Incarnadine for Clarinet Trio, or, My Week With Chaya

I had originally intended to write this post several weeks ago, before the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and my good friend Liam Hockley) premiered my latest piece, Incarnadine, on October 19 at the CMC in Vancouver.  Life got in the way, so I’m writing about it now.  The exciting part about this piece is that is was technically my first commission, as well as the first performance of a piece of mine to be fairly widely publicized, including in the Georgia Straight.  After the performance, Liam said that he’s “sure the piece will become a staple of the repertoire before long.”

I wrote Incarnadine over this past summer by request of the VCT, but the ideas in it stemmed primarily from Chaya Czernowin’s visit to Victoria this spring.  The UVic Orchestra, along with Ensemble Nikel, performed the North American premiere of Czernowin’s Zohar Iver (Blind Radiance) and she gave a public lecture, a masterclass and lessons with composers (including me).  In her lecture on February 29, she revealed that she shares many of my artistic concerns, especially those of fundamental dialectics inherent in the structure of music.  She sees musical material as being on a continuum of phenomenology to psychology (what I would call ontology).  This is most typified by her piece Anea Crystal for two string quartets, which is made up of two pieces, or “seeds”, which can be played simultaneously. Seed I comprises the psychological ” simple human voice, swimming in time,”  whereas Seed II is a phenomenological “view of stretched rubber bands.”  Czernowin also postulates a similar dialectic at play in composition, namely that Experimentation can be broken down into Innovation and Discovery.  To her, Innovation is an “extended area of action, an expansion into different areas” that seeks to “plant a new flag in the Arctic of the mind.”  This strikes me as very much the Wesleyan Experimental Music department typified in the post-Cageian, Lucier-inpired school of conceptual music (and thus the American avant-garde as a whole).  Czernowin emphasizes that the risk of this branch of Experimentation is one of posturing and excessive ego.  On the other hand, Discovery is marked by a more organic approach: “listening to what the new material wants to do, discovering what is immanent in the material.”  The risks inherent in this approach are developing a semi-religious, mystical personality.  Discovery seems to me to be a more European (especially Russian) approach, and it’s what I seem to tend towards more frequently.  Czernowin notes, however, that the compositional ideal is a balance of both aspects of Experimentation.

Czernowin also had a great deal to say about the composition more generally and what end up being the upper levels of Schnittke’s picture of the artistic process.  She stated that pitch material (and the other constituent parts of a piece) is not an end in itself; it must serve the fundamental concept/inquiry of the piece, and that the composer must invent a new technical device for each piece to fit its concept.  This something I’ve suspected for several years now: that one doesn’t really ever know how to compose, that one must relearn/construct a new method with each piece.  Czernowin also said: “something must be at stake in a piece, you must work towards something and be aware of it,” which I think is highly typified by my inability to start anything until I have an extremely clear idea of the concept and structure of what I’m going to write.  As for more traditional elements of music, she said: “[letting pitch material into my music] is like when a little doggie is allowed in the theatre. Everybody just looks at the doggie.” The dominance of genre markers such as clear harmonic and rhythmic material when they are introduced into a piece is pretty inescapable, which is why I only use them in my pieces when I am playing with those sorts of associations (and practically never in improvisation, but that’s another issue).  I am working, however, on ways of disassociating familiar material (especially harmonic material) from its traditional contexts and functions, inspired especially by late Schnittke, using, for instance, a minor triad as a neutral sound object that has no role besides occurring between what comes before and what comes after.  My idea is to create structure from the manipulation of juxtaposed elements for purely psychological effect.  This comes into play in Incarnadine, but mostly as a textural device, because of the nature of the material (as I will show below).  I will definitely be writing more about this nascent compositional philosophy in the future.

My lesson with Chaya on February 28 was also fantastic.  She is one of the most perceptive teachers I’ve ever met, noticing basically all of the problem I’ve had over the past five years while only looking at the first movement of my grad piece.  She correctly pointed out (within less than five minutes of seeing it) that the beginning was considerably more detailed (and therefore better), since I spent two months on the first minute and then another two months on the next 18 minutes.  I told her that I thought there was too much material and too many ideas in it, and that I should break it up into several pieces, to which she replied that it wasn’t necessarily true: it wasn’t that there was too much, just that the multifarious elements didn’t have enough depth in and of themselves to make the piece good enough, unlike, say, Berio’s Sinfonia.   She recommended that I try to write a longish piece (10-20 minutes) using only two ideas, exploring them fully in the manner of Scelsi or Feldman, as well as exploring all their possible interrelationships.  Several months later, I stumbled onto Rzewski’s structural scheme (discussed in my previous post), and the rest is history.

Incarnadine is based on two pieces of preexisting material: a quiet, high, clear, smooth idea that originally came from an exercise I wrote for viola and trombone for MUS562 at UVic in around November of 2009 and a loud, low, obscure, rough one that came from Fun Fat Meat Bullet for trumpet and tuba for The Workshop from April of this year, a 12 hour day of composition when we started writing pieces at 9AM, performers arrived at 2PM and we gave a concert at 8PM.  The first piece of material consists of a high C# (my favourite note on the clarinet since I was about 14) repeated in clarinet 2 while clarinet 1 alternates between repeating a smooth cell of pitch material (Eb – D – B – G – F#) and a repeated high E.  The second piece of material is mostly fluttertongued clusters at the bottom of the clarinet’s range separated by rests, but also has some multiphonics, of the harmonic, artificial and vocal varieties and timbral trills.  Ok, I confess that Incarnadine is basically in sonata form with two thematic groups, but they’re not used as such, the development is much more abstract and the recapitulation is highly irregular (as I will explain below).

I won’t give an exhaustive analysis, since there isn’t much to say about the piece on a micro-level.  Most of the pitches are either clusters or iterations of the cell from the first bit of material and any rhythmic and textural ideas are basically just juxtaposition of extremes.  Structurally, the piece is divided into 120 four-second segments, which are grouped into 18 irregular sections.  These sections employ the six relationships codified by Rzewski, with each type occurring three times.  For the “exposition” (three sections), the two “themes” are stated in Rzewski Type I, separated by a transition of Type II.  There then follows a “development” (14 sections) that gradually fragments the material and brings the two ideas closer together, cycling through all of the Rzewski types.  Most of the material in this section is long notes separated by rests, but the techniques involved make the texture continuously variable, giving a sound much more complex than the notation would suggest.  Finally, in the “recapitulation” (one section of Type VI) the two ideas are combined: the harmonics of the notes in the second theme in effect become the high notes from the first theme.  The very ending is this transformation in miniature, all three performers play fast figures at the bottom of their ranges while changing their embouchures/throat positions to gradually move up through Xenakis’ régions to VI (teeth on the reed), where the notes being fingered become only slightly differentiated squeaks.  After this climax, clarinet 1 plays a very long tone with copious amounts of saliva in the reed, creating a sort of “radio static” effect that contains snippets of harmonics, low fuzz, pops, whistles, etc., in effect containing the entire seed of the piece in one gesture.

Due to technical issues, there was no recording made of Incarnadine‘s debut, but the VCT has assured me that they will be making a studio recording sometime in the near future, which I will hopefully be able to post for your enjoyment, and they will be performing it in Victoria sometime in the new year.

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