Clarinet Quintet

ENS.2012.5 | 34′
Clarinet, String Quartet


I have long loved the medium of the clarinet quintet, which possesses a distinguished linage stretching from Mozart to Carter. There is little quite so lovely as the combination of the mellifluous clarinet with the sinuous tones of a string quartet. Interestingly, my three favorite works for this ensemble, by Brahms, Christopher Fox, and Howard Skempton, could not be more different. The first is lengthy, with long singing lines and rich full textures, the second perhaps closest to my own conception, with short repeated cells wobbling microtonally around one another, while the last consists of three tiny movements, often quite spare, though occasionally blooming into lush beauty. In my own Clarinet Quintet these various impulses are combined. And then put in a blender.

It was during the winter of 2008-2009 I first began to think about writing a clarinet quintet. I wanted a work made of fragments woven together into a larger whole like a mosaic or a quilt; folk art was on my mind at the time, eventually leading to works inspired by Ammi Phillips and Henry Darger. Improbably, In the Realms of the Unreal, for 3 trumpets, 3 pianos, and 3 string quartets, began as a clarinet quintet! (For the curious, my thinking went, approximately: clarinet + string quartet; trumpet or maybe piano + string quartet; trumpet + piano + string quartet; and finally 3x the above.) But it was only in autumn 2012 I saw a solution to the technical problems these ideas created and work began on the score.
The basic idea behind my Clarinet Quintet was to take a limited number of musical ideas – ten, in this case, each eight eighth-notes in length – and chop them up, continually rearranging and reordering them in various repeating groups. As the piece progresses, a shadowy narrative emerges as different ideas come to the fore and disappear, while the harmonies slowly change until by the end none from the beginning remain. In this way I hoped to create a kind of discontinuous continuity, like a Robert Irwin dot painting or the pulsing of blood in your veins.

Recently I have been interested in returning elements of chance to my carefully predetermined structures, and the approach described above seemed to suggest the use of randomization for various parameters of the composition. At the highest level, this Clarinet Quintet follows several straightforward systems that determine the overall flow of the musical ideas and harmony. At the compositional level itself, realization of each musical cell was left to me as I composed. It was at the middle level, the ordering and chopping up of material within each grouping, where I utilized randomness.

The wonderful free website allowed me to generate a variety of integer sequences and choose the limits and parameters of the output, which was used to atomize and disorganize the material. As I composed I was then forced to find solutions for linking different harmonies, melodies, and rhythms I might not otherwise have discovered, which considerably opened up my compositional thinking. I would like to stress however that the use of randomization as well as predetermined structures and systems is useful only insofar as it helps realize one’s musical ideas, and were discarded or ignored when something didn’t seem to work. Ultimately my goal was to create the particular kind of music I’d imagined, and these were the tools I felt best suited to achieve my goal.

There is no right way to listen to my Clarinet Quintet. At first the extremity of the work – its continuous intensity and energy, the herky-jerky quasi-continuity of continually changing ideas that never allows your ear to settle – may be daunting. In this way it is closest to a Shaker quilt or an abstract painting you must stand back from to appreciate in full. The bold juxtaposition of big and small blocks of bright color and interplay of hard edges was inspired by Matisse and landscape, and is consequently large in scale. Lines may not lead from one place to the next in the usual way, but do follow logical contours (usually!). Though the music has no program, there is a narrative; it’s kind of a minimalist cubism or something. I have no idea, actually. There was a thing I wanted to make and I made it.