Index / TOC (scroll down for recent blogposts)

It takes anywhere between 2 and 10 hours to create each blog post.
If you found this blog useful, and if you’d like to see more,
you can support me on Patreon for less than the cost of a coffee

Dear composers – when I started this blog I had just finished my PhD, and had lots of free time to work on the blog and answer your questions, as I was just starting to find my way in freelance new music playing. Now, unfortunately, it’s getting difficult. I receive many e-mails from composers with scores and questions every week, and while answering them is a great pleasure for me, I no longer have the time to keep up with them. If you don’t get a response to your e-mail, please understand, it’s better if I spend the time working on new posts (or, you know, practising ;). I’m very sorry about this, but I wish you all much luck and fun with your clarinet writing!

air sounds eb clarinet no mouthpiece speaking
aluminum foil flute embouchure preparations spectral multiphonic
articulation flutter tongue quarter tones tongue ram
bending glissandi register key trills
 composer advice history repertoire trumpet embouchure
double tongue  ‘how to’s for clarinetists shaking water
double trills  multiphonic singing whistling
dyads  CONTRA slap tongue

Table of Contents


The Basics:

On multiphonics:

Special Techniques: 

Specifically for Clarinetists:

On Repertoire:

…on a historical approach to the sound of the clarinet

 Other Popular Posts:

Posted in performance | 2 Comments

On Being a Composer, Lessons from a Tweet Gone Viral

A few days ago, in a minor fit of pique over a virtual project with some students, I tweeted the following:

Now, I wasn’t expecting this tweet to have more than 40 or 50 likes (as is fairly par for any tweet I make about new musicking). But instead, it passed the 500 mark. And what’s more, people started commenting. And the comments were full of advice about how to teach composers and how to be a composer. And the comments were for the most part useful, thoughtful, occasionally quite funny.

And so I wanted to sum up a little of what was suggested, as I think there were some really useful tidbits here. So if you’re a composer who is studying, or teaching, I hope these help you. They aren’t in any specific order, nor have I credited any of the tweeters – check out the thread if you want more!

Your First Collaborators Should Be Each Other

A lot of people suggested that composers should learn by writing for their peers. I’m inclined to agree, since this is how I got started in new music: growing up and doing my undergrad in a fairly isolated place, composers didn’t have access to visiting ensembles. So I played a lot of their pieces. Most of my friends were composers, from the beginning. This obviously had a big impact on me, but I was also lucky, as were the composers I studied with. Obviously this isn’t a perfect system: by only writing for other 18-24 year-olds, you don’t get a complete picture of what’s possible. Still other commenters suggested a mix of experiences with professionals and students, and using that experience to see the difference.

If you are writing for less experienced players, using the ABRSM guides is a really useful place to start. Looking at the pieces for Grade 8 for the instrument you’re writing for would be a great place to see what the technical abilities of a first or second year undergrad might be.

Working with Professional Groups Isn’t All Fluffy Bunnies and Rainbows

Many have complained of bad experience with professional groups: musicians saying something is “impossible” when it’s just difficult and un sight-readable. First of all, I think it’s really important to remember that not all musicians are the same. If you’re in the position of hiring groups for these gigs, do a little research: does the group have a history of collaboration? what are they like in these workshops (i.e., who else has hired them and can they be contacted for a reference?)? A little background research goes a long way. Similarly, be generous: these workshops are usually underpaid for the amount of work required. If you’re a student, use them to try things out and experiment, but don’t send them pages and pages of gymnastics just because you want to hear them do everything. Freelance performers lead very complicated and busy lives, and yes, sometimes we just don’t have time to practice your piece for 5 hours when we’re paid £150 for a workshop.

Also, learn from your peers. I’ve said this in a past blogpost, but it’s really important that you look at the scores of your peers and go to their rehearsals. It’s not just about “having your piece played”, it’s about the learning experience you have.

Your First Collaborator Should be Yourself

Many people suggested writing for yourself to start. Or learn a new instrument and then try to write for that one.

Touch as many Instruments as you can

The tactility of just holding an instrument, pressing its keys, feeling the weight in our hands can teach us a lot about the physicality of performance. It also reminds us of the effort involved. Learn to take it apart (if it comes apart), learn about all it’s pieces, how it’s cared for. The instrument is the performer’s closest companion.

If you don’t have access to a physical instrument, mime it. Watch videos of people playing that instrument, and then mime it yourself.

If you’re writing for strings, having a paper fingerboard is really useful. See this one as an example, by Donald Martino, available here.

Better yet: learn the basics of as many instruments as possible. Improvise on them.

Or, and here’s a very specific wind tip: learn to compose for historical wind instruments. It’s a great way to learn about what is idiomatic and what isn’t. Someone also suggested learning to make instruments.

Learn to Conduct your Music

Learning to conduct your own music is another great way to experience it physically. It’s also a great way to prepare for a workshop as it may help you to find some sticky points that will need extra rehearsing, and if the ensemble doesn’t already have a conductor and need some help, you can leap up to save the day. (I have been in workshops where we’ve called on composers to do this spontaneously, which I understand is scary – but we’re really not trying to embarrass you when we do this.)

Put Away the Computer

A lot of people have relayed experiences whereby first year composers weren’t allowed to use a computer to compose/notate. I don’t think this kind of limitation – especially if only temporary – is a bad thing. I think if the composer who inspired my initial tweet had needed to handwrite out every note he wrote, he would definitely have done things differently.

(Going to emphasise again that I’m suggesting this as a temporary limitation!)

I love handwritten scores. I know it’s not for every composer. But I think that slowing-down process is probably a useful experience for a lot of people. A good friend of mine went through a phase of hand-copying other people’s scores, just to slow down and to really look at what the composers he admired most were doing. He learned a lot from it.

(It’s been brought to my attention that insisting on handwritten scores excludes people who have certain disabilities or can’t read music, so I won’t be doing it. But I’d like to gently suggest it, for those who can.)

Listen, Listen, Listen and Listen

This was overwhelmingly the usual reply: get students to listen to more music with scores, go to more concerts, watch more rehearsals. And YouTube makes it easy to get started with this wherever you are (and whatever your current corona restrictions may be): spending a couple of hours with Score Follower/incipitisfy each week would go a long way.

Oh and: if someone in your department is organising trips to go and watch rehearsals of a local ensemble, for goodness’ sake: GO.

Especially if it’s chamber music. Chamber music and all its complexities are just the best thing in the world.

Remember you are Writing for a Musician and not an Instrument

This! For me a lot of this stuff boils down to this. If you are writing a solo piece (particularly), you are writing for me and not for the clarinet. There are things I enjoy doing more than others, and I have particular strengths and weaknesses (my single tonguing is embarrassingly slow). Check out the musician’s soundcloud, their website, listen to how they play, watch videos to get an idea of the physicality of their performance. This stuff is really important and is a big part of collaboration. Even if it’s a student workshop and you’re not going to get a lot of time with that musician, you can create a kind of “imaginary” collaboration by going through this process.

Think About Colour Instead of Pitch

Instruments are magical because of the colours they create. All of them more or less make the same pitches. But colours are unique and change given dynamics and register. Get into it.

Or another way to think of this is: the notes are just one part of the piece. If you’ve only thought about them, you’re not finished yet.

Constantly ask yourself: what is missing from the score? What “can’t” a score communicate?

Make Mistakes

I for one would far rather have a student in a workshop make loads of mistakes (those are the things you learn from) than come in with a score that’s perfect, and boring.

Change the way Composition is Taught

This section should probably be a whole new blog post. But if you’re a teacher, and you just see visiting performers as the last step, that’s a problem. If there’s a way to have us more involved from the beginning, choose that way. If there’s a way to have your students learn from us, rather than just have us perform, on stage, set apart from them, choose that way.

Not every performer likes teaching composition (this one does), but a lot of us do, even we if we don’t know it yet, or wouldn’t define it that way.

Posted in advice | 1 Comment

The Garden of Forking Paths Symposium!

Hi everyone —

As some of you are already aware, I’m a consultant for an AHRC funded research project based at the University of Leeds at the moment, led by Dr. Scott McLaughlin.

And the project is hosting a symposium!

It will take place (either in real life or online, depending on you-know-what) April 16-17 2021. If you’d like to submit a proposal for a workshop, demonstration, paper, or discussion, they’re due December 1, 2020.

For more information, go here.

Posted in performance | Leave a comment

A third option for multiphonic explanations…

Me again — another video for you (please do follow my channel if you use YouTube regularly, as I’m not sure how consistent I’ll be with posting videos here!).

I’ve done what I think is a thorough playthrough of multiphonic #92 from this post, showing different pitches and some articulation options. I think this might be better than just doing an improvisation, as it’s a little more structured – what do you think? Feel free to leave a comment here on the YouTube post – really genuinely curious to know what composers think of this kind of detailed explanation of single sounds (before I carry on making dozens more of these!). Especially: what’s missing?

(By the way, I’ve decided to take an extended – possibly permanent – break from most social medias, except instagram. So if you like the content here, I suggest following the blog via your RSS reader or via the e-mail link in the right hand column!)

 

Posted in performance | Leave a comment

Playing with some new ways to demo multiphonics…

Hello everyone – hope you’re all keeping well.

I’ve been silent on the blog for awhile now, but not because I haven’t been working on a few things. I have two videos (!) to share with you, and I’d really love to have your feedback.

The first is a video of one of my own multiphonic miniatures (MMs). As some of you may know, Scott McLaughlin and I started a call for MMs at the beginning of the UK lockdown, and what we’ve got back has been interesting in itself, and wonderful to see what you’ve come up with. However, it’s also been clear to Scott and I that the resources to think outside the box with multiphonics simply don’t exist.

And so one of the big questions for us is: is it at all possible to help composers to have an intuitive and wide understanding of multiphonic sound production without an embodied experience of the instrument?

One of my thoughts has been to take a break from making charts, and to do more sharing of examples, to put multiphonics in context so that you can hear and see (and have me explain) what’s going on.

So there are two videos here, and I’d love to have your feedback on them. Is any of this useful? Are some aspects more useful than others? What would you like to see more of?

They both approach this from two different angles:

  1. I’ve been writing my own multiphonic miniatures, in which I try to use a limited range of multiphonics, and to play around with different limitations. In this video (eventually: these videos) you’ll hear me play through my miniature (with the score on one side), and then I’ll explain the multiphonics I chose, what limitation I was using, and what the results were.
  2. In this video I take one multiphonic and do a little improvisation with it, playing with the different pitches that come out. These videos are short, and the explanations appear as text in the video (along with the fingering and pitch chart). (I picked this multiphonic at random, but what I think I’d like to do is go through my “easy multiphonics” post and do a video on each of them!)

And if you like this stuff, please subscribe to my channel!

 

Posted in performance | Leave a comment

Multiphonics from the Top Down: Playing with G6 fingerings

One of the things that Scott McLaughlin and I have spent a lot of time doing during our Forking Paths time is to try to explore ways of turning clarinet technique on its head and seeing what comes out of that. That’s how we ended up playing with extreme scordatura, for example.

Scott wrote really eloquently on how we came to exploring fingerings for the (written) G6, so I suggest before reading any further here, you check out his post on the subject. There’s nothing particularly special about the pitch we chose for this exercise, other than it seems to offer the most possibilities in terms of alternative fingerings — I think it also sits at the perfect balancing points between altissimo and altississimo registers, offering a lot in terms of both stable and unstable multiphonics. You could definitely attempt the same with other multiphonics.

The most fun part of this particular session was when clarinetist Jon Sage joined us, and Jon and I did a series of guided improvisations with Scott’s input, always trying to maintain the G in the sound, while exploring different fingerings. You can hear these tests on Scott’s link. I think they’re rather beautiful. Totally lacking in stability, and in fact made more unstable by the fact that both of us were playing at the same time. It was sometimes rather difficult to tell who was making what sound. I loved it.

Anyway, here are ten of the G6 fingerings we explored, first conceived as a “top-down” multiphonic from the high G, and then I also play through the other pitch possibilities and the ultra-underblow option (see the attached post if you don’t know what I’m talking about!).

 

Pitches Fingering Sound Notes?
G6p-01 G6f-01
G6p-02 G6f-02
G6p-03 G6f-03
G6p-05 G6f-05
G6p-06 G6f-06
G6p-07 G6f-07
G6p-08 G6f-08
G6p-10 G6f-10 Note that the closest pitch from the fundamental on this one is actually a soft dyad, NOT an ultra-underblow!
G6p-11 G6f-11
G6p-16 G6f-16
Posted in performance | Leave a comment