Nigel Clarke

Posted on December 1st, 2009 by



Nigel Clarke with Hindemith! On the steps of the Conservartoire, Ankara. 2007. Photo: Marius Skaerved
Nigel Clarke with Hindemith! On the steps of the Conservartoire, Ankara. 2007. Photo: Marius Skaerved

Nigel Clarke taught me how to collaborate. Our work together began at the Royal Academy of Music in 1985, with a piece for 13 strings, named for my ensemble, Parnassus. Since then we have studied, travelled, argued, discovered and worked together worldwide, and I am constantly refreshed by his indefatigable curiosity, creativity and modesty.








Notes on Nigel Clarke’s – Loulan, Pernambuco, Premonitions, Miraculous Violin, Black Fire


Nigel Clarke began his musical career as a military bandsman, a trumpeter. It is fascinating that so much of his most adventurous music has been for string instruments. His writing for strings is extraordinarily idiomatic; like another non-string player, Sir Michael Tippett or Hans Werner Henze, he often seems to find most personal expression in the instruments which are furthest from his experience as a performing musician.

 For two decades, Nigel Clarke has collaborated with the British violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved. Together, they have led workshops for performers and composers in China, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Turkey, and all over the USA. This work has proved to be a vital spur for the techniques and ideas behind Nigel’s compositions.

 ‘The Miraculous Violin’ was jointly commissioned by the British Council and  I Solisti di  Zagreb, to whom it is dedicated. In order to prepare to write the work, composer and violinist spent time ‘workshopping’, with this virtuoso chamber group.

 Typically, in the course of workshops, Nigel can be observed listening out for gestures with which players are comfortable on their instruments. These can appear in two opposing ways; most obviously, through the gradual exploratory process of the workshop, exploring colour by colour, or in the ‘off-the-cuff’ licks and runs which most players will use to relax, warm up, or in fun. This  careful listening enables him to construct ‘swatches’ of sound-colours,  from these little tapestries of effect can be constructed,  which are often the raw material the Stoff from which a piece will emerge.

 In one instance in Zagreb, Krešimir, a viola player, burst in with a spectacular dance tune, played with fantastic colours. Nigel sprang up from his chair in the middle of the circle of players. “That’s great, we’ll use it! What is it?” This was greeted with hoots of laughter, and good-humoured derision was hurled thrown at the violist. The leader, An?elko Krpan leant over to Sheppard Skaerved.  “They say-Please don’t use this one-It’s a Serb tune”. “Then I am definitely going to use it” retorted Nigel. This moment provided the stimulus for the viola countermelodies in the fast inner sections of the work.

 As a result of this close collaboration, ‘The Miraculous Violin’, reflects the very energised physicality of the Solisti di Zagreb.  The success of this work with its dedicatees and subsequent ensembles is testament to the success of what the anthropologist Genevieve Bell has called ‘deep hanging out’.

 ‘Loulan’ was the result of just such ‘deep hanging out’. In the autumn of 2002, Nigel Clarke and Skærved spent time in the city of Urumchi, the regional capital of Xingjian province in China. The experience of this extraordinary landscape, the desert, the profound melting pot of cultures, affected him profoundly. On the last night of the visit, the composer and violinist were treated to an extraordinary banquet which included performances of many of the traditional musics and dances of the region. Both took copious notes of the performances and these became the raw material for ‘Loulan’. Like ‘Pernambuco’ this piece is not a synthesized version of the musics which Clarke heard, but a highly distilled response to the whole experience, one which manifested itself in new colours and timbres on the violin, and a profound simplicity of structure and utterance. 

 This exploratory approach was also fundamental to the earliest violin piece on this disc, ‘Pernambuco’. Nigel determined to write a piece, about the bow, an instrument, which, despite its extraordinary technological and technical subtleties has barely entered the public consciousness. ‘Pernambuco’ also known as ‘brazil wood’ became vital to the construction of the modern bow, developed in the 1780’s by the French maker Francois Tourte. Clarke took inspiration from the rhythmic excitement and colouristic brilliance of South American folk instruments, as well as aspects of Pre-Columbian art, to create a piece of violin music unlike any other, one which has proved extremely popular with performers and audiences, despite its extreme physical demands.

 During the 2002 Xingjian visit, ‘The Miraculous Violin; reached its final form. In the course of working with the orchestra in Urumchi, Nigel decided that the piece needed a cadenza. This initially took the form of an improvisation, but then this was replaced with a written out Cadenza by Skærved composed, referencing a number of Clarke’s earlier works, most particularly ‘Parnassus’, a string ensemble piece which had marked the beginning of the collaboration while still students. This Cadenza is placed, in Mendelssohn-ian fashion, at the midway point of the piece.

 In the course of collaboration with Skærved in Ankara, Nigel was able for the first time, to work on his music with a Turkish military orchestra. This experience, combined with long term collaboration with Turkish composers such as S?d?ka Özdil and Yi?it Kolat, was a vital element in the development of the tumultuous fast music of ‘Black Fire’. Having begun his musical life as a bandsman, Nigel is profoundly affected by the relationship of the western European tradition of military music and the music of the former Ottoman Empire, which still finds echoes in the military music of Turkey and the Balkan states.

 In 1995, Nigel was commissioned to write ‘Samurai’ for the RNCM Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Timothy Reynish. He responded to the fact that the work was due to be premiered in Hamamatsu, Japan, by basing the work on aspects of Samurai culture and warfare. Two Japanese instruments are specifically evoked; the taiko , a large drum used for battlefield communication, and a conch-shell trumpet, the  horagai . |He is keen to stress that he was equally impressed by the creative culture of the Samurai , and the piece alludes to this in the ritual slow sections.

 For some years prior to the composition of ‘Black Fire’, Nigel Clarke had been speaking of this determination to write a major work for Violin and Symphonic Wind orchestra. With his ‘Samurai’ having become one of the most performed contemporary works for wind orchestra, he was determined to take up the challenge thrown down by Kurt Weill’s classic concerto for violin and wind and to bring together these usually separate worlds. The title was inspired by Gustave Doré’s engravings for Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Milton’s ambivalent parable seemed a perfect metaphor for the ‘age of anxiety’ in which this work was composed.

 Nigel stresses that this piece is not a concerto, but rather, a drama for orchestra and soloist in the tradition of Berlioz, with the soloist cast in the role of Satan. In ‘Paradise Lost’, Milton refers to the devils, cast out of heaven as lying scattered like dried leaves in the Arno Valley. Nigel loops time in his piece, which ends with Satan, flying of on his mission of suicidal evil heroism to spoil God’s newest creation, Earth, the silence of his departure only slightly disturbed by the rustle of the downcast demons. ‘Black Fire’ was premiered in Tuscaloosa Alabama, conducted by the late Gerald Welker.

 Some time after the first performance, Clarke realized that he had unwittingly already written a prelude to this work, in the form of his early  trumpet work ‘Premonitions’: this became a fitting, almost Ives-ian, questioning voice, to upbeat the sound and fury of ‘Black Fire’. .

 It is not necessary to know any of these things in order to enjoy Clarke’s direct, impassioned music;, but he has never felt it necessary to hide his inspirations, and is always candid about the ‘triggers’ that fascinate and inspire him.