…on clarinet articulation

Bit of a monster post for you today, so I won’t waste too much time with introducing it. Basically I’m going to cover all the different ways the tongue and throat can be involved when playing the clarinet. From the basics of tonguing (tenuto, staccato, changing consonants), to extended techniques (flutter tongue, slap tongue), to stuff you don’t see all that often (shaking the clarinet, flute and trumpet embouchures)… I’m going to try to cover it all. If there’s something I’ve forgotten, or there’s something that’s not clear, please leave a comment!

(I apologise for the sound quality of a few of these examples. My Interface stopped speaking to my laptop towards the end of my recording session, so there are 4 examples where I’ve had to just record using my laptop microphone. If I get it working again I’ll update the sound files!)

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…on using the register key

Something that’s started to interest me recently when it comes to clarinet writing and collaboration with composers, is the generation of material. I love these long collaborative meetings where you just sit together and generate material for its own sake. And I love seeing what makes it into the piece later, and what doesn’t. That’s basically what my whole PhD was about.

It seems to me that a lot of the time when working with composers, generating material comes down to things like “well, that’s great, but can you do and b… at the same time?” It’s all about layers, and isolation of various bits of the instrument and then layering all those isolations. Fun stuff. And it’s about developing an understanding about how certain aspects of the instrument function and how you can use them. Sometimes this is about taking one note and adding layers of different articulations, singing, multiphonics, etc. on top.

Today, I’m going to show you how manipulations of the register key can generate some beautiful and interesting effects, and while the effects are beautiful in themselves, I think/hope that for composers who are interested in isolating various aspects of technique, this could also prove to be interesting on that level.

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… on bass clarinet preparations

I started thinking more seriously about preparing the bass clarinet after Aaron Einbond used it in his (awesome) piece, Resistance, for prepared bass clarinet and live electronics. I originally assumed that it wouldn’t be so useful: one can only prepare the bass clarinet by preparing the bell, and therefore only the lowest note (the written C) is affected. That said, there are actually a lot of different things one can use to prepare the bass clarinet with, and a lot of interesting sound material one can develop by making use of these preparations. So grab some good headphones, or good speakers as there are a load of audio examples in this post and my laptop speakers at least aren’t really up to them…

A few things to remember:

  • Changing preparations takes a little time. I’d say probably a little more time than changing from Bb to A clarinet, as one has to be quite careful in most cases that the preparation is properly covering the bell.
  • I’ve never managed to find a way to change preparations while standing. It’s totally awkward to try to reach for the bell while harnessed into the instrument, and always seemed like too much of a risk to take the instrument out of the harness in the middle of the piece. So I’ve always had to play Einbond’s piece sitting down.
  • Make sure the clarinetist in question is okay with having various things attached to the bell, or put inside the bell. My ratty old bell doesn’t seem to mind it and I’ve never scratched it or needed any kind of repair because of my preparation experiments, but its possible not everyone will feel the same way I do.
  • Bluetack is your friend. This is what I use to seal the vent hole, and it’s what I use to protect the instrument from the metal edges of the bulldog clip. If you’re a composer, bring some along when you want to try these things out with a clarinetist.
  • When I talk about opening and closing, or sealing, the vent hole, this is what I’m talking about:


  • If the clarinetist has never manually covered the vent hole in performance before, it takes a little practise to get used to where it is. You can have socks on, but it doesn’t work with shoes. I generally aim to shove the joint of my big toe into the vent hole. If the vent hole needs to be covered for the duration of the piece, it can be done so with bluetack or whitetack or some other similar substance:


And now for the preparations…


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…on soprano clarinet glissandi

During my undergrad, I loved glissandi. I learned how to do them before anyone else in my class (a combination of stubbornness and being a repressed jazzer), and in my third year we did a performance of Kagel’s 1898, the performance of which featured a fairly death-defying downwards glissando. Not sure I’ll ever forget the look on our conductor’s face the first time I managed it, nor the way he said, “How do you do that?”

I guess the point is that glissandi are fun. But they’re quite hard to understand for composers, because they aren’t easy in all registers and what individual performers can or can not do affects a lot. It’s a big issue really, and to be truly comprehensive, I should have done months of research. But as with last week’s post, what I’m going to do is I’m just going to share a little knowledge and understanding, and then provide as many examples as I can. Questions? Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

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…on writing air sounds for clarinets

Recently, a composer sent me an e-mail asking a number of questions about air sounds. I made a number of recordings for him, and thought it seemed like the perfect excuse for a blog post on the subject. A lot of these questions get asked over and over again, so this blog post aims to serve as a kind of introduction to writing air sounds for Bb and bass clarinet.

This post doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, at least, not right off the bat. I’m hoping that you’ll leave comments with your questions, and I’ll try my best to address them all. I’m sure there are plenty of things I haven’t thought about, and I’ll update this post as the questions come rolling in.

There are plenty of sound files here. Things are fairly quiet (with a fairly close mic), so I’d recommend some headphones. And anytime I mention pitch, we’re talking about transposed pitches. Bb clarinet a major second higher; Bass clarinet a major 9th higher.

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on chamber music

A few weeks ago, as part of a week long residency at Bangor University (specifically to play a rockin’ concert with Xenia Pestova and Carla Rees), I was asked to lead a workshop on chamber music performance. I don’t teach very often, so it was a great forum for developing my own thoughts in terms of what skills I’ve developed over the last three years, principally as a member of hand werk.

Just over two years isn’t a particularly long time to be working as an ensemble, but it seems to me that it’s at this point that one starts to feel a sense of consistency on stage. Even when we aren’t as individuals feeling our best (exhaustion at the end of our tour has been a contributing factor recently), we are still capable of delivering a high energy and convincing performance. It’s taken us more than two years and approximately 40 concerts to get there. I’ve had that sense for some time in my own solo performance, so it comes as both a thrill and a great relief that this is also possible in terms of chamber music.

This post, then, serves to offer some general advice for those interested in furthering their own chamber music skills, whether as students or as young professionals aiming to form a new group. In the future, I’d like to do a post on very specific musical advice, but today I’ll keep things general and socially-oriented.

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the cologne new music scene

This article was published in German this week in the ON magazine (online version is here). The magazine features a number of articles from local interpreters, composers and even dancers, discussing their experience of the scene here in Cologne. Here follows the original English of my contribution:

I grew up in a small town on the west coast of Canada, a town too small to be able to speak of a new music scene. I studied there, later in London, England, and still later in Huddersfield: a small town with a vibrant and active new music scene, and home to one of the best new music festivals in Europe. I moved to Cologne three years ago; before that, I had only performed a handful of times on the continent.

Within the first six months of moving to Cologne, I had already performed more new music professionally than in my entire life up until that point.

There is no doubt that the new music scene in Cologne is active, diverse and open-minded. There is no doubt in my mind that Cologne achieves balance between supporting both resident groups and foreign visitors, and that the city has an increasingly strong reputation for being a hub for new music.

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the kölner musiknacht: another performance paradigm

Some time ago, I wrote at length about my ensemble‘s last experiment with the audience-performer relationship through an alternative concert situation, our Unter Vier Ohren project. As I’ve been so focused on developing audience-performer/ensemble relationships, the Kölner Musiknacht seemed the perfect venue to develop some of this thinking!

For the first time since moving to Cologne, I’ve been able to participate as an observer in the Kölner Musiknacht, an evening-long event that takes place once a year in 25 venues across the city, with dozens of musicians/ensembles taking part. Concerts start every hour and each programme is intended to take just 40-minutes, allowing audience members to (quickly!) move between venues. In principle, it’s a perfect concept and a great way to experience a lot of music in one evening while seeing a great deal of the city. The size of Cologne is also ideal: one can be just about anywhere in twenty minutes, so what other cities spend an entire night on, we can do in the course of an evening. (The city doesn’t just apply this to music: the Kölner Theaternacht takes place on October 2.)

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knitting for clarinetists: the bell-protector

Bit of a fluff piece on the blog today (hua hua). A couple of years ago I was working on Gerard Grisey’s Solo pour Deux for clarinet and trombone with the incomparable Steve Menotti.

At the very beginning of the piece, the clarinetist inserts the bell of her instrument into that of the trombone repeatedly. We were a little concerned about any extraneous noise (or damage to the trombone) caused by the clarinet hitting the trombone, so after considering a few less-fun solutions I created this:


It didn’t have to be yellow I suppose. No, actually it did. But I could make more of them in just about any colour you can think of, so if there are other clarinetists out there who are interested in having one of these, don’t hesitate to get in touch. (Let’s say, €20?)

competitions: some ramblings and a few questions

Recently, I’ve been asked to consider the reasons why I participate in composition competitions. I really wanted to address some of the problems with competitions, but instead I’ve just rambled positively about one of my favourite projects in the hope that other festivals will run something similar in the future (and hire us to play, obviously). So I’m going to ramble, and then I’m going to speculate, and then I’m going to ask some questions. I do hope you (yes you, composer in the back) manage to read that far, as I do what your answers!

In essence, my ensemble takes on concerts that involve competitions because we are sometimes asked to do concerts that involve competitions.

We have never started one ourselves, and competitions as a strategy for repertoire building or promotion were never part of our original mission statement. That said, the ones we have done so far have resulted in some of our most culturally, geographically and musically diverse programmes. It is not all we do, but it is a part of our work together that I relish. And as many of you have already read, I have a great deal to relish.

My competition-love mostly stems from our participation in the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, so I’d like to describe our participation in this festival in some detail, as it seems to me to be a fairly ideal situation for all involved.

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