainly inform and inspire my performance practice post-pandemic. I am fortunate that I already have most of the professional audio and video equipment needed to work from home in a studio setting. Getting online was relatively easy for me, so the ideas started flowing.

One Camera, One Take is where these ideas come to life. I decided to set some practical limits on the series so as to feel more spontaneous and true to life. Each track is recorded in one take and is not meant to be studio perfect. I ask the same of my collaborators. There is a certain craft in creating studio perfection. I love that process too, but for now, this project is focused on the real, raw, live aspect of music making. I crave the sensation of performing live and in the moment. It’s not an equal substitute by any means, but it does satisfy the need and desire to share and experience music with others. I’ve been involved in several other online collaborations during the lockdown. It is inspiring that so many of us are out there, insisting on keeping music alive during these hard times. Each collaboration reminds me of our resilience and resolve to keep going. 

We’ve all witnessed the dramatic changes to the way music is presented. Home video and audio performances, live Zoom-style private performances, live-streamed public concerts, collaborations from our home studios and impromptu neighbourhood street performances have replaced physical concerts. These are all things that will continue for quite some time. There is no shying away from this fact. It signifies a lasting change in how music is and will be presented to the world. Perhaps it will bring us all closer, perhaps not. What is certain is that we all must adapt.

Are you managing to remain positive in this time, when many of your usual work outlets have disappeared overnight? If so, how?

I always try to remain positive about life. I’ve battled many things over the years, including health and mobility issues, yet I see everything as an opportunity to grow in some way. I don’t confuse this positivity with rose-tinted optimism. I know that we are now in a battle for our livelihoods, our passion, our ‘normal’ way of life and our culture. It is impossible to know exactly what the future will hold but the concert experience will not be exactly as it was before the pandemic. It will change and we must change with it. I’ve come to terms with that fact and I know that we creatives, like all creatives before us, will find a new, sustainable way forward. This is how I remain positive. We can all find our place in this new normal.

Do you have any advice for current students and recent alumni about how to get through this indefinite period of isolation?

These are difficult and uncertain times for all of us and I’m sure that current students and recent alumni are questioning everything while trying to modify aspirations and expectations. This is natural and we are all going through this. In a way, this is what our community always does and has always done. There will be casualties and losses but there will also be triumphs and rewards. This is nothing new to our resilient and creative community. It’s who we are.

I have come in to speak to Academy students several times. My message has always been to look for ways to diversify your skills and apply that knowledge to your musical path. This is even more important now. Use this time. Make it count. Invest in tech with whatever your budget allows. You can do a lot with very little. Then you can build on that. Practise your craft. Engage with each other. Your peers and colleagues are your lifeline. Make plans. Pave your own path. 

Professional development is just as important as practice. Think of new ideas and try them out. Ask for help and advice. We are all in this together. Use and explore all your skills, not just your musical talent. That’s the best advice that I can give you. Stay safe and stay strong.

https://www.cliftonharrison.co/
https://www.youtube.com/c/CliftonHarrison

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