At the Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition concert in September, I had the unique opportunity to hear three new works for solo clarinet by emerging composers – including myself – alongside the music of veteran composer and clarinetist Eric Mandat. This experience initiated a great deal of reflection on my part about what it means to write well for a particular instrument, and whether composers ought to push the technical capabilities of an instrument to their outer limits, or stay within friendlier parameters. The works I heard on this concert made convincing arguments for both approaches, making this question a difficult one to resolve.
Of all the works on this concert, Mandat’s works were the most impressive and also the most technically challenging. The Jungle (1989), performed by Jacob Beeman, necessitated circular breathing and involved the very unusual extended technique of muffling the bell of the instrument using a pillow that the performer held between his knees. The Moon in My Window (2007), which Mandat performed himself, also presented special technical challenges; this delightfully whimsical yet extraordinarily difficult piece involves copious multiphonics, many of which seemed highly unpredictable. Mandat executed these with incredible skill, but I sensed that many of these multiphonics were very difficult to control. I found Mandat’s works very satisfying in terms of their overall shape, pitch content, and musicality, but I was also a bit awed by the difficulty level of these works, and reflected that very few clarinetists possess some of the specialized skills that Mandat’s works demand. For example, not all clarinetists can circular breathe, and I suspect that a large number of the multiphonics in The Moon In My Window are only obtainable with very skillful adjustments of the oral cavity. Still, the performances and the works themselves made a convincing argument in favor of taking such risks.
With the sounds of Mandat’s unpredictable multiphonics – and the questions they raised – still ringing in my ears, the second half of the concert featuring the works of the three finalists commenced. I was very impressed with Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar, an atmospheric piece that also involved multiphonics. Kargoll’s work was given an excellent performance by Jacob Beeman that almost made the difficult moments sound “easy.” Still, as with Mandat’s works, I sensed that this was a technically difficult, risk-taking piece.
My own piece, Devotions and Dialogues, enjoyed a highly skilled and thoughtful performance by Michael Moy, but just as I noted instances of technically challenging writing in Kargoll’s piece and in Mandat’s pieces, there were a few moments in my own piece (in particular, passages that made heavy use of the altissimo register) that made me question why I had made such great demands on the player. The execution of my piece was highly musical, virtuosic, and sensitive, but I sensed that my performer was anxious about the high potential for mishap in certain sections of the piece, and I felt strangely guilty about putting him in that situation.
Of the three finalist’s works, my personal favorite was Tim Girard’s Complements V. In the weeks following the concert, I asked Tim to share a bit more about this piece, and I was fascinated to learn that he was working within very specific technical limitations set by the commissioning performer (e.g., no extended techniques). For this reason, Complements V is comparatively unintimidating in the demands it makes on the performer, yet it is expressive, enjoyable to listen to, and convincing in form. Tim was good enough to share the score of his piece with me, and I was struck by his sensitivity to the performer’s need to breathe – demonstrated by a large number of skillfully incorporated rests, breath marks, and frequent fermatas over rests – and the fact that the pieces stays within a very friendly register (presumably another stipulation of the performer). The highest note of the piece is the written E natural (sounding D natural) three ledger lines above the staff, and though this pitch sounds quite high and climactic (particularly if this register is reserved for key moments and approached carefully, as it is in Tim’s work), it is well within the bounds of what the average clarinetist can execute successfully without much danger of mishap.
Tim’s work makes a convincing argument in favor of “playing it safe” with regard to instrumental technique, and suggests that this kind of “safety” does not in any way limit a composer’s ability to write good music. Why, then, do so many of us – including myself and veteran composer Eric Mandat – persist in writing difficult music?
In my own composing, I often feel trapped into writing difficult moments; the music seems to want this or that, I can’t find a better solution, and so I ask the performer if this or that is possible. The answer is often “yes – unfortunately.” Some years ago, I was present when guitarist Jonathan Leathwood recounted a conversation in which a fellow performer made a distinction between “impossible” music like the work of Brian Ferneyhough (which invites a certain amount of “faking” on the part of the performer), and music like Elliott Carter’s string quartets, unbelievably difficult yet “unfortunately possible.” Mandat, who is both a performer and a composer, seems to think that the “unfortunately possible” is worth writing, even if it may not always come off exactly the way he wants in performance. Perhaps the answer to my initial question – should we take risks or play it safe when it comes to instrumental technique – really depends on the individual who asks it. For me, I think the answer hinges on the answers to a few other questions: am I willing to accept something less than technical perfection in the performance? Do I care enough about this or that musical idea to run the risk of it possibly not happening at all? Finally, is this kind of writing in my best interests and in the best interests of the people I’m writing for? I continue to search for the answers to all of these questions with each new piece I write…