The Clarinet of the Twenty-First Century - E. Michael Richards

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Introduction

"What is said to be natural is usually simply familiar, and what is said to be human, customary."
Brad Dow
“The number of sounds obtainable from a modern clarinet is incredible. It will be greater still in the future.”2
Jack Brymer

The growth in importance of texture and tone color in musical composition during this century is indisputable. In addition to exploring almost every conceivable combination of traditional instruments, composers and performers have invented new acoustic instruments (especially percussion instruments), imitated or used traditional instruments of non-western cultures (as part of a move towards a globally eclectic music), created "synthetic" instruments controlled by computers, and expanded the resources of traditional instruments through "extended techniques." It has become obvious and consequential that each woodwind instrument, for example, cannot only produce registers of different colors, but that significant color contrasts are possible (to be produced by a performer) within each register. Performers are now asked to deliberately create sounds that were formerly considered unorthodox and generally unacceptable: 'breathy tone,' sounds of indefinite pitch, intervals smaller than half-steps, etc. Reginald Smith Brindle has aptly described the fascinating results:

Woodwind players can now 'sculpture' sounds in an extraordinary way, varying timbre,attack, and speed or depth of vibrato from moment to moment, so that their instruments have a rich variety of expression hitherto undreamt of . 3

As a result of the directions that music has taken, the new sounds, and their accompanying new techniques have raised several crucial issues to the attention of practicing musicians. One common concern has been the inaccessibility of individual works of music to more than a particular small community of players (often only one!).4 This has come about because much new music is available only in unpublished form (not widely disseminated), and also regularly contains idiosyncratic notation. 5 The cellist Siegfried Palm has pointed out that a "...danger lies in the fact that the same interpreters always tend to work with the same composers, busily preparing their works. This results in an exclusivity which is encouraged by the notation, thus misleading the outsider although having nothing to do with the music." 6 A standardized notation for common new techniques (or new concepts) should, ideally, help more players to derive connections to actual sound from the initial cursory glance at a new piece; notation must not only reflect accurately, through the appearance of symbols or verbal descriptions, an actual sonic event, but must be recognized as generic by a large body of musicians. This will allow performers to more quickly digest the sonic information of a work, and thus get beneath the surface of a work sooner (and thoughtfully judge its value). It will also allow composers to make more informed decisions, in a universal sense, about appropriate languages and syntax for their musical ideas.

One objective of this book is to make suggestions for appropriate symbols, descriptions, and/or directions for a variety of "new" sounds that can be produced on the clarinet; these suggestions are generally based on, or derived from, the most common and most accurate symbols in use today. There has been an attempt to logically link related sounds/techniques to related notations. These notations are accompanied by recordings of sounds (available either on CD or as MP3 downloads) to enable the composer and clarinetist to become familiar with these sounds aurally ; to standardize and internalize them. However, because of the nature of extended techniques (the subject breeds new discoveries every day), this is an impossible task to ever complete in a comprehensive manner; but necessary to undertake, because all standard, basic techniques began as "new" techniques, derived from extended techniques of practical performance problems ("new" becomes "old," at least in practice). Edwin Roxburgh, a composer and oboist, offers comments on this process:

How is the composer who is not a wind player to know what must be indicated regarding the technique of production? Nobody wishes simply to digest the capabilities expressed in a performer/composer's compositions, and to redeploy them in a pastiche fashion in their own works. The full answer to this problem cannot be made until performers produce a comprehensive catalogue of possibilities to standardize the characteristics as part of their basic technique. Signs for lip and finger adjustments should not be necessary once standard symbols have been established for the automatic response of the player. 7

Composer Robert Erickson adds to this:

There isn't an end to them! Extended techniques become standard techniques. There is no book on extended techniques for any instrument that can possibly end. I think that is the most fascinating part of it all. I think that what these books do is stimulate the good players. Gradually a body of attitudes grows up in relation to particular instruments...the information sort of disseminates out. So you start out with an encyclopedic view, and what you find out is that you've spurred your colleagues. What's coming up is a new virtuosity -- a step higher. 8

Another issue that has materialized with regard to new instrumental techniques has been the uncooperative stance of many performers towards learning the techniques and producing the sounds. Part of this spirit may be related to common attitudes and numerous misunderstandings (or lack of understanding) with regard to "modern music." Unfortunately, performer's evaluations of music (no matter how ill-informed) are liable to act as self-fulfilling prophecies. All that is needed to overcome this learning disability is an open mind and a look at history. Even Beethoven's music was not universally applauded or accepted during his lifetime; the following review, of his opera Fidelio , appeared in Der Freimutbige on September 11, 1806 .

All impartial experts and music lovers have unanimously been of the opinion that never has such incoherent, shrill, confused, ear-shocking music been written. The most cutting dissonances follow each other in really horrible harmony. Some fussily insignificant ideas – among them the post-horn solo announcing the arrival of the governor - complete the disagreeably stunning impression. Only Beethoven's intimate friends admire and idolize such things, taking pains to thrust their opinions on others, desiring only to build an altar to Beethoven on the ruins of other composers. 9

Art is not, and should not be, always easy to understand, but the process towards understanding a variety of works of art is necessary to undertake if one is to become a mature musician and an artist (not just a player)! New music reflects the culture that it was created in; a culture that is closer to ours than that of previous centuries. Escaping to music that is easier to understand avoids this process of self-growth. In addition, new sounds help one to improve one's ear and one's musical imagination; two attributes that are necessary for artistic music-making of music of any style or style period. It is truly an exciting experience to discover and create, with an open mind, the many different expressions of sound.

A third issue (one that has also contributed to negative attitudes by performers) is the perceived difficulty of learning these new techniques. This is common, especially among advanced players who have frozen their technical thinking and practice. Karen Jensen offers a plausible explanation:

The musician's instrument which to some extent is a known entity to its owner, becomes unfamiliar and unpredictable - a situation not unlike determining to cross an unlit room in one's house at night: potentially treacherous! 10

There is a tendency to expect these skills to appear automatically and immediately; this is not always the case. They will, however, become reliable for the persistent player with good practice habits. Again, one can look at music history for parallels. If it were not for a body of imaginative and courageous clarinetists in the first half of the nineteenth century, we might still be playing on a five or six-key instrument; Muller's 13-key clarinet was initially rejected because it could play in all keys! The adjustment in technique necessary to master this instrument was certainly more drastic than that needed to produce multiple sounds on instruments of today!

Players also incorrectly believe that playing extended techniques will ruin their traditional technical skills (i.e., embouchure, fingerings, etc.). This appears to be one reason why their teachers seldom introduce younger students to extended techniques. In reality, most extended techniques (multiple sounds, microtones, etc.) require a strong basic traditional technique (embouchure control), in addition to a well-developed ear, to be executed properly. They will not destroy traditional skills any more than brushing one's teeth, as long as the player understands the basic concepts of traditional technique.

A critical matter for composers has been how to become familiar with new techniques short of composing for a particular instrumentalist who may dictate a creative course, or without actually learning to play the instrument(s) involved (which could take a lifetime). Edwin Roxburgh's assertion of the need for instrumental catalogues from performers is only part of the answer. Composers, and instrumentalists, need to understand the acoustical principles of their instrument and a basic theory of traditional technique in order to systematically discover and understand new sounds: to expand the sonic resources of an instrument based on peculiarities of its acoustical design. Creative and innovative composers throughout history, however, have written not only "safely" for instruments, but also have stretched the capabilities of performers through informed decisions of orchestration. They have imagined new approaches to, and resources of, instrumental playing, and have asked (or demanded!) the instrumentalist to realize them. It is, metaphorically, a tightrope walked between theory and practice – imagination and reality.

One example of a composer who practiced orchestration in this manner is Edgard Varese. According to composer Chou Wen-Chung, Varese seems to have had a profound understanding, despite complaints to the contrary from performers.

I would say he (Varese) certainly was consciously pushing all the instruments to their extremes, and in doing that perhaps did not really care that much about certain practicalities. But it doesn't mean that Varese was not aware of whether it could be achieved or not. I think he was. He always felt that if he pushed people hard enough, they could get it. I would say at that time it wasn't the case! Very few people "got" it; they probably approximated it. 11

It is critical that composers and performers work together towards this goal of expanding instrumental resources, while still maintaining individuality through a balance (and tension) of conceptual (artistic) and practical approaches.

The acoustical design of the modern clarinet permits and promotes several unique sonic qualities (found in conventional sounds) from which many of today's new techniques have been derived. First, it allows an incredible range of colors, not only throughout its range, but also on every pitch! These are apparent not only in single sounds, but in multiple sounds as well. It is ironic that the standard trend in clarinet performance practice has been towards timbric homogeneity (a goal that is impossible to attain!)! Secondly, the instrument is capable of a broad range of dynamics, from the virtually inaudible to fortissimo . Finally, the instrument lends itself to extremes of technical activity (with regard to speed, register, and density of pitches) and, therefore, a broad range of different musical characters. Many composers, during the last forty years, have "extended the techniques" of players simply by writing virtuosic music involving conventional sounds (i.e. many fast notes with rapid register leaps and extreme dynamic contrasts). The struggle of the performer attempting to realize this music has produced its own type of "new" musical interest and "new" techniques.

Two generations of texts (most often consisting of briefly annotated catalogues) exist on new clarinet resources. The first of these centers around the work of Bruno Bartolozzi in Milan , published during the late 1960's. 12 His work is significant for its groundbreaking effect on other musicians, but, like many first studies, contains misinformation that has hindered real progress. One problem is that his work on clarinet focused around the Full-Boehm system; a system that very few clarinetists outside of Italy utilize. Much of the information on clarinet, therefore, is not transferable. Information on other woodwinds has also been questioned. Oboist Nora Post remarks, “the results of the study are quite unreliable, sometimes misleading both composer and performer.” 13 To be fair to Bartolozzi, it must be mentioned that one-hundred-percent reliability does not exist in any study on extended techniques. One reason might be the empirical nature of much of the research without much consideration to systematic theory (or acoustical principles). Another might be simply that one cannot expect everyone to be able to do everything; many musicians do not fully master standard techniques, either.

A second generation of texts on extended clarinet techniques grew up in America in the mid-1970's. The monument of this time is Phillip Rehfeldt's book ( New Directions for Clarinet ), published as part of a series on new instrumental resources by the University of California. 14 The value of this study centers on the fact that it was the first somewhat comprehensive one for performers of the standard Boehm-system instrument. The Clarinet of the Twenty-First Century (first edition) both expands on, and differs from earlier studies in the following ways:

1)  multiple sounds are organized according to how these sounds are produced (undertones or harmonics; left and right hand fingerings), and their harmonic spectrum - The Clarinet of the Twenty-First Century classifies 463 multiple sounds

2) microtones are divided into intervals smaller than quarter-tones – The Clarinet of the Twenty-First Century categorizes 478 microtones , including equal divisions as small as 16 th tones, and as many unequal intervals within a half step as 29

3) comparisons are classifications of timbre of single sounds, including spectrum analyses

4) comparisons and classifications of 213 alternate fingerings

5) no musical examples described that require exaggerated movements that are not possible to consistently reproduce – discussion of reliability of appropriate musical contexts for all of the included techniques

6) more musical examples [103]

7) discussion of historical and acoustic background of the clarinet, and of new music, including recent research at IRCAM and the Centre for New Orchestral Instruments ( London )

8) discussion of methods and exercises for the clarinetist to follow in order to achieve the new techniques. The Clarinet of the Twenty-First Century contains 35 etudes and more than 50 exercises that systematically lead the clarinetist towards mastery of the presented extended techniques

9) discussion of a theory of finger technique – a potential basis for further exploration

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