After "Imagined Models" (DocMus Concert 1) / PART 1

Approaching my first DocMus concert felt much like trying to write the opening sentence of a long essay or article - daunting, overwhelming, challenging. How does one start such a lengthy artistic research project? Where to begin? What to play? What to say? What to prove?

This concert, and thus my whole DocMus project, began with John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons, a work that I had always wanted to play. It is a piece that does not sound like what most people imagine “contemporary classical music” sounds like, but more importantly, it is a work that I thought the audience would enjoy, and probably had never heard before. With my heart set on the Adams as the second half, I went about selecting works for the first half by living contemporary Finnish composers. The Music Finland website guided me to Aria, by Uljas Pulkkis, which had singing qualities much like the third movement of the Adams, and Twirl by Markku Klami, whose opening immediately reminded me of the opening of Gnarly Buttons. I also found the music of Kirmo Lintinen, music with as varied influences as John Adams and a similar free spirit. Originally, I had planned to play Oikku, for bass clarinet and piano, but practical implications of programming that particular work on bass clarinet following Aria and Twirl (it starts on a high high A) made me think twice and I chose Rieha instead.

After deciding the program came the challenge of choosing the title of my concert. How to assign a name to a program that is not simply a concert, but a research hypothesis, experiment and analysis, all rolled into one. And how to do so 8-10 months before the actual concert, before most artistic preparations have actually begun. Like the programming of the actual pieces, I started again with the Adams. It was also the piece I had the most analysis, background, historical context, and general information on, as John Adams has written about both himself (Hallelujah Junction) and Gnarly Buttons quite thoroughly. “Imagined Models” was a term Adams coined to describe his borrowing of other artistic forms and styles (‘models’), which he uses both literally and satirically for musical or extramusical effects. Simple enough, I (naively) thought. It had a nice ring to it, and it can be applied to all the works on the program literally and metaphorically, at micro and meta levels.

In reflection, what I lost a bit through the concert preparation and performance process was a tangible link to my doctoral project as a whole. In the winding road of research it is easy to lose track of where you are going; just like reading one book from one particular musicologist or theorist can begin to color your whole way of thinking, so can getting lost in preparing a program give you the worst case of ‘tunnel vision’. In many ways it is necessary, that kind of focus, especially for artistic preparation. Thinking about the ‘larger picture’ of how a particular solo piece provides analytical elements for your thesis hypothesis is not going to help you learn the notes or understand the artistic message of a work, nor, necessarily, encourage the development of a distinct artistic point of view. Although maybe it can do all those things... is that the definition of artistic research? My project’s research methods and questions certainly informed my preparation, from the research texts I read to the interviews held with Pulkkis, Klami and Lintinen, but I think a direct link must be re-established again.

So now, a week after my concert, I wish to formally place my performance, as well as the practice and research process involved in preparing it, within the scope of my DocMus project. First, how acquiring the unique skill set needed to perform contemporary music and the experience of working with living composers enhances one’s overall artistic practice and changes the way one approaches all classical music. And second, the differences in how contemporary music is practiced in Finland and the United States and what the effects of these differences are. I will discuss all works performed, from these two perspectives.

Uljas Pulkkis Aria

I will admit that when I began working on Pulkkis’ Aria, I focused on the technical. Learning all the notes, while obviously a necessity of any music preparation, took precedence. I assumed that the artistic idea of the piece would become apparent later, but it was actually only made clear for me after speaking with Uljas, and working on the piece with Naoko (pianist) in a variety of acoustic settings.

The markings in the score alone could not help me establish a clear musical idea of how the piece should go. Aside from tempo indications, the stylistic markings molto espressivo, cantabile, maestoso, lamentoso, scherzando, con pasione, are traditional, and in some cases, appear counterintuitive to the actual musical material in the clarinet part. The markings, I discovered, make sense only when considered with the piano part, and only when working towards achieving an overall musical effect. They also are important indicators of contrast within the work, and of changing stylistic sections.

For a contemporary work with no extended techniques and a more traditional notation, Aria was less musically straight forward than similarly ‘traditional appearing’ works I played this fall by Libby Larsen and John Adams. My interview with Uljas, while intended to address my latter research question regarding contemporary music practice in Finland, ended up providing much needed musical answers for my artistic preparation of Aria and gave me much more confidence in my understanding of the piece. The ability to interact with a living composer and collaborate with him or her is a artistic experience unique to playing contemporary music, an aspect that will apply to every work I perform in my doctoral project. For Aria, in particular, Uljas’ specific ideas of the piece were crucial to my understanding. He certainly did not provide all answers, I had to ‘convert’ his ideas to the clarinet, which became a type of initiative-taking and problem-solving that I had never experienced before.

What is uniquely artistically gained by learning and performing a piece like Aria, and how can it be applied particularly to study of older classical works? Aria can be compared with opera inspired works that I have played, like Luigi Bassi’s Fantasy on Rigoletto, Donato Lovreglio’s Fantasia La Traviata, and Rossini’s Introduction, Theme and Variations. (It is also worth noting that all four are ‘competition’ or ‘show’ pieces, Aria being the only one actually commissioned for a competition and in the end, sounding the least like ‘just’ a virtuosic show piece.) The necessity required by the Pulkkis to think more broadly about the meaning of a stylistic marking, or tempo, to consider the acoustic properties of clarinet and piano, and the sonic combination of the two, can be applied to the Bassi, Lovreglio, and Rossini, works which often times do not go past mastering the virtuosic technique. Likewise, the freedom with which one approaches the Pulkkis, ultimately taking much more time and exaggerating style more than anticipated, particularly in the Lamentoso section, the cadenza and the coda, encourages a flexibility that tends to be lacking when one, or at least I, typically approach more traditional repertoire. In particular for repertoire that contains an exact quotation, or inspiration from a particular opera; the tendency is to be as ‘true to the source’ as possible.

Finally, what does Aria, and the work of Uljas Pulkkis, demonstrate about the differences between contemporary music practice in Finland versus the United States? This question would more than fill the content of any single research project. And attempts to draw large conclusions from Uljas Pulkkis to reflect all of Finnish contemporary music would be artificial. However, I want to challenge myself to consider my research project in this frame and I will start by addressing the music itself, and my reactions artistically to performing it. Within the module that was my first concert, including Libby Larsen’s Dancing Solo and Steven Stucky’s Meditation and Dance (which were performed in conjunction with “Imagined Models”), I believe Aria, Dancing Solo, Meditation and Dance, and Gnarly Buttons are comparable. All four works are traditionally notated, employing no extended contemporary techniques, all four works are tonal, and all four composers are internationally recognized and have their works performed regularly outside their country of origin. What I find different with Aria than the other three, from an artistic point of view, is that Aria requires more independent artistic decisions to be made for its generation and requires much more ‘digging’ to get to the heart of what the work is about, artistically. Dancing Solo, Meditation and Dance, and Gnarly Buttons, were, to me, quite stylistically clear and also very literal. Aria, more abstract. There are two obvious factors that could contribute to my perception of this - first, Larsen and Adams (and Stucky, but to a lesser degree) are known for their vernacular musical references which might be clear to me, since I am American, and second, I have played works by Adam and Stucky before, and might be more familiar with their oeuvre. However, I do not think this is entirely responsible for my observations, and the difference between literal and abstract is one that I will note as I move forward with the project.

Markku Klami Twirl

The unaccompanied solo, in particular those composed for a solo wind instrument, is a type of work distinct to modern and contemporary composition. Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1919) and Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute (1913) are some of the earliest examples of a subgenre that really developed in the second half of the twentieth century and continues to be one of the richest sources of contemporary music repertoire. It also happens to be one of the most challenging, artistically and in terms of endurance, for instrumentalists who are more accustomed to performing with others. It is a genre of work that I have used throughout my artistic development, probably more than any other type of work, to push myself to develop technically, soloistically, and mentally through the art of making music alone.

For my first DocMus concert, I chose to prepare Twirl by Markku Klami. Unlike Aria, Twirl, from first glance, looks like what a player would expect a ‘contemporary music score’ to look like. It has extra large pages, lots of black notes, odd rhythms, extended techniques, and very specific indications of style, tempi and dynamics. Unaccompanied solos, to me, are hard sonically imagine from the visual of the written score. Often I find myself looking up a recording of the work, just to get a sonic idea - something I usually never do when preparing any other type of music. With the Klami, fortunately for my research, there are no recordings, and I had never heard the piece performed before. Starting with the notes, playing the work through over and over to get it ‘in my fingers’ became the only way to familiarize myself and inspire myself to find ideas of how I thought the work should go. I would argue that this independence and self-reliance is valuable artistic lesson, and one only possible in such a setting, with a piece of less-performed new music.

Unlike in my preparations of Aria, where I was surprised how much artistic clarity I gained by talking with Uljas about his composition process, with Twirl, I felt more confident approaching the score alone and developing my own ideas in the music. I think there were two reasons: first, I was helped a great deal by my lecture recital in September, where I analyzed compositional aspects of the work that contributed to my understanding of the piece. The process of preparing that lecture forced me to link analysis of the compositional (melodic and harmonic) with the musical. And more importantly, it moved me to think more holistically about the work, a challenge when one becomes immersed in learning a piece. The second reason is that I think as a classical clarinetist, I have been trained to take more musical initiative when it comes to unaccompanied pieces. While I find these pieces difficult, as I previously mentioned, the idea has been instilled in me to take more individual liberty with contemporary solo pieces (the exception being Stravinsky’s Three Pieces, but that is for another discussion). It is an arbitrary rule; one should, in practice, take musical liberty and trust ones individual musical interpretations in all pieces. And yet somehow, solo pieces have been the place to do so. I think it is no surprise, then, that contemporary musical studies for clarinetists training to become orchestral players in the United States are often limited to solo unaccompanied works, rather than any contemporary orchestral, chamber music, or piano duo repertoire. The lessons gained through unaccompanied solo study are never applied to other contemporary repertoire, nor the core, traditional clarinet repertoire. The musical ‘takeaways’ are taught to be technical, when really there is much more.

This concept - of approaching all pieces like I approached Twirl - is what I wish take away and apply to other contemporary and non-contemporary pieces I play in the future. The process by which I learned the piece - detailed technical practice, compositional analysis, experimentation, and inspiration from the composer - led me to a level of confidence in myself as well as an individual interpretation of the score, a sense of ownership even though this was not a premiere performance. This is something, I realize, that I aspire to achieve with every piece I perform, but rarely feel; the notion that an interpretation is my own, not inherent to the score, or the composer’s ideas, or an historically periodic style. Pedagogically, I think solo unaccompanied works are a great place to start training this sort of music practice, but ideally, the lessons can be applied to any work from any period of time.

The two unaccompanied works prepared in this first chapter of my doctoral project, Twirl and Libby Larsen’s Dancing Solo, contain many of the same musical differences discussed with Aria. Twirl is abstract where Dancing Solo is literal, and while both composers share musical ideology (please see the previous post from my lecture recital), the musical products are drastically different. If I could expand this to a general observation about Finnish contemporary repertoire versus American, I would say that the first half of the concert contributed to my understanding that 21st century Finnish composers are operating very individually. They are not affiliated with a school or university (as a style or a work place), they are vague to define their own compositional style, and direct musical or compositional links with their predecessors are hard to make. Whether this same trend exists in American 21st century composition remains to be seen, this is what I hope to examine in the second chapter of this project. Libby Larsen, Steven Stucky, and John Adams established their musical styles by the 1980s, and were already internationally renowned by the time Pulkkis and Klami were finishing their studies. But, as I have noticed in pedagogical culture as well, Finnish contemporary music composition culture is one of individuality and a hesitation to define oneself in pre-existing terms and styles. And there does not seem to be a need to do so the way that American composers of the late 20th and 21st centuries have had to, with styles defined either by critics, musicologists, or themselves.

In Part 2, I will finish reflecting on “Imagined Models” with discussion of Kirmo Lintinen’s Rieha and John Adams Gnarly Buttons.

Lucy Abrams