‘Strange Machines’

Paul Griffiths teases out some of the confluences, coincidences and curiosities that emerge from this new programme of contemporary clarinet music.

3 years ago
Time to read
About 5 minutes

Like the scientific measuring devices similarly invented during the eighteenth century, the clarinet is a precision implement made for a very particular purpose: a ‘strange machine’, as Neil Tòmas Smith describes both the instrument and the music he writes for it. Unlike, however, such close contemporaries as John Harrison’s chronometers, the clarinet has not been overtaken by technological advance, but rather has proved open to advance within itself, capable of producing and energizing music of ever-new sorts and of generating a far greater variety of sounds than its original makers could have imagined – or if they could, their efforts went into eliminating the microtonal tunings, the multiphonics, the noises and the unusual colours that composers and players of recent decades have delighted in discovering.

This little point of history is specially relevant to the present album, which includes two pieces composed for a historical instrument: the basset clarinet, associated with Mozart’s concerto and quintet, and with his clarinettist Anton Stadler. Tuned in A, this instrument reaching a third below the standard clarinet in that key. Forgotten for decades, it was revived in modern times, not least by Alan Hacker, with whom Jonathan Sage studied. In both the pieces included here, it is partnered by percussion, so that the recording gently oscillates between the sound of what is the regular modern clarinet, in B flat, heard alone, and that of its more shadowy cousin entwined with the other strange machine of a percussion set-up.

The programme begins on the solo side, with Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993), a work that, though it skirts the edges of the instrument’s range, from the bottom D prominent in the opening bar to a startling high A flat, makes rather little use of irregular sounds – just a haunting multiphonic visited three times towards the end. One of many homages the composer wrote in his later years to fellow musicians, the piece was written to salute Witold Lutosławski on his eightieth birthday, and, as an extra gesture to the dedicatee, Carter gave the composition a Polish title, with the appropriate meaning of ‘game’. Equally apt is the unusual marking ghiribizzoso (whimsically), for music that swings between song and skittishness, the one reflecting the other or springing from it.

Christopher Leedham’s Rituals fulfills its title in at least three ways, by evoking religious forms in its four sections (‘Introit’, ‘Incantation’, ‘Dance’ and ‘Recessional’), by using ringing metal percussion instruments – glockenspiel and vibraphone, as well as the four pitched drums that drive the dance – suggestive of the bells, gongs and cymbals of sacred precincts worldwide, and by applying ritualistic techniques of composition, having to do particularly with repetition. This happens right away in the ‘Introit’ – obviously in the part for basset clarinet, which we meet for the first time, more intricately in the percussion part, where small motifs (like the glockenspiel’s opening appoggiatura) and coincidences with the clarinet shift as they return. If repetition here is essentially mechanical, strange-machine-like, it has in the ‘Incantation’, touched with quarter-tones, a psychological urge, while the final ‘Recessional’ sounds like a fragmented repetition of the ‘Dance’ that went before, an exhausted remnant – but one that has repetitive business of its own in settling on a quick triplet, up a minor third, down a major one.

Neil Tòmas Smith, whose solo piece of 2014 gives this record its title, is also engaged with repetition as a means to build time machines. Listen, for instance, to how three returning notes – the low D heard in the Carter, a middle register E and a higher G – provide an armature for the opening where everything is, simultaneously, in movement, in terms of length, intonation or character of trill, with a free use of quarter-tones. The close of this passage also offers an example – not the last – of how the composer can use a long or repeating note to have not only the instrument resonating but the room in which it is being played, the sound seeping into and being returned by its environment. Later, the arrival of the big central staccato development at a focus on harmonically related notes (the upper G from the beginning plus the fifth above and double octave below) also makes use of acoustic fact, creating here an ebullience stopped in its tracks by a multiphonic. Perhaps what is most strange about these Strange Machines is that they are not so very strange after all, but founded in the nature of sound and of perception.

Kaija Saariaho’s solo piece owes its German nomenclature to having been written at Jörg Widmann’s request for an international clarinet competition in Freiburg in 2012; Duft (Fragrance) follows a sonata-like pattern of three movements: ‘Blütenstaub’ (Pollen), ‘Blühend’ (Blooming) and ‘Flüchtig’ (Fleeting). Otherwise the music belongs in that floating region – midway French, midway modal – Saariaho has made her own. Pollen’s softness and lightness might be suggested by the opening movement’s tremolos, which once more start by involving the instrument’s bottom D. The middle movement, generally in middle and high registers, is all melody, each phrase hinging on a small group of notes. Then the appropriately virtuoso finale powers itself up to some increasingly extraordinary glissandos, often involving smaller slides within sustained notes.

Where titles are concerned, Martin Scheuregger’s is surely the oddest, though he gives a reasonable explanation for it – even two. He excised it from an eBay listing, and it relates to how the piece, which dates from 2014-15, ‘is based on different sets of material in dialogue/interplay, but the germ of each idea (the “package contents”) consistently returns in a highly similar or undeveloped form’. This is very clear in the case of the opening summons (or is it an alarm call?), where the two players, on basset clarinet and glockenspiel, are in octaves. A brilliant gesture, this is developed through the opening sequence, which ends when the marimba, entering in unison with the basset clarinet, encourages its companion down into territory the regular clarinet cannot reach, as far as the A a fourth below (which is also the lowest note in the Mozart concerto, as reconstituted for basset clarinet). Further recurrences, the last with marimba replacing the glockenspiel, will readily be noted. Repetition here, though, is not mechanical, ritualistic – not the exact repetition that allows no difference between after and before, as if all time were one. It is, rather, repetition that signals stages in an ongoing process, by no means as haphazard as the title, and its origins, might suggest.

A perfect farewell, Berio’s Lied, or ‘Song’, even though it came from well before everything else on this record, from 1983, seems to be remembering much that has happened here: recurrent ideas and ideas about recurrence, how a fragment of almost modal melody, like a trace from the past, can retain its identity through ceaseless variation, how the instrument’s bottom note can be a destination and a starting point, even the interaction of woodwind sound and percussion, as reiterated notes fade into the noise of the instrument’s keys, reminding us that what we are listening to is, after all, a strange machine.

–– Notes by Paul Griffiths