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'Late Works with Clarinet':
Interview with Carol Robinson

by Alan Nicholson

With the release of 'Late Works with Clarinet' (Mode 119), Carol Robinson has brought into earshot three Feldman pieces all underrepresented on compact disc: Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano (1971), Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981) and Clarinet and String Quartet (1983). In this short interview, which was conducted by email in the June of 2003, I put a number of questions to her concerning the disc. My thanks to her for her time and Mode Records for their enthusiasm.

1.  What interests you about the music of Morton Feldman?

I find the music inherently beautiful and expressive. From the actual choice of sound material with its floating transparency and minute transformations, to the ensuing alteration of perception, Morton Feldman somehow touches the essential. I respect his radical and emphatic daring.

2.  You met the composer at 'June in Buffalo', what were your impressions, and were you already familiar with his music prior to that meeting?

At that point I hadn't yet heard much of Feldman's work, recordings were not readily available and the music not often performed in places that I had access to. June in Buffalo attracted me because it was a forum of exchange between older and younger composers. The choice of speakers, programs and performers reflected Feldman's insight, and was totally stimulating. The added benefit was spending time with Feldman himself. Little did I know that I would record his music so many years later.

3.  Given the number of late pieces devoted to the instrument, the clarinet appears to have especially interested the composer. What do you think the instrument brings to Feldman's sound world? And in your opinion, are there difficulties particular to the instrument in negotiating Feldman's work?

Given the music's soft edges, the clarinet's pure rich sound, regardless of the volume level being played, makes it an obvious choice for Feldman's dynamic environment. However, the number of late pieces devoted to the clarinet seems to be more the result of his meetings with performers who particularly motivated him. It was in fact Alan Hacker's gentle expressive playing which prompted two of the pieces. In addition to masterfully playing both modern and old instruments, Hacker dared to go to extremes, making him a natural inspiration. In his performance of Clarinet and String Quartet, Hacker used a cocus wood simple-system clarinet because he found that the older instrument was more sensitive in the piano region. Hacker's proposition resolved one of the piece's major difficulties: how to remain effortlessly quiet throughout the registers over a long period of time. (For the MODE recording, I played a modern Buffet Crampon Bb clarinet, obliging me to find other solutions for maintaining extended concentration and stamina.) This dynamic dilemma is particularly problematic with the bass clarinet, because the instrument simply has too much presence and easily overwhelms the percussion. In addition, the rhythms are not "comfortable", making it especially difficult to achieve the contrast between producing a soft airy sound and maintaining rhythmic integrity.

4.  Speaking more generally, what was your experience of recording the three pieces?

Each piece has its wonders and pitfalls. Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano is the most immediately playable. All of the performers are members of the same contemporary chamber music group and accustomed to playing together, which helped the piece come together easily.

Part of the success of this version of Bass Clarinet and Percussion is due to the fabulous sounds of Peppie Wiersma's exceptional instruments such as a Deagan "artist special" Xylophone from 1926, a Deagan model 1000 Vibraphone from approximately 1960, a piccolo pedal timpani, a small anonymous Swedish baroque timpani, and 3 old Zildjian "A" cymbals. Saying that the piece is disorienting to play is a major understatement. The bass clarinet part is already thoroughly confusing without having to play it against the percussion rhythms. Though Feldman wanted the parts to move independently, the music does somehow sound better when juxtaposed more or less as he wrote. The problem is that not only is it completely impossible to read both parts simultaneously in the printed score, but the nature of the sounds themselves often blurs rhythmic precision. We opted not to use a click track or other time keeping device, preferring to attempt a sort of open synchronicity that respected the score as much as possible and yet remained somewhat flexible.

We recorded Clarinet and String Quartet in early summer. Meeting at the studio on a sunny June morning seemed fitting to the music. The light somehow corresponded. Due to the relentless ppp, the piece is extremely physically trying, both to perform and to record. Maintaining the shimmering transparent sound in tune and in tempo for a long period requires massive concentration. The slightest change in voicing intensity changes everything.

5.  The disc runs chronologically, beginning with 'Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano' (1971). As the piece's title suggests, it is often analogised to a still-life painting. Do you, as a performer, find this a useful comparison?

It is a useful comparison so far as one wants to consider each sound event as a floating object suspended in time.

6.  Despite its rather unusual instrumentation, 'Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano' is typical of Feldman's work in the early 1970s. It shares its quiet expressionism with 'Rothko Chapel' and 'I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg', both of which were also composed in 1971. Could the piece be viewed as a sketch for these larger works, or does that underplay its significance?

I wouldn't consider it as a sketch, rather as another approach to his preoccupations at that time. If not for the unusual instrumentation of Alan Hacker's group, would he have written for three clarinets and devised the same stunning three and four voice clusters? Who knows? This combination of clarinets, high cello and resonating piano does create colours similar to passages found in Rothko Chapel.

7.  To my mind, your recording of 'Bass Clarinet and Percussion' (1981) with Peppie Wiersma and Françoise Rivalland is a highpoint of the disc, as well as being a rarely heard work. What are your own feelings about the interaction of the two instruments and the piece's subtle shifts in colouring?

Performance difficulties aside, the piece works amazingly well. I especially like the rolled mixes of high timpani with marimba, the aural confusion produced by combining two timpani or vibraphone, and passages with gong shifts. Both Peppie Wiersma and Françoise Rivalland were able to produce exquisite sounds that welcomed me into their resonance.

8.  You write in your notes for 'Clarinet and String Quartet' (1983) that the clarinet merges with the string quartet to create a 'hybrid timbre'. Perhaps you could say a little more about that since it is, I think, an aspect of the work that differentiates the piece from the later 'Piano and String Quartet' (1985) and 'Violin and String Quartet' (1985)?

Rather than as in a typical quintet, here the clarinet is generally inside the quartet sound, almost as if it is hiding. In some sections, it is isolated, while in others it simply traverses the block of string sound causing harmonic shifts and ripples.

9.  Do you find Feldman's writing for the clarinet playful in this piece?

Playful is not the adjective that I would use; though optimistic might not be too far off.

10.  Feldman famously called Giacinto Scelsi the 'Charles Ives of Italy', but having worked closely with Scelsi and having recorded several of his wind pieces for mode, do you feel that there are natural affinities between Feldman and Scelsi?

The two are obviously related through their captivation for sound from the absolute interior of timbral vibrations, their transformation of temporal references and an affinity for an otherwordly quality. That said, Scelsi's earlier works include a quantity of notes, rhythms and an almost narrative tension quite alien to Feldman's world. Both composers however, incorporate an improvisatory character that is difficult to imagine actually translatable into musical notation. They both manage - luckily for us!

Interestingly, I received my first Scelsi scores via a friend of bassist Joelle Léandre who had discovered his music while in residence in Buffalo. It seems that Feldman found this music particularly noteworthy and brought some of it back from Italy. In a roundabout way, it is thanks to Feldman that I subsequently met and worked with Scelsi.

11.  Has Feldman influenced your own composition? If so, in what way?

If not for a deeply felt affinity, I doubt that I would play Feldman's music. In spite of myself, I almost always include shimmering harmonies, some sort of white noise and repeating elements in my compositions. Eddies, I call them. Never exactly the same, always flowing. The fact that Feldman created such stunning music with such apparently reduced means reassures me in my own research.

12.  What is your next project?

In addition to various concerts, a recording of the Berio Sequenza for MODE, and a tailor-made work with a highly developed live electronic world by Edmond Campion, I'll be involved in a compositional collaboration with a 3D video artist. (I rarely have only one project in preparation ...)

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