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

CHAPTER 2 - Single Sounds

New Pitch Resources -


"all pitches that lie between the semi-tone of the twelve-tone, equal-tempered tuning system." 13

"...small tones, which usually implies musical intervals smaller than a semitone, the distance between any two neighboring piano keys. A more inclusive category is xenharmonic music, which extends to any tuning system that departs from the twelve note per octave equal-tempered scale." 14

Musical application of microtones for clarinet has only just begun to be explored by composers. It is hoped that the information presented here may spark the imaginations of composers and performers towards qualities of microtones other than pitch. Timbre contrasts, ornamentation or polyphonic development through trills, transitions to multiphonics as a means of musical cell development, or the use of percussive effects found in microtonal trills are certainly potential areas that could be pertinent to the development of musical material.

Microtones are not a twentieth century invention; they were discussed as early as the eleventh century by theorists.15 N. Vincentino described a quarter-tone harpsichord in the sixteenth century, and Christopher Simpson wrote about microtonal music in the Compendium of Practical Musick (1667).16 The modern revival was also not just a result of scientific interest in the nature of sound (Alois Haba, among other microtonal composers, took an intensive course in acoustics at the University in Berlin). Increased interest in folk music and a move against the richness and decadence of the late romantics helped to create a receptive attitude. Julian Carrillo ( Mexico ) began experiments from 1895 that led to an equal-tempered 96-note scale (16th tones). Busoni, in his "New Aesthetic of Music" (1906) advocated a system based on third-tones. During the 1920's several publications by Ivan Wyschengradsky, Carrillo, and Haba helped to publicize the theories and the music. More recently, the work of Harry Partch and the music journal Interval have stimulated new interest in microtonal music.17

Microtonal production on wind instruments such as the clarinet was first exploited and notated by European composers in the early twentieth century. At first, clarinets of modified design were developed to produce these pitches. Richard H. Stein, a composer and clarinetist, developed a quarter-tone clarinet around 1911 that consisted of the addition of numerous tone holes and keys to the standard design.18 Another approach was taken by Fritz Schuller in 1937, who created an instrument that employed two different tubes tuned a quarter of a tone apart. The Czech composer Alois Haba was also intrigued by the construction of quarter-tone instruments. A quarter-tone clarinet, developed in 1924, was utilized in his Suite Op. 24 of 1925 (clarinet, quarter-tone piano) and Suite Op. 55 of 1943 (solo quarter-tone clarinet).19 However, all of these instruments failed to gain acceptance, probably because of one principal problem: clarinetists were reluctant to accept such drastic design changes.

Microtonal writing for clarinet in the last twenty-five years has increased markedly. Works by Russian composers such as Edison Denisov, Italian composers such as Carlo Landini and Giacinto Scelsi, Japanese composers such as Joji Yuasa, Toru Takemitsu, Akira Nishimura, Isao Matsushita, and Masataka Matsuo, and American composers who include Robert Erickson, Richard Boulanger, Ezra Sims, Harold Seletsky, John Eaton, and Drake Mabry are a few examples.20 These composers all employ the standard B-flat clarinet to produce microtones. What may be lost with regard to precise intonation and matched timbres, is balanced with easier technical control by the player on his familiar conventional instrument. In addition, the composer has the advantage of performers with developed and more flexible techniques (a level of virtuosity that has taken many years to reach), as well as closer relationships to their instruments which allow them to work with the composer to achieve a higher level of musical expression.21 Clarinetists may not be able to produce microtones to the exact acoustical cent, but the information in this chapter does provide accuracy in relative pitch distances. Clarinet microtones present fascinating musical material outside of their pitch characteristics; for example, in the realm of timbre. Their compositional utilization need not be limited to an extension of twelve-tone chromaticism.

Musicians today, however, are far from unanimous in their support of the above approach. The composer James Wood presents a common opposing view.

"It is precisely these conventional instruments which in practical terms are incapable of consistently accurate realization of micro-intervals because of the subjectivity involved. Following the example of the pioneers of microtonality, if we want to achieve any degree of precision, we have to build special instruments". 22

It appears, from this statement, that Mr. Wood's interests lie primarily in the precision of pitch; an area that is perhaps best left to electronic music or theoretical texts. The composer Robert Erickson comments on problems of this approach:

"I think of pitch as much more infinite, variable and wavy and watery...Just because we write, we have a system for 12-tones doesn't mean that every interval plays the same way. I'm playing A, but what am I doing here; who am I playing A with, shall I play it high, shall I play it low, what's going on musically and I think of these pitches as sort of dynamic entities in motion all the time....

The difficulty is that we can have all these beautiful theories and all this beautiful mathematics but when we come down to trying to make instruments and sound them, yes, and do things to make sound, it just isn't there. It just doesn't have much to do with the theories that we talked about." 23

This opinion is echoed by composer David Dunn, who stresses the importance of "real" sound over theory, through a closer examination of what a "microtone" is:

"What might a microtone actually be? What characteristics might it exhibit? And in what sense is it an extension of anything when its contextual terminology must of necessity reference it to the system of temperament which it strives so desperately to disassociate itself from? Who or what has defined a universally accepted definition of tone from which our friend `micro' might be derived? And even if such a definition truly exists then upon what authority need I accept it? If small numbered harmonic ratios are truly what the ear would most prefer, left to its own resources, then in what sense could it be said that a string quartet playing traditional literature in tune is not playing in just intonation? Or in what sense could home-made instruments which strive to avoid structural rigidity ever be in just intonation when intonational drift begins to occur within minutes of initial tuning?

If it is truly possible to have a microtone then perhaps it is also possible, as a friend recently proposed, to have a macro-tuning system which, for example, might consist numerically of less than one tone per octave. Ultimately my point is that the ear is what is essential in that all musical systems remain descriptions of what the ear hears. We have only a glimpse of the possible descriptions, let alone the possible hearings. To not consider deeply the terminology used to describe it is to also not consider deeply what is heard." 24

Somewhat similar problems present themselves in the music of Ben Johnston, who employs just intonation. He has pointed out that the acquired skill that allows "live" performers to adjust their intonation automatically in ensembles actually leads the tuning closer to just intonation than to equal temperament. However, this is not always true in all instrumental combinations, and especially not for a solo instrument. Stuart Dempster has noted, about his performances of Johnstons 's One Man , a tendency to gravitate towards equal temperament after several performances.25 This evidence adds further weight to the position that electronic instruments present a more accurate medium, if precise pitch is desired in microtonal music.

It is true that the contemporary clarinet was not designed to play microtones. Because of the limited number of keys on the standard clarinet, many microtones require the use of cross fingerings. Cross fingerings employ open vents, higher on the instrument body than the lowest tone holes that are closed by fingers or keys. These help to produce vast contrasts of color between different microtones (Example #44).


Example #44

For the performer, learning these fingerings is similar to learning a new, related instrument; many of them involve unconventional or unfamiliar finger patterns. Nevertheless, the fact that composers have written microtones for the standard clarinet since at least 1911 can not be ignored; performers must find ways to produce the desired musical consequence. The problems of learning a new system can be overcome through imagination and musical understanding. It is especially curious to note that the process of learning a new system can help the clarinetist to review, refine, and perhaps understand more deeply the basic concepts of clarinet playing needed to successfully realize the standard repertoire.26

Previous Research

Results of previous research have generally consisted of very limited catalogs of limited information (no smaller pitch intervals than quarter or eighth tones, little or no mention of timbre, no mention of quarter-tone or microtone trills, etc.), with little or no attention focused on practicalities of performance. Although some of this research has served as a valuable introduction to various sonic potentials of the clarinet, there has been virtually no suggestion of "safe" uses of these extended techniques in musical contexts (which ones are most reliable?). Studies by Rehfeldt, Caravan and Bartolozzi offer fine introductions, but do not present important details.27 Phillip Rehfeldt's charts include some awkward microtones that are technically impossible in most contexts (except for isolated entrances of short duration, at pianissimo - for example), or that involve non-conventional finger patterns; these problems are not sufficiently described for composers (or clarinetists). In addition, these microtones are not adequately compared according to pitch; they are merely grouped as alternate fingerings for quarter or eighth-tone intervals.28 Ronald Caravan displays a quarter-tone scale (the upper range reaches only to F5) and does discuss timbre in the context of alternate fingerings; however, no mention of microtone timbre or specific considerations of technical practicality. Much of Bruno Bartolozzi's work is only applicable for a clarinetist who uses a Full-Boehm system instrument (with a low E-flat key)) -- this excludes all clarinetists who do not use this Italian-system instrument. In general, all of these documents merely touch the surface with regard to both microtones and descriptive information.


Guidelines for Use

The clarinetist may produce microtonal pitches in one of two ways: through special fingerings, or through changes in embouchure. This study has explored the first option only, since it is by far the most dependable in performance, the most universally accurate with regard to pitch, and the closest in technical demands to customary performance practice. Some problems of universal application by clarinetists who use standard Boehm-System instruments occur because of individual preferences for different mouthpieces and reed styles. Timbre distinctions of bright and dark are relative to the equipment and overall individual physical characteristics of each player. In addition, most advanced clarinetists have their instruments "customized" to improve intonation, and do not use the mouthpiece that comes with the instrument. A further complication is noted by the fact that all instruments may not be tuned at exactly A = 440 Hz. This is one reason why the author has not attempted a precise frequency analysis of microtonal pitches. Instead, information has been gathered based on the measurement by the naked ear of relative distances between pitches. Microtones are portrayed in the following charts in a proportional fashion with regard to distance from adjacent pitches.

Limitations also exist in the creation of equidistant microtonal scales. Naturally, it is not always possible to find eight microtones within each whole step that are equidistant, for example. Also, fingerings may need to be adjusted slightly to avoid awkward technical problems. These technical limitations, as well as problems encountered in actual practice by the performer who must hear microtonal intervals "in tune," outline the difficulties found in the production of theoretically perfect microtonal scales with "equal-tempered ears" on standard equipment adjusted for equal temperament.

In general, the composer should enlist the assistance of a clarinetist if he wishes to employ clarinet microtones in his work. Personal experiment takes precedence over strict adherence to stated principles, observations, or fingerings. The information presented here is not exhaustive by any means. Disjunct microtonal motion, for example, should be carefully checked for potential problems by a performing clarinetist.

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