Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!
Today’s the day, the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and, continuing the concerto theme, the piece with which i’d like to celebrate the occasion is Domaines, for clarinet and orchestra, completed in 1969. Typically, the piece began life a decade earlier (early sketches pertaining to it, tentatively titled ‘Labyrinthe’, date back to April 1959), and also typically evolved via the material for other compositions. During the 1960s Boulez was working on a cantata for baritone and ensemble, setting texts by E. E. Cummings; this would ultimately lead, in 1970, to cummings ist der dichter, but a couple of years prior to that Boulez took material from the nascent work, together with ideas for an opera (never completed) and refashioned it into Domaines, both as a solo work as well as one involving six instrumental groups, with a gradually increasing number of players:
- bass clarinet
- marimba, contrabass
- oboe, horn, guitar (amplified)
- alto trombone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone
- flute, alto saxophone, bassoon, C trumpet, harp
- 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos
For the next couple of weeks, i’m going to spend some time revisiting some of the most interesting new works heard at HCMF 2014. As a prelude to that, i’m very pleased to announce a new occasional series on 5:4 called The Dialogues, featuring myself in conversation with assorted musical luminaries. This first episode is with the clarinettist Gareth Davis, who was in Huddersfield giving the world première of the contrabass clarinet version of Elliott Sharp’s audio-visual work Sylva Sylvarum. Our dialogue begins with an in-depth exploration of that piece in conjunction with its sibling work Foliage, which Davis performed at last year’s Bristol New Music festival. We also discuss at length Davis’ career, including his musical origins, the choice and implications—both aesthetic and practical—of bass and contrabass clarinet as his instruments of choice, the role and nature of virtuosity, improvisation vs. notated music, as well as the multitude of diverse collaborations he has been part of over the years, focussing on those with Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek), Frances-Marie Uitti, Steven R. Smith and Martin Stig Andersen. Works by other composers are surveyed along the way, including examples by Johannes Schöllhorn and Peter Ablinger. Read more
Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, & comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) & Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes & methods that have become overused & hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up & play with material given off by the soloist, & while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative.
The more successful pieces, though, were far more exciting. The relationship set up by Alex Harker in Fluence was simple but superbly effective, drawing on a vast array of prerecorded clarinet samples. No sign here of the problem of dislocation that plagues so much electroacoustic music; Harker creates a genuine, subtle dialogue between acoustic & electronic, giving the distinct impression that Roche was engaged in a duet—no small achievement. Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s la rupture inéluctable fell into some flat moments, but the demonstrative way Roche interacted with the electronics—regularly stamping a pedal, producing hard-edged, glittering & grinding tones—again made them feel deeply integrated, an extension of the clarinet rather than separated from it. But what struck one more than even these fine works was the remarkable stamina & concentration of Heather Roche’s playing; in her hands, each & every piece became thoroughly absorbing.
As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focussed (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.
Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges. Read more