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A different approach

By Eileen Mack


I recently travelled with the band Victoire for a brief residency at the music school of a large university. As well as performing a concert, we spoke to the music majors there on the topic of “alternative career paths” in classical music. By “alternative” I mean career paths other than playing in an orchestra or teaching at an academic institution. In our case, the musicians of Victoire all work predominantly in the performance and composition of contemporary classical music.

During the workshop one of the school’s composition students asked me how I approach playing the clarinet in Victoire differently from how I approach playing clarinet in Newspeak, another contemporary music ensemble I perform with and co-direct. It was a good question, and showed that the asker had done enough background research to know how much these two ensembles differ. It was the kind of question that might lead to long and interesting discussions. But it stumped me; I simply hadn’t thought about my playing in these terms before.

In some ways the question made no sense to me. All I could answer was, “I don’t.” As far as I was concerned my approach to these two projects was the same as my approach to any piece of music. I put the music on my stand, figure out the technical requirements and stylistic characteristics, and play it. Does that count as an approach? If so, I approach all music in the same way. Compare these two excerpts from Newspeak and Victoire:

Newspeak
B & E (with aggravated assault)
By Oscar Bettison
From the album sweet light crude

Listen to this track.

Victoire
Cathedral City
By Missy Mazzoli
From the album Cathedral City

It’s true that these two excerpts sound different from one another. Oscar Bettison’s work is louder and more aggressive (as well as being played on bass clarinet). The Victoire track (written by Missy Mazzoli) is less accented, more mellifluous. But I don’t put on vastly different hats when I perform with these two groups. Over the next few weeks the question continued to bother me. Did I have different approaches? Should I have different approaches?

Perhaps, I thought, I would have answered differently if the question had mentioned projects I’ve worked on that were stylistically further from one of these excerpts — like playing works by Matthias Spahlinger with Wet Ink or Oliver Knussen with Signal Ensemble. If I moved between more widely separated styles — like classical music or jazz or Klezmer — then perhaps I would switch “approaches” between styles (a question I look forward to discussing with colleagues). Or perhaps it would have made more sense if I had been asked if I approach playing something older like Mozart differently to the more contemporary music I usually play. In that case, having considered the piece stylistically, I would try to use Mozart-appropriate timbres, phrasing and articulations. But it’s all the same process — choosing techniques and stylistic elements that are appropriate — that I would follow for any piece. The specifics of the end result are different, but it doesn’t seem like an entirely different approach.

Most musical instruments (and I might with bias say especially the clarinet) have the potential to make an enormously wide range of sounds. This is one of the underpinnings of the explosion of modern music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the classical tradition for various reasons — acoustic and aesthetic (enough for another post) — instrumentalists have tended to stay within a smaller range of possible sounds. However, from the 1950s onwards, composers and performers, perhaps spurred on by the infinite sonic possibilities of electronic music, experimented a lot more with sounds that in the past had been rejected as incorrect — so-called extended techniques: multiphonics, air sounds, squeaks, different articulations, etc. These days as a performer it is pretty much de rigueur to learn to use and control at least some of these extended techniques.

The compositional landscape we inhabit now is, happily, stylistically diverse, with composers taking inspiration from any and all past streams of classical music, as well as from other kinds of music and from pure sound. So instead of always having exactly the same set of tones and articulations, an instrumentalist might at times use not just “extended” techniques but timbres and techniques borrowed from other kinds of music or even other instruments.

The result is that one player can be equipped with a huge range of sound possibilities. Each piece, or situation, involves the choice of a range of sounds, like colors from a paintbox: for Mozart a particular sound world; for Spahlinger another; still others for Knussen or Mazzoli or Bettison. Of course there is almost always overlap, as many of the basic sounds and techniques will be the same. So, to answer the original question: instead of “approach” I would say that each piece has a different “palette” and within that are different techniques and timbres that are achieved in various ways (which is perhaps what the question was intended to be about). The important thing is to “approach” each piece as being open to a full range of possibilities, so that a piece by Lachenmann doesn’t necessarily have to sound like one by Mozart, or Mazzoli like Bettison.

Clarinetist Eileen Mack grew up in Australia and is now based in New York. She is a member of post-minimalist band Victoire and the amplified ensemble Newspeak (which she also co-directs), and has performed with many other New York new music groups including Wet Ink, Alarm Will Sound, Signal Ensemble, the Bang on a Can All Stars and the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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Image credit: Clarinet. © THEPALMER via iStockphoto.

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Recent Comments

  1. Gene W.

    Maybe it depends on more on the composer than the music. Each one has a unique footprint that a good musician understands and follows.

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