14 June 2010

Notes to Whimsies

When Caleb Herron of DNC Duo invited a new piece, I found that there were some regards in which the piece wrote itself. The Duo combines two long-standing musical passions of mine. I am a clarinetist, and have written a great deal of chamber music for my own instrument, including a growing number of unaccompanied clarinet pieces (Blue Shamrock, Irreplaceable Doodles, Studies in Impermanence, e.g.); and I have also written a few pieces for percussion ensemble. When I learnt that Ariana also plays bass clarinet, a light bulb immediately glowed.

Many years (too many) have passed since I played bass myself, and I miss it. It is a wonderful instrument, sharing practically all of the agility of the soprano clarinet, yet with its own character, or rather, its own several characters in the various stretches of its considerable compass. For the percussion component, I decided that rather than exploit a great many timbres among the considerable array of “noise-makers,” I wanted to select only two instruments. Why so few? I wanted to create a sustained dialogue between the wind instrument and a certain timbre. Why as many as two? I also wanted the change of percussion timbre to serve as a dramatic event in the unfolding musical narrative. This dramatic purpose was also a driver in choosing to have Caleb switch from a pitched instrument, the vibraphone, to the (comparatively) unpitched bongos: the change in the character of the piece essentially reflects the difference between the ‘singing’ resonance of the vibraphone, and the ‘drier’ nature of the bongos. It’s also been a long time since I wrote for bowed vibraphone, and the combination of that exquisitely mysterious sound with the bass clarinet was a potent inspiration.

A word about the title is probably in order. The parenthesis first. The description of a certain canvas on display in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston Modernist collection includes the phrase “heavy manipulation of paint.” It’s perfect apt for the painting under advisement; and yet, at face value I found it a curious phrase. Also a seminal phrase, and my piece engages in a grappling manipulation of the sound colors of the instruments. “Whimsies,” because all the materials which are worked in the piece, I created (chose?) in impromptu flashes.

In ways which make more sense to the composer, probably, than to almost anyone else, the piece is something of an homage to Eric Dolphy. I do not write jazz, to be sure, but I cannot help having some musical affection for the man who made the bass clarinet a jazz instrument.

I also make use of a trick I learned (in part) from Debussy, of having the same stretch of music “mean” different things, by changing its environment. Thus, one of the “angular” bits is a lively passage (at first) for unaccompanied bass clarinet. Some while later, I decided that this would make a fun contrapuntal duet with the vibraphone — only a bit slower, so that we can savor the intervals between the instruments. The same passage returns, and sounds different yet again in dialogue with the bongos.

Karl Henning
13 June 2010

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