9 Gateway Pieces to Contemporary Music for Pop Lovers

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In classical music, we’re regularly discussing how to attract new audiences, particularly from the huge number of adventurous pop music fans who are willing to try something different. Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, in his recent article for the Guardian, talks about offering audiences genuinely unique experiences: create engaging work and present it engagingly and people will engage.

Not only that, but these experiences will hopefully act as a kind of gateway to contemporary music. But for an outsider, it’s difficult to know how to get started. As an pop music listener wanting something new, how does one discover contemporary music? Online, and perhaps in most cases, by accident.

This was the case for my other half, pop music writer Sam Walton (Loud and Quiet regular and more recently blogger of “Twenty Years Ago Today”, about significant pop music from 1997), who began his journey into new music after reading an interview with Radiohead 20 years ago in which they signposted their fans towards Steve Reich.

He’s helped me to create a list of nine comparisons between contemporary classical music and pop, intended for curious pop music listeners, in which each counterpart piece has some artistic commonality with the other. While this blog normally hosts entries intended for the initiated contemporary classical music listener (and, for the most part, the composer), this post has the adventurous pop music listener in mind, the suggestions aiming to be portals to previously unencountered music.

I’ve tried to pick a mix of work: young people who are active and changing the new music landscape, an older generation at the height of their power, two who would be with us working still had they not died tragically young, and plenty of brilliant women. And I also provided a “What’s next” for each suggestion: I’m mostly freestyling here in my associations, but I hope they’re of interest. There are a lot of different avenues that contemporary classical music has gone down, so if one sub-genre doesn’t appeal to you, all is not lost. You might notice a lack of minimalist composers here: minimalism (Reich, Glass, Nyman, etc.) is fairly omnipresent these days; I wanted to expose some of the other sub-genres available to curious listeners.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the music you hear here, I recommend a few things:

1. If you love Godspeed you! Black Emperor, you might love Claude Vivier’s Zipangu.

I love Vivier’s music. I love his strange musical voice, so unlike anyone working at the time in his native Canada, or indeed the rest of the world. His Zipangu, for string orchestra, has a lot of the big unisons and dynamic contrast that will appeal to Godspeed fans, as will his drones and underlying distortion (listening to the work, it’s somehow easy to forget that it’s just strings we’re listening to, such is their power).



What’s next if you like this? Try Olga Neuwirth’s Clinamen/Nodus

2. If you love Flying Lotus then you might love Beat Furrer’s Spur

Furrer’s got such a great sense of bouncing movement and pulse here, a pulse that divides and shifts ever so slightly, making it a great companion for Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma. I love the way the light texture allows so much space to enjoy the feeling of being thrust into the future: just hold on to the piano part for dear life, and enjoy the ride — and by ride, I mean the subtle way in which the roles of the other instruments shift playfully.

Flying Lotus:


What’s next if you like this? Try Patricia Alessandrini’s menus morceaux par un autre moi réunis

3. If you love Joanna Newsom you might love Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you

Abrahamsen’s writing is spacious and beautiful, his melodies soar and the orchestration is lush and unusual. Nothing suits his compositional voice better than the soprano Barbara Hannigan – the purity, flexibility and emotion she is capable of gives weight to the music and the text, which comes from Paul Griffiths’ let me tell you, in which Ophelia tells the story of Hamlet from her perspective.



What’s next if you like this? Try Thierry Tidrow’s Die alten, bösen lieder

4. If you love Autechre you might love Elena Rykova’s 101% Mind Uploading

Here we have a unique way of “operating” on a piano combined with Rykova’s quirky sense of theatre: three percussionists dressed in hospital scrubs set up around a concert grand piano with its lid removed. But this isn’t prepared piano like John Cage imagined it. The piano is prepared, yes: but the percussionists also use their hands and various objects (mallets, e-bows, metal rods, etc.) to strike, pluck and strum the strings of the piano. Other percussion is also used, playing into the resonant of the instrument, to great effect. For Autechre fans, the comparison is perhaps an obvious one given the use of prepared piano, but I also like the quasi-theatrical tendencies of both, with Autechre always insisting on performing in the dark.



What’s next if you like this? Try Evan Johnson’s Positioning in Radiography

5. If you love Nirvana you might love Cassandra Miller’s for mira

This is an obvious choice in many ways, as Miller takes the material for her piece from a performance by Kurt Cobain of “where did you sleep last night” – itself a cover of Depression-era blues musician Lead Belly.

What I love about Miller’s’ writing here is the dramatic way she repeats, manipulates and plays with the material. It might take a couple of listens, but I find the swooping glissandi and irregular cadences infectious, I often get this piece stuck in my head.



What’s next if you like this? Try Simon Steen-Andersen’s Study for String Instrument

6. If you love Asa-Chang & Junray you might love Peter Ablinger’s Speaking Piano

Here, Ablinger uses a spectral analysis and a computer controlled piano to recreate the sound of the speaking voice (in this case, an angry letter from the grandaddy of 12-tone composition, Schönberg). It wasn’t his only experiment in combining the human voice and piano, he also did a series of “accompaniments” of famous voices, which you can hear here. These are far less gimmicky and more musically interesting, not to mention historically so: he uses recordings of speakers such as Bertold Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Mao Zedong, Pier Passolini, etc.

Asa-Chang and Junray:


What’s next if you like this? Try Martin Iddon’s ampelos

7. If you love Underworld’s REZ then you might love Gerard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum

The opening movement of Vortex is all energy and forward propelled movement. Combined with Grisey’s so-called spectral approach to composition (his compositional building blocks are the harmonics resulting from a given fundamental, see here for a more detailed explanation), these aspects make it a great pairing with Underworld’s use of arpeggio, drive and spectral-like harmonies.



What’s next if you like this? Try Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 2

8. If you love Deafheaven, you might might love Simon Loeffler’s b

The new music track here is — perhaps unusually — the more rhythmic of the two, but they both go heavy on the distortion. Loeffler’s work uses a looped feed of guitar effect pedals (two for each performer) and light switches (four for the group) to modify the patterns of distorted sounds. This is complemented by the rhythmic tap-dancing of the players feet on the pedals. The piece is very virtuosic and I find it very exciting (especially live).

The piece stays in the same sound world (necessitated by a setup that has a fixed — if not surprisingly large — number of sound possibilities) in a way that Deafheaven do not (there’s a beautiful contrast between screaming distortion and an almost lullaby-like quality later on the track of theirs shared here), but I love the contrast between the virtuoso foot pedalling at the beginning and the mournful falling glissandi that appear around minute 3.



What’s next if you like this? Try Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf

9. If you love Busta Rhymes then you might love Timothy McCormack’s Apparatus

In case it isn’t glaringly obvious, I’m comparing these two artists for their approaches to virtuosity. McCormack’s music is complex but I find it incredibly playful and when performing it, relish the challenge of being able to execute the actions his notation requires while still maintaining a kind of lightness and an easy approach to the interaction between players. His Apparatus is particularly playful for it’s brevity: at only 30 seconds long it’s a great way to surprise an audience. Listen to it a couple of times to get into McCormack’s soundworld.

Busta Rhymes:


What’s next if you like this? Try Enno Poppe’s Trauben

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Posted in advice, clarinet history, collaboration, on collaboration & composition, performance | 10 Comments

Altissimo Quarter Tone Studies

One for the bass clarinet players today…

I was working on writing up some short exercises to help with working on the altissimo, particularly quarter tones, and thought that actually these might be useful for any advanced bass clarinet students who want to work on them. These studies are definitely meant for advanced bass clarinet students/players, but perhaps also useful to those just starting to learn to double in terms of seeing what’s possible.

They do, however, assume a certain amount of quarter tone knowledge. If you’re struggling, I highly recommend checking out Jason Alder’s quarter tone bass clarinet chart.

I’ve scribbled in fingerings here for a lot of the pitches you might need, just to make your job a little bit easier while learning these. I personally find it hard to get these fingerings to stick in my head, and needed to come up with some studies to help me work on them.


If you end up using these, I’d love to have some feedback: I’m definitely keen to write some more of these if they’re useful for you, and positive and negative feedback are both useful! What works, what doesn’t, which of them helped the most… I’ve definitely been thinking about writing a method for bass clarinet at some point in life, so consider these early sketches.

Anyway you can download a .pdf of the three studies here.

Thanks also very much to Luciano Giambastiani and Madison Greenstone for their feedback on these!

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Posted in clarinet techniques, how-to, quarter tones | 2 Comments

new hand werk CD – kurzwelle

cover_front.jpeghand werk has a new CD out today — kuzwelle — and you can stream/download it on bandcamp. Four great new pieces by Francisco C. Goldschmit, Max-Lukas Hundelshausen, Elnaz Seyedi and Matthias Krüger. This project was made possible by ON Neue Musik Köln.

And in case you’re not aware of hand werk, this is my “day job” so to speak – what I’m doing when I’m not working on the blog (ha!). We’ve been around since 2011 and have been playing unconducted chamber music for Pierrot sextet (and quite regularly putting our instruments down to play aubergines and the like) all over Europe ever since.

If you’re interested in how we work, I also wrote an article about movement and contemporary chamber music for Divergence Press.

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contrabass clarinet mouthpiece and neck

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Just a fun little contrabass clarinet-related post for you today, but a few nice sounds here, just using the mouthpiece (with reed) and the neck of the contrabass clarinet. (Again, I play a paperclip, so these techniques are only applicable to this specific instrument!)

First, there are essentially two pitches available, a low E quarter flat and a high A quarter sharp (transposed pitches here – because it would make sense to keep everything in Bb I think, so that your player isn’t transposing when switching between this and normal playing techniques).

Normal extended techniques like slap and flutter tongue work perfectly well here:

Using the hand, there are two nice techniques, one is to gradually cover the opening of the neck with one hand at an angle, producing nice bends of either the bottom or top note (you can also bend the top note using the embouchure, but this doesn’t work very well on the bottom):

You can also play a really beautiful fragile multiphonic, and the pitches of this can be bent. Here I play it with three different positions, open, slightly bent, and about 3/4 closed:

The other hand position is to kind of bounce the hand over the covering while playing. You can combine this with normal pitches or also with the multiphonic:

Finally, you can also do something where you start on the top pitch and then allow the pitch to “fall”, as in the following example:

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Posted in bending, contra, multiphonic, performance | 1 Comment