Unboxing the Strange Machine

Composer Neil Tòmas Smith and clarinettist Jonathan Sage chat process, collaboration, and the inspirational qualities of ping pong balls with Dark Inventions' director Christopher Leedham

3 years ago
Time to read
About 12 minutes

Neil working with clarinettist Jon Sage during the Strange Machines recording session

Christopher Leedham: Hi both – thanks for talking to us about this new album of contemporary clarinet music, centered around a new piece by Neil – Strange Machines – that was written especially for Jonathan. Can you tell us a bit about how this collaboration came about?

Neil Tòmas Smith: This piece is the culmination of a period in which I tried to exploit the musical potential of the rhythm of bouncing balls, i.e. rhythms that get progressively faster (or slower when reversed). I had written an unpitched percussion quartet, Gravitation, on this idea and I then wondered how to add pitch into the mix. This was at the end of my studies in Stuttgart, where I received help from Piet Johan Meyer to use the mathematical function of a bouncing ball to create a good deal of, at times rather unhinged, material. In York by this time, I did some serious editing on a few sections and then got in touch with Jonathan to look at some first sketches. Overall, he thought the ideas could work, as well as giving some excellent suggestions. To my shame, I think I next presented him with something close to the full thing.

Jonathan Sage: I always love working directly with composers and have been lucky enough to do so frequently over the years. I don’t write music myself, but really enjoy the chance to be involved with – and influence – the creative process. When a composer wants to push boundaries, use extended techniques etc, I’d say it’s fairly invaluable to have a player there to offer technical guidance and input. Books and websites have excellent information, but conversations and experimentation will always yield better results. Of course, all of the above is even better when that composer happens to be a friend.

Initially, I remember a sharp intake of breath! Strange Machines is full of very complex rhythms, microtones, fairly extreme register changes and has a few multiphonics thrown in for good measure.

I’ve admired Neil’s music for a long time and really appreciate the care and attention that he takes in preparing his scores. I remember him showing me some sketches of Strange Machines and us talking about multiphonic possibilities (standard composer/clarinettist chat!). The next thing I knew, there was a completed score in my inbox.

NTS: I guess you’d have to file this under ‘give composers an inch and they’ll take a yard’...

JS: Indeed! Of course, the collaborative process doesn’t stop at the delivery of the score though; it carries on throughout the rehearsing, preforming and recording of the piece. That intimacy really is one of the great pleasures of working on new music.

CL: Neil – what can you tell us about the title of the piece – what, or indeed who, are the Strange Machines?

NTS: I had in mind that the aforementioned bouncing-ball rhythms are like little compositional machines that you wind up and let loose: their ultimate course is, after all, defined from the outset. When you set multiple of these off at once, however, as occurs most notably at two central staccato sections, you start to push at the limits of the breath and the potential of the instrument. It is the interaction between these three elements, each a machine of a very different nature, that is for me the best way of describing the title.

strange machines score

CL: Speaking as a (now lapsed) clarinettist, this piece sounds phenomenally tricky. What were the greatest challenges in preparing the piece, Jonathan?

JS: Initially, I remember a sharp intake of breath! Strange Machines is full of very complex rhythms, microtones, fairly extreme register changes and has a few multiphonics thrown in for good measure. Sometimes one looks at a score and thinks “I could probably have a read through that straight away”, but that was definitely not the case on this occasion.

The first task was finding the quarter tones, working out the appropriate fingerings and marking them in. The build-up of muscle memory is a fundamental part of any musician’s practice and becoming fluent in different fingerings takes no small amount of time and patience. Beyond that, it was piecing everything together bar by bar, sometimes even note by note. As Neil says, Strange Machines’ rhythmic structure is derived from the acceleration of a bouncing ball, so conveying that through rhythmic accuracy – as well as spirit – was really important to the success of the piece.

Neil Tòmas Smith – Strange Machines (excerpt)

Once the notes and rhythms were learnt, it became about unpicking the different linear strands in Neil’s writing. It sometimes felt like I was working on an orchestral reduction, with multiple parts coexisting at the same time. Giving them definition through dynamic, tone, character and articulation was quite the challenge.

Last but not least, it’s a serious test of stamina. At nearly nine minutes long, it’s not only a physical workout, but also stretches the limits of my concentration!

CL: Neil – was it always your intention to write a virtuosic ‘showpiece’ then? Were you aware how hard it was going to be as you were composing?

NTS: It is funny that when you push as far as you can in one direction, you can pop up somewhere else rather unexpected. So, in answer to the question: no, not at all! My attention was very much focused on rather abstract musical issues of rhythm, pitch etc. but, listening now, I can certainly see how it has a certain dramatic flair. But I did not start from the position of attempting to write... contemporary Weber.

CL: This new piece sits alongside solo works by Berio, Carter and Saariaho. Why did you choose these other works for the project, and are there are common strands that seem to run through them all?

JS: I’m not sure that I’ve ever really thought of these pieces as having a particular or overt relationship to each other... I do however remember my great friend, Garrett Sholdice – Irish composer and director of Ergodos – talking about planning concerts as though each separate piece was a movement of a larger single work. With the Ergodos Musicians, we would sometimes do concerts where the audience was asked not to applaud between pieces, as with the movements of a concerto or symphony. This idea really resonated with me and brought an extra dimension to the importance of planning a coherent programme. I’m especially pleased with the flow of this album – there is a lovely mix of outlandish virtuosity (Strange Machines and Gra), expressiveness (Duft) and understated, lamenting beauty (Lied). Add in the two duo pieces and there is just the right mix and a lovely ebb and flow. I think it also helps to break up any potential monotony of a single instrument by having the pieces with percussion.

But, of course, a simpler answer could also be that I’ve been playing the Carter and the Berio for over a decade and have always wanted to record them!

CL: This is an album of exclusively contemporary clarinet music then. Does this necessitate a different approach to the instrument, or do you see clear links with the traditions of the classical and romantic clarinet repertoire?

In preparing contemporary music, one can sometimes feel like the composer has a tight hold on your interpretation, but Saariaho actively encourages a refreshing freedom of expression.

JS: Interestingly, despite this being an album of new music (Berio’s is the oldest piece, written in 1983), there is some clear harking back to romantic expressiveness. Of the three pre-existing works, Kaija Saariaho’s Duft is the newest, having been written in 2012; however, in some ways it feels like the oldest – certainly the one that takes greatest influence from the past. Sure, she uses a lot of extended techniques, but the three movements are pretty conventional in terms of overall notation. More than that, though, this is a piece of unashamed expression. Throughout, she uses emotive terms like doloroso, dolce con amore, molto espressivo, calando and cantabile, all of which create the impression of playing something more akin to a Brahms sonata than a piece of unaccompanied 21st century repertoire. The melodic writing is also full of expressionistic, almost rhapsodic virtuosity which really invites emotional input from the player. In preparing contemporary music, one can sometimes feel like the composer has a tight hold on your interpretation, but Saariaho actively encourages a refreshing freedom of expression here.

Kaija Saariaho 'Duft' (excerpt)

CL: Aside from the metaphorical machines in Neil’s piece, perhaps there is also a literal ‘strange machine’ that features on the album – the basset clarinet – an instrument more usually associated with Mozart’s concerto and quintet. Can you tell us a bit about the instrument and how you see its role outside ‘period instrument’ performances?

basset clarinet
The basset clarinet (left) compared with the more common A clarinet

JS: As you say, the basset clarinet is indeed a peculiar looking instrument, especially when one is simply used to seeing a regular ‘short’ clarinet. Essentially, a basset can do everything a normal A clarinet can do, but has an extra four-semitone range down to a written low C. It was an invention of the late 18th century and was developed by clarinettist Anton Stadler, alongside instrument maker Theodore Lotz. Not only is this extra range extremely useful for composers (as Mozart was the first to find out), but the additional length gives extra warmth, resonance and richness to the tone of the whole instrument. Indeed, I have been known to play regular A clarinet repertoire – such as the Brahms Quintet – on basset, just to utilise that incredible tone quality.

Famously, the ‘original’ composer for the basset clarinet was Mozart, who wrote both his Clarinet Quintet and Concerto for it. He also made use of it in 'Parto Parto' from La clemenza di Tito, although this was for the even rarer basset clarinet in B-flat. Other contemporaries of Mozart such as Süssmayr wrote for basset, but by the beginning of the 19th century it had more or less died out. Very few people owned this strange instrument and little repertoire had been published for it. Indeed, Mozart’s Concerto was originally published in an adapted version for regular A clarinet. The basset remained essentially a museum piece until the beginning of the 20th century, when performances of Mozart’s wonderful clarinet works started happening on basset once again.

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 (excerpt) – performed by Jonathan Sage and the Keats Quartet

By the 1960s, Alan Hacker started giving regular performances of the Mozart Concerto and Quintet on basset clarinet and, in 1974, Edition Schott published his version of the Mozart Concerto. Alan was my teacher and it is his influence that took my two loves of the basset clarinet and of contemporary music and combined them together. He was the reason that I acquired a basset in the first place – my instrument is an extended 1894 Buffet A clarinet that was modified by Charlie Wells especially for Alan – and I spent hours and hours working on my interpretation of the Mozart Concerto with him. Once that journey was complete (such as it could ever truly be ‘complete’), it seemed only sensible to look at other repertoire for the instrument.

Alan was such a pioneer of new music in the second half of the 20th century and all the great composers were queueing up to work with him. Many of them wrote for his basset clarinet and he had a vast collection of original scores in his possession. The piece I worked with him on that lives longest in the memory is William Sweeney’s An Og-Mhadhainn (The Young Morning) – a haunting Scottish lament, with the basset flitting between deep resonating pipe-like figures and dancing virtuosic flourishes. It is a work I have performed many times and I love the fresh, new way that Sweeney uses the basset. It hooked me into the idea of the basset having a place in the contemporary music world and I knew it was something I wanted to explore further.

Garrett Sholdice – Eighteen Cadences (excerpt) – performed by Jonathan Sage and the Keats Quartet

Having worked on basset repertoire with Alan, it seemed only logical to start collaborating with composers myself. Garrett and I have worked extensively using the basset clarinet – he has written me both a concerto and quintet (entitled Eighteen Cadences), and also a basset and tape piece named Five Organa. We spent hours together working on charts of multiphonic fingerings and their harmonic content and also on various extended technique possibilities. Coming into this project, I was excited to take these experiences and work with Martin and Chris and see what two composers who were new to writing for basset would come up with. In both cases, I have to say that the results are excellent! There are too many pieces written for basset that don’t make appropriate use of the lowest notes. In my view, they are something extremely special and need to be rooted in the heart of composition.

Although the basset is firmly rooted in the ‘period instrument’ camp, its slightly strange appearance and very particular sound quality/pitch range makes it perfect for the exploratory nature of new music. There is also something unique about the period of stasis that the instrument experienced in terms of repertoire. There is almost a 150-year gap in compositions and I love the enforced dichotomy of classical vs 20th/21st century works. I very much hope to keep commissioning new music for it.

CL: The two pieces for basset clarinet are both duos with percussionist Delia Stevens. What were the particular challenges working on these pieces?

JS: Firstly, one shouldn’t underestimate a composer’s tendency to tinker! You think you’ve got a handle on a piece and then get to the first rehearsals (or even the recording session itself) and find them wanting to make changes. Of course, if it makes the piece better and the composer happier, I’m all for it – however it can sometimes present a challenge in adapting at short notice. Obviously, all performers respond to these situations with a smile and are the very epitome of patience and understanding… at least, I know that I am!

Perhaps more in line with your question, it’s always a meeting of minds when preparing brand new pieces as part of a duo. I love performing with Delia and it was a privilege working on the disc with her, but there are always differing opinions on all sorts of aspects of the performance. You spend such a long time preparing your own part that you can become entrenched in an interpretation which often needs compromising (in a lot of cases improving!) with the influence of the other player. I guess remaining open minded is always important.

I remember Martin’s piece coming together relatively easily (although there were some fiendishly difficult basset note passages), but the rhythmic intricacy of your piece, Chris, was really difficult from an ensemble point of view. The groove of the rhythm is fantastic – and I think we nailed it in the recording sessions – but it was a nightmare getting it together! As the groove becomes more fragmented at the end of the piece, retaining a mutually consistent tempo for the precise hits was surprisingly hard. Of course, we got there in the end, but I remember doing run after run with a metronome going, just to try and hammer home an absolutely consistent tempo.

CL: Your collaboration on a new piece set in train this whole project examining and generating new contemporary clarinet repertoire. Listening back to the whole album now, do you get a sense of an overall journey created by the project – both for you as composer or performer, and for the wider listener?

What I like about the journey of this disc is the feeling of ‘newness’ and ‘oldness’. The temporalities of the pieces and the instruments seem to intertwine in interesting ways

NTS: What I like about the journey of this disc is the feeling of ‘newness’ and ‘oldness’. The temporalities of the pieces and the instruments seem to intertwine in interesting ways: the basset clarinet used for some of the newest pieces; ritualistic percussion pointing to something even older in the Leedham and Scheuregger; the potential of (in my case microtonal) monophony today; the open expressiveness of the Saariaho. My own piece is the end of a particular line of exploration and stands as a monument to it. It is unusual for me to dwell on my own pieces but I still harbour an affection for this one. To have it rendered so beautifully by Jonathan is a real privilege.

JS: Listening back, I’m reminded of what a joy and privilege it is to make music with friends. Although the whole project was work, at no point did I really think of it in that way. Collaborating with Martin and Chris on their pieces was equally as enjoyable and rewarding as it was with Neil and playing with Delia is always a joy. Hopefully anyone listening to this album will hear this come out in the performances.

Strange Machines is scheduled for release in September 2020. Find out more about preordering and supporting the project at our fundraising page.