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Collaborative Composing

April 4, 2024

Special Effects and Interpretation in Contemporary Clarinet Music

By Nicky Swett

I recently spoke with clarinetist Sebastian Manz about playing contemporary music, extended techniques for clarinet, and the repertoire that appears on the April 11 Sonic Spectrum concert.

Nicky Swett: Who are some living composers whose music you have particularly enjoyed learning, working on, or performing?

Sebastian Manz: It’s my experience that working together with composers who are very interested in the methods of performance is best, because they are concerned about the artists and how they feel in this or that moment. You don’t always have to feel comfortable—that should not be the case—but it should work for the instrument. Sometimes composers have a friend who plays the clarinet or another instrument they are writing for, and they get feedback and develop an idea together.

I’m a big fan of Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto. I recorded that a few years ago with him conducting. He writes really precisely what dynamics and tempo he wants in the score, but then when I played with him it was sometimes twice as slow! I told him, “This is kind of slow tempo, I think it sounds a bit academic.” And then he laughed. I asked him why he writes these tempos in the score and he explained it was because he was writing for Kari Kriikku, who is kind of a wild clarinetist, and he composed it with Kriikku’s character in mind. But then Lindberg was very happy with my approach and that I had my own ideas, and he said that this is the way he wants to see his piece interpreted.

NS: I’m curious about how you approach preparing a new composition. You get a score, and you try to imagine how the composer might be hearing the music and maybe you talk to the composer. But how do you develop an aural imagination for something you’ve never heard before? How do you come to that internal sense of how new music can sound when it doesn’t exist yet?

SM: It’s a process. You don’t have to be afraid of not knowing what’s happening in the future with this piece. First, I just learn the notes. I learn the rhythm; I get a sense of the sound or the language of this kind of music. Then, I’m a big fan of soundtracks and film music. So, I always see colors or pictures for myself when starting to get to know a piece. Or I compose my own story for the music. I’m not a big fan of music being abstract, just for itself. For me there always has to be a context.

For example, last year, I was working with Johannes Maria Staud on Lagrein, the quartet we are playing on this concert. In the first months of learning that piece I had my own story in mind. But when we were recording it, he explained that Lagrein is a wine region in Austria, and he described the experience of tasting the wine. This helped me to understand his effects. There’s a “singing chainsaw” in the piece! He writes that in the music. The violin and the cello are supposed to overdo the vibrato. In the beginning, I thought, why is this in here? There is a very quiet, smooth atmosphere in that moment and then it is disturbed. But he explained that this intense sound is like what the wine does to you if you’re relaxed. It was his very personal experience with this kind of wine.

NS: In Lagrein, Staud asks you to do all kinds of interesting things with your breath and with your instrument. Does this play into the narrative you imagine for the work?

SM: When you are drunk, sometimes you have several different states of consciousness. Sometimes you’re tired and your voice is breaking. I think he wanted to translate that, and so he gives the clarinet small glissandos and quarter tones to get more colors. When we talk, we do the same. We don’t say every word in the same manner. Every detail is different. He uses the clarinet to show that with accents and also with air. What you’re doing when you’re breathing, when you’re sitting on a couch drinking wine, having fun with friends, he put all these situations into his piece.

NS: Wax and Wire, the piece by Viet Cuong we’ll hear on the program, is for the same instrumentation but involves a different set of strategies. How is Cuong using this piano quartet with clarinet in different ways from Staud?

SM: He uses quarter tones a lot. That’s a challenge, because we have to learn the key combinations [on the clarinet] very well or it makes no sense. You can’t hide, you can’t play it like a simple phrase, you have to be really precise. Because the central idea of the piece is that the strings are doing glissando, sliding, and the clarinet is not using a glissando but has very clear notes. This combination makes the tuning a bit imperfect, which is a very special effect.

The clarinet quarter tone line repeats a lot, so that makes it a bit easier. I just have to learn this one special scale. He’s looping it a bit, but always in a different setting between the instruments. It’s a rhythmical dialogue where he repeats motifs, and that makes it more logical. Cuong is playing with a musical concept. Some say that in Beethoven’s music there are no melodies, but he uses his very small motives and creates a whole symphony out of them. This music is a bit like that.

NS: You mentioned to me that Felipe Lara writes well for the clarinet. Could you tell me more about why it works so comfortably?

SM: He uses many effects like slap tongue and multiphonics [where the clarinet must play more than one pitch at once]. But they work really well in context, transforming the music from one mood to another. Once you have it in your fingers, it’s not so challenging. The most difficult part in these pieces is to bring it together with the piano, so that these instruments sound like one. A sound engineer once explained to me that if you cut away the first input or attack of the sound of a clarinet and piano, you cannot tell which instrument is which. In Western Classical music, the clarinet is the only woodwind instrument without a natural vibrato. The flute, the bassoon, the oboe, all have vibrato. So I think the clarinet is piano-like or percussion-like in that respect. Felipe Lara combines the clarinet and the piano so that sometimes you don’t hear which is playing, so they sound like one instrument.

NS: Is there anything else you wanted to say about the concert or about presenting contemporary music in general? 

SM: We don’t have to be afraid of this kind of music. Every time I go to a school to demonstrate the instrument, I play music by Stravinsky, or an improvised cadenza, or I show them the effects, and the students are really in awe. They just take it as it is. We are used to playing music that’s harmonically nice and comfortable. But music should be an experience in every sense you can think of. If you can touch the people who are listening on an emotional level with this new kind of music, then we have achieved our goal.

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.