Nigel Clarke Pernambuco
Live performance: Pharos Contemporary Music Festival. Nikosia. 2009
Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Hill 1900)
In 1993, Nigel Clarke and I were working on the sketches for Pernambuco. The piece had grown from the initial blank page with which he had confronted me, and we were ‘test-driving’ various ways of using the instrument. He was puzzling out how to integrate or discard the extended techniques and extreme colours that he had developed for the work. This is Nigel’s favourite way of working; to confront his interpreters with ideas and fragments, to see how far the performer is willing to “push the envelope”; and he is more persistent with it, almost as an article of faith, than any other composer that I have encountered.
I was frustrated at my inability to immediately execute the dense chordal harmony that Nigel had presented me, and stamped on the wooden floor of the room we were working in self-disgust. “How did you do that? How much of that can you do while you play? How can we make it louder-faster-more exciting? Can you stamp one rhythm and play another…?” Thus was the climax of this piece born.
In the midst of sessions improvising with the virtuosos of the ‘Zagreb Soloists’, preparing for the premiere of ‘The Miraculous Violin’, Clarke took this process a stage further. Encouraged the players to mess around, his ears ever open to the licks and roulades that string players like to use as warm-up, to relieve boredom or frustration. He knows very well that the musical identity of a player, or group of players is built as much from the the sum of their respective musical, or even anti-musical ‘ticks’, as their public techno-musical ‘face’.
Through this empirical method Clarke gets under the expressive skin of the instrument and player. He knows that if he can infiltrate the performing aesthetic of his collaborators, then he will have freedom to alter the perception of the instrument itself, and thus remould the whole package, performer and player into his ideal. The resulting works are always perfectly conceived for the instrument, without ever feeling that a musical goal has been smudged in the quest for technical expedience. This is of course, very close to Hindemith’s compositional technique. That composer experimented extensively with deriving passage-work from the convenient ‘fall of the hand’. A glance over any of the chamber works written in the 1920’s reveals this. Take for example, the especially brilliant solo writing in the finale of the “Fünf Stücke” for string orchestra written for the “Plöner Musiktage” concerts in 1924. The very stuff of much of Clarke’s music, harmonically and melodically, is drawn from the hand-configurations, turns of phrase, colours, that the intended performer finds natural. Unlike Hindemith, this language is not related to the feel of the instrument for a composer performing his own music, but that of a composer with a remarkable ability to remake the player from the outside. His ‘Winter Music’ for string orchestra shows that how he can transcend the limitations of younger players; turning the technical range and scope of less advanced musicians into a resource, an advantage, from which the compositional language of the work is actually forged.
Talking with Nigel Clarke, one soon discovers that he identifies strongly with the virtuoso performer; his voice almost seems liberated by the transcendental technical approach. In fact he has said that he wonders if it is possible to express himself freely at all unless he is able to write for the instruments at the very precipice of technical collapse, and for interpreters who are happy to explore a certain emotional and expressive danger. This can cut two ways, as is intriguingly revealed in the language of Premonitions, written for Nigel’s original instrument, the trumpet. It is perhaps the most withdrawn, half-lit work recorded here; “…ancestral voices prophesying war”, it may be, but very much in the distance. A tremendous depth and range of expression is exploited by exploring the instrument’s fragility and colouristic ambiguity in certain registers and articulations. This is very much held within limits; much said by silence and hesitation. In complete contrast, the white heat of Solstice seems to arrive at its expressive goals through what are apparently the opposite technical means; blistering runs, piled up dissonances, with the athleticism of the pianist at full stretch, but similarly revealing of this composer’s particular lyricism.
This restraint is complemented by the structural restraints that Clarke imposes on himself in his piece of scientific augury, Spectroscope. The succinctness and near classical shaping of this work lend it an extraordinary grace, which belies the many technical innovations.
This identification with the spirit of the performer can reveal itself in a charming, ingenuous way. Because of the extreme clarity of his harmony, a wrong note will show, and the performer is not, for instance at liberty to submerge notes into a complex expressionist swirl. This music is not improved by a welter of quarter-tones and random scurrying that some composers seem to be trying to access through extreme textual density and technical gaucheries. The blazing unison orchestral writing in the ‘Miraculous Violin’ is a great illustration of this, relying on the super-precision and energy to make its effect.
Clarke’s approach is interestingly ’empowered’. He will often insist that players accept a “wrong” note that they are playing; I have seen him confront a player’s resistance to the preservation of their own lacunae by changing the note in the score. He knows that the integrity of his language will only be enhanced if the performer is playing the notes that they feel; even if this involves a flexible approach to the text. He also knows that there is a very particular richness of sound that results when a self-critical virtuoso is forced to accept that they are actively impacting on, changing, the text, to fit themselves.
This may have its origins in the complex relationship that Clarke’s music has with the aleatoric techniques of Lutowswalski and Penderecki, particularly the “box” system. Many of his earlier ensemble works, used this technique extensively; notably “Parnassus”, where the thirteen violently independent string lines manoeuvred into a kind of counterpoint using this system. Like many composers, he has gradually moved away from this method, but its legacy remains in his treatment of multiple lines. Two duo works give a number of clues to the remarkable degree of control that the understanding of this system has given this composer. The vertically co-ordinated passages in Chinese Puzzles are full of the swagger and apparent freedom that the players would have had if they were playing floating “box”-notated figuration, but with the added edge of required co-ordination. This balanced by the tension in the free, ‘senza misura’ lines of, say Lindisfarne Stone. Players working on the explosive floating passages in this piece soon come to an awareness that, yes, they do have liberty to play their lines independently of each other, but that there is most definitely an ideal version, which they have somehow to divine . This ideal version is certainly not represented by the vertical alignment of the music in the score, but rather implied contextually.
These factors are lent another layer of sophistication by Clarke’s provocatively inconsistent use of titles. Are they keys to the works? Just to run through a few of them, we have Lindisfarne Stone, alluding to the atmosphere of a Norse attack on the holy island in the Dark ages; Echo and Narcissus, a representation of the Ovid Metamorphosis; Spectroscope, referring to the device for examining spectra revealed by different elements; Solstice, somehow hinting at some ritualistic associations of the title; Premonitions, a title which begs the question ‘of what?’: Pernambuco, which alludes to the ‘primal violin’ through the name of the source hardwood used to make violin bows: The Miraculous Violin, which takes a Brothers Grimm story as a jumping off point, but is markedly un-programmatic, seeming comment on the ‘Mittel-Europan’ image of the instrument, and finally, Chinese Puzzles. This last title is at once the most prone to a Mis-reading; it refers to the interlocking pieces of a three dimensional conundrum. This would seem to be the source for the structure of the piece, but gives no indication or clue to the savagery therein. In stark contrast, Lindisfarne Stone is actively helpful, for both listener and performer, in suggesting a performance style aimed at reproducing a certain dramatic context.
Perhaps there is a Magritte-esque game going on here. Do these titles misinform, enlighten, or merely manipulate the anticipation of the audience and interpreter. There can be no question that any player playing Lindisfarne will be encouraged by its title to exaggerate the pictorial nature of the “frozen” coda by the implication of the title. However, one might ask who or what is to be learnt from the title Spectroscope? This tells the performer nothing about the execution of the work, and the listener nothing about what to listen for. It is however, a window onto the composer’s compositional process, perhaps the most intimate clue Clarke gives us as to his private working method.
This constant adjustment of “point of view” that we can observe in the titling of the works, can also seen as paradigmatic of a similar variation in the music’s nature, from Polemic, Prophecy, Monologue, Dialogue, Soliloquy, Dramatic Scene, from pure, abstract, writing to quasi-cinematic levels of depiction and representation. The music is enlivened by this constant shift of the mode of address; the listener is constantly left unsure of their level of intimacy or alienation from the message, which consequently can shock as much by its uncompromising directness as its obliqueness.
© 1999. Peter Sheppard Skærved