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 Kagelhttps://heatherroche.wordpress.com/wp-admin/admin-ajax.php?post_id=542&action=grunion_form_builder&TB_iframe=true&width=768&id=add_form’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.
So one of the first things you might here is that it’s not possible to glissando upwards over the entire range of the instrument, because of the break between Bb4 and B4. I have definitely heard people who can do this better than I can. (In fact, I happen to live with someone who can do a darn near perfect job of it.) But this is what it sounds like when I make a fairly average stab of it:
It’s quite tricky, however. For a few reasons. The first is the keywork at the bottom end of the instrument (E3, F3 and F# in particular). Here’s what happens when I glissando very slowly over these notes; notice how you can kind of hear the keys lifting? It’s not very smooth, but I think it’s still a nice effect:
The second tricky thing is that break between Bb4 and B4. I ‘cheat’ my way over this by using the top two trill keys (sometimes called 12 and 13, sometimes B and Bb trills, depending on your fingering chart). I do it with my right hand thumb (so it would be even harder to do this trick standing up), but some clarinetists have hands that stretch enough that they can do it without changing their hand position.
It is, however, easy to do these fast and rough. I think it’s a totally viable effect, sounds great, very dramatic, etc. If you write a fast glissando from the bottom to the top of the clarinet, this is what it’s probably going to sound like if I play it:
Very easy upwards glissandi fall between D5 and C7. They can be performed fast or slow, whatever your preference:
In fact, not only can they be very easily controlled going up, but you can kind of wander with them a little (although we’ll talk about downwards direction glissandi in more detail in a moment):
Glissandi, especially quick ones or ones over long distances, sound most even when played at louder dynamics. They require a lot of support to stay full and complete. In the following sound clip I play 4 glissandi over the same range; the first two are played at the quietest dynamic possible without letting the sound drop, the last two are played as quiet as possible, allowing the sound to drop.
If you want really quiet little glissandi, I recommend trying these super slow low ones, wherein I just bend over a semitone or so at a time. They’re very easy (I’m generally just lifting keys super slowly) and they work pretty well:
Over the entire range of the clarinet, bending the pitch, to some extent, using only the embouchure (or the embouchure and the tongue, which is pressed heavily on a lower part of the reed), is possible. The extent to which one can bend depends on where the pitch lies in the range (higher more, lower less) and on what the player can do. If you’re a clarinet player and you’ve never played glissandi before, this is the effect to start with. If you can bend a high C downwards a major third, and do it in a controlled way, like this, you can easily perform glissandi (I promise):
Curious as to what happens when I bend too far? Interestingly, I eventually hit the lower register pitch of my starting fingering. In the case of the C6, it’s a slightly raised G4. What I didn’t realise until I started recording for this blog post, is that I can glissando my way back up and out of it again. I think it’s kind of cute:
The following example will, I hope, be useful. I’ve started at C7 and chromatically gone all the way down to the bottom of the instrument, demonstrating how much I can bend downwards with embouchure (I used a bit of tongue as well right towards the end, you can hear the pitch shaking a little). I wouldn’t necessarily recommend having a clarinetist perform this exercise as part of a piece, it’s really rather tiring. This is also a fairly average take, so I’m hoping it gives a kind of practical result. As in, this is what’s totally safe to write, and if you want to go a bit further, go for it.
Do note that, for instance, the very top three pitches are actually harder to bend far than from the A6 downwards. Things also get tricky as I approach the break, but get easy again once I’m in the throat of the instrument.
A lot of these downward glissandi can be faked with fingerings, which is what we’re going to talk about next.
Long downwards glissandi aren’t easy, but they’re definitely possible. The best way to practice them, which I learned from Ernesto Molinari, is to start on a high C, bend with embouchure towards the B and then just as your finger moves to cover the B, switch your embouchure back to it’s normal position. Continue down the scale. It sounds like this:
Then done smooth and slowly:
And then when done fast, like this:
You can hear that it’s a little big tricky going between G5 and F#5, ahem.
Bonus: Sung Glissandi
A fun, but slightly silly effect, it when the clarinetist plays a high note and then sings the glissando moving down and up. What one can hear quite prominently is the difference tone moving in reverse motion to the sung pitch:
Quite important and not always easy aspect of executing this technique is to make sure that you don’t glissando the high note as well.
Bonus: Spectral Multiphonic Glissandi
Do I even need to explain what these are? Probably not. These things are always easier on the bass clarinet (bigger instrument with a wider bore), but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used on the clarinet. I didn’t realise this before, but I find it much easier to go downwards with these, as you’re about to hear:
Like my post last week on air sounds, I hope that this gives you some information to get started with when writing clarinet glissandi. It of course doesn’t include every single possibility, so if you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and I’ll try to update this post accordingly! (You’ll notice that there’s no information about bass clarinet glissandi here. It’s simply because there was already so much information to share here today; I’ll write about the bass clarinet in a future post.)