Sipping a cup of coffee at La Colombe last week, the 46-year-old brunette described the "undulating bassoons" in one piece as "dark and velvety." Later, she referred to the same work's text as "an ocean of chant."
As Clearfield, whose mother is a professional painter, explained it: "There are different colors in my ears. What I try to do is to find a musical language that effectively enhances that."
Clearfield's method has certainly proven fruitful: The Bala Cynwyd native and Lower Merion High School graduate estimates that she has produced about 70 pieces in her 20-some years of creative expression.
Her works run the gamut –from a cantata about a woman's struggle with breast cancer to a musical rendition of poetry by African-American inspiration Maya Angelou. She composes for nearly every instrument — horn, harp, organ — as well as for a full range of choral and solo voices, including the use of contemporary musical idioms like spoken word and hip-hop. Her three current commissions include a violin concerto, a mixed-media piece for cello and film, and an oratorio inspired by the poems of Robert Frost.
"I love the energy of different music," said Clearfield, who lists Celtic music, Johann Sebastian Bach, and modern composers like Igor Stravinsky and Samuel Barber among her favorites. "I'm listening to Radiohead now," she noted with a laugh.
A skilled pianist in her own right, Clearfield earned a B.A. in music from Muhlenberg College, and a master's degree in piano from the University of the Arts. She performs regularly with the Relâche Ensemble for Contemporary Music — and has even played for the Dalai Lama's court of Tibetan monks.
The daughter of two amateur musicians — her father is a gastroenterologist who moonlights as a clarinetist, while her mother plays piano — Clearfield attributes some of her musical dexterity to their influences.
"My parents were always listening to music — chamber music, symphonies," she recalled. "They liked to have people over — doctors who were amateur musicians or whatnot — so there was always music in the home."
This helps to explain the impetus behind Clearfield's monthly salons, which she runs out of her Center City loft.
Based on the artistic and literary soirées of 19th- and 20th-century Europe, Clearfield's gatherings bring together jazz and classical musicians; dancers and violinists; performers and spectators. Attendees number about 80 per evening, sometimes more. Clearfield has been running the salon for 20 years now.
"There's something very fertile" about this sort of "cross-fertilization," she said. "People are hungry for that sort of intimate environment where music can be shared."
Clearfield's upbringing also explains the recurrence of Jewish themes throughout her work.
"What came out of my early Jewish experience was the music," she explained. "Kol Nidre, listening to the choir, hearing the cantor — there was a deep crying of the music, this passionate urge to connect with God."
These motifs emerge in "The Golem," for example, which sets to music the story of the mythical clay creature brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew in the 16th century. Clearfield also co-wrote a piece about what it means to be a woman of valor, as described in Proverbs 31.
It's this linking of past and present — the weaving of tradition — that keeps her going.
"I'm interested in that archetypal place of connection," said Clearfield. Whatever the conduit — religion, music, salons — "I have a natural inclination to want to bring people and things together."