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10 Female Composers You Should Know (and their clarinet pieces)

I noticed that this was making the rounds on Twitter again this morning, and I thought that since those women are all deceased, and most of them working before the clarinet was a viable instrument to write for, I’d come up with my own list. Sometimes I don’t find it easy to balance my programmes, especially solo programmes (I have yet to come across one single work by a female composer for solo contrabass clarinet, for example!), so here’s a list of ten female composers who have interesting solo or chamber music pieces for clarinet. If you’re a clarinetist and interested in scores for any of these (with the exception of the Lim and Koumará pieces, to which I’ve linked their publishers), please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, or better yet, the composers themselves.

The list reflects a significant personal bias: I’ve played clarinet works by all of these composers, and am commenting here on those works. I’ve also made my selection based on a number of factors, including feasibility of performance, a variety of difficulties and a mix of solo and chamber repertoire. Natacha Diels, for example, who wrote a great solo piece for me, isn’t listed here simply because her piece involves so much extra equipment.

I’ve put this together mostly by scouring the Internet and my own score collection – if your music or photograph is up here and you’d rather it wasn’t, of if I haven’t provided appropriate credit, just let me know!

In no particular order…

Ann Cleare

Something I’ve always been interested in is how composers deal with the fragility of certain sonic aspects of the clarinet, and this list of composers is highly reflective of that interest. Cleare’s clarinet writing is full of things that break and shift, flicker and move compulsively. Her eyam series is a group of five pieces for clarinets and flutes, all of which “deal with ideas of isolation and infiltration”. She divides her clarinet writing into different “languages” which are, in eyam i (it takes an ocean not to), represented by different colours in the score. Green, for example, represents “an extremely turbulent and fibrous element, vicious and difficult to escape from”. The material is in low registers, loud and violent: flutter tongue, growling, small glissandi. Blue, on the other hand, is “hypnotic but nascent, a calm and patient language”: chorales of spread multiphonics at soft dynamics.

You can learn more about Cleare’s work on her website, and check out the other pieces in the eyam series: eyam ii (taking apart your universe) for contrabass clarinet solo and ensemble; eyam iii (if it’s living somewhere outside of you) for solo bass flute shadowed by one low wind instrument and one string instrument; eyam iv (Pluto’s farthest moons) for contrabass flute, ensemble, and electronics; eyam v (woven)  for contrabass flute, contrabass clarinet, and orchestra.

Lisa Streich

I met Streich while she was still a student of Johannes Schöllhorn’s in Cologne, but she’s quickly becoming a household name. My ensemble, hand werk, recently recorded her Pietà, for motorised ‘cello and ensemble, but I first got to know her work through her piece Asche, for clarinet and cello. Written for Åsa Åkerberg and Shizuyo Oka of ensemble recherche, the piece is a 15 minute long tour de force in the extremes of quiet and loud. The piece is difficult for both players, but the endurance required of the clarinetist is particularly extreme — I think the only performance we gave of this piece where I felt successful was in a concert in which I only had one other piece to play. But it is well worth the struggle.

Learn more about her work here.

Irene Galindo Quero

I have a bit of a soft spot for music that includes transcriptions of field recordings (a hangover from my west coast BC upbringing, perhaps!), and I have an enormous soft spot for Quero’s music, so the piece she wrote for hand werk in 2012 (commissioned by Cologne’s new talents festival), A handful of earth, was a bit of a dream. Scored for violin, cello, percussion, clarinet in A and tape, none of the parts are particularly difficult but require sensitivity: both to the balance with the other players and to the sound world of the tape part. The clarinet writing involves some very intelligent use of breath sounds and some relatively easy overblown multiphonics. Learn more about Quero’s work on her website.

Here’s a live recording of A handful of earth by Ensemble Modern:

Liza Lim

Lim hardly needs an introduction, but her solo Bb clarinet piece, Sonorous Body, certainly does. It’s a beautiful work that takes full advantage of the rich possibilities of the clarinet. Quartertones and colour fingerings are here expertly handled (thanks to collaboration with clarinetist Richard Haynes), and I love the shift between leapy lyrical writing and breathy trills. This was one of the first solo pieces I learned after I started getting serious about new music, and I think it’s a great choice: there’s a lot to learn from it. Also: don’t be distressed if you find the finger “pops” from measure 71 frustratingly difficult. They are. The score can be purchased here, and you can listen to a recording of Haynes playing it below.

Lim’s duo for cello and clarinet in A, Inguz, is also rather magnificent, for many of the same reasons.

Georgia Koumará

I love the way that Koumará’s work has such a playful and detailed approach to the theatrical, while the music still stands on its own (and isn’t easy!). Her piece for hand werk, Walk in and find your supper! (commissioned for the 2016 new talents festival), asks the winds and strings to play a game with their colleague:

The clarinet and bass clarinet writing here is fairly virtuosic, mixing fast quarter tone passages with multiphonics and speaking.

I also wrote an article that includes a discussion of how we rehearsed this piece  for Divergence Press. Koumará is now published by Edition Plante. And do check out her soundcloud.

Elnaz Seyedi

Seyedi wrote a piece for hand werk (in the photo above she’s seated between Christoph Stöber and Daniel Agi, the pianist and flautist of the ensemble) last year as part of our collaboration — called Kurzwelle — with ON Neue Musik Köln.

You can hear her piece, Fragmente einer Erinnerung (Fragments of a Memory) on the CD on our Bandcamp site. As the title suggests, the work (scored for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and cello) is about memory, or perspective shifts in memory.

Her clarinet writing moves between the severe and the delicate, and is always very, very specific. We had countless conversations about each sound, especially when it came to the multiphonics. This same attention to detail can be heard in all of the instrumental parts.

Chikako Morishita

Morishita and I met while studying at the University of Huddersfield, and her piece for solo clarinet, Lizard (shadow), was written in collaboration and as part of my PhD (it also follows on a previous piece, Lizard, for clarinet, viola and koto). I played the piece more than a dozen times, memorising it for a performance at the Zagreb Biennale and recording it for HCR/NMC, and in every rehearsal what Morishita asked for was more space. It was a fairly unique piece to perform, as time seemed to slow down in a way that was highly unusual on stage. The following is a live recording from the premiere in Helsinki, but you can also hear the work on Ptelea.

 

Lin Yang

Yang, who was born in Beijing and studied in Cologne, has two chamber works including the clarinet, …als eines… (for bass clarinet, double bass and trombone) and ich bin nicht ich (for clarinet and percussion). I came to know of her, however, through her beautiful piece for bass clarinet solo, Nach Norden. She uses colour fingerings and simple multiphonics to great effect (along with a preparation of the bass clarinet towards the end of the piece). The piece has a nice sense of pace and atmosphere, and the individual techniques are not too difficult, making it a good choice for a bass clarinetist relatively new to new music.

Here’s a live recording from Cologne:

Lina Järnegard

Järnegard’s music is comparatively new to me — one of a few recent discoveries following some concerts played in Sweden over the last year or so. I’ve had her Emellanåt, stundom (occasionally, sometimes), scored for clarinet, ‘cello and piano, on repeat at home all morning. You can hear it (along with other works) here.

The work is striking for its drama, and the use of the clarinet techniques is extensive: bending, glissandi, multiphonics, flutter and slap: but this is no box of tricks, the way she writes for the clarinet is seamlessly integrated into her musical language.

Sungji Hong

I discovered Hong’s work through one of her most fervent collaborators, my colleague, flautist Carla Rees. She’s written a number of pieces for flute, including pieces for flute and electronics and a flute concerto and has a lot of chamber music that includes the clarinet. Her Bisbiglio, for clarinet, flute and piano, movies at a relatively steady pulse, and besides some timbral trills, doesn’t include any extended techniques, making it a good choice for a clarinetist new to new music.