After "Imagined Models" (DocMus Concert 1) / PART 2

Analysis of my first DocMus Concert, “Imagined Models”, continues here with discussion of Kirmo Lintinen’s Rieha and John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons. As I explained in the first part, the goal of these posts is to reconnect my first concert to the research questions of my DocMus project: what specific musical skills are required to perform contemporary music and how can these skills be applied to all works, by all composers? How does the experience of working with living composers change one’s overall artistic practice and approach to all classical music? And finally, what are the differences between the American and Finnish contemporary classical music culture?

Kirmo Lintinen’s Rieha

Kirmo Lintinen, as a composer, is unique in that many of his musical influences come from the world of jazz. I am completely untrained in the jazz medium, only of late have I been experimenting with things like vibrato and loosening up my embouchure (the two things that I think clarinetists first think of when someone tell them to play ‘jazz’ or ‘jazzy’). My experience in the ‘Lintinen’ section of this first concert chapter started, actually, with Oikku for bass clarinet and piano, which I had originally scheduled on this first concert. This short, dodecaphonic work sounds like neither jazz nor a serious atonal work, it really takes the rhythmic elements of jazz and the harmonic language of twelve-tone music and merges them together. As preparations in the fall began, I decided to replace Oikku with Rieha, for B-flat clarinet and piano.

Rieha is not dodecaphonic, in fact it is a ‘classical’ concours (competition) work, and like many French concours pieces, it has two or three sets of thematic material in themes that return throughout the work. While structure and notation are very clear, the tempi changes, meter changes, and relationship between clarinet and piano make the work challenging. Lintinen remarked to me in our interview he appreciated the guidelines of writing a work for competition, that had to be a set length, and he aimed to create a virtuoso piece with a variety of chamber music situations that would challenge the performer, as well as both rhythmic and cantabile (singing) elements.

I think the most important aspect of the Lintinen that is both unique to this work and applicable to future works I learn is what it means to incorporate ‘jazz’ elements in the music and how to read rhythm in a different way. Lintinen’s primary influences of jazz and baroque music, particularly French baroque, require both clarity and lightness in the music. Lintinen himself referred to the music as quite vertical, like in many works by Stravinsky, the result of him being keyboard player and composing from the keyboard. It would be easy to take these cues - clarity and rhythm - and focus entirely on the vertical. Coordinating with the piano in Rieha certainly requires a lot of effort in the vertical direction, but two difficulties will arise: first, that it is difficult to be light when thinking only of the vertical, and second, it will make picking up the jazz rhythmic elements more challenging.

As I said the opening of this section, the two things I incorporate with ‘playing jazz’ are embouchure and vibrato. What working with Rieha and speaking with Kirmo showed me was the first thing I should consider with jazz is rhythm. Getting the proper ‘swing’ or focus on the meta-rhythms across bar lines while maintaining precise unity with the pianist is the primary challenge of the Rieha. One must focus on exact rhythmic precision without tightness, because tightening of the embouchure and of the fingers will not only sacrifice a free sound, but also inevitably detract from the necessary musical lightness and inhibit the ability to accentuate rhythms according to what is musical, not what is technically required to ‘line up’. I think that this way of approaching the rhythm in a work can be applied to quite many works in the contemporary and core clarinet repertoire. The two works that come to mind first are the clarinet concerti by Copland and Nielsen. The Copland is much more overtly non-classical in genre than Rieha, but requires, especially in the cadenza and second half, the ability to look at the rhythm of a section over a series of 8 or 12 bars, rather than 1 or 2. It also requires the player to think holistically about the sound of the clarinet within the sound of the orchestra, like the clarinetist must do in Rieha with the piano. Likewise, there are moments in the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto when it is easy to forget about rhythmic melody because the focus is on technical. In fact, bringing out a syncopation or swing can actually help the technical aspects a great deal, like at the end of the first cadenza.

Kirmo Lintinen, as a composer, reminds me of someone like Wynton Marsalis in the United States. It would be easy to say that it is necessary in contemporary artistic times to diversify one’s artistic practice in order to be ‘successful’, or that the idea of ‘fusion’, whether it is jazz-classical or classical-popular, is sort of the ‘hip new thing’ in today’s artistic world. But I think that there is not only a historic precedent for such practice, but also an increasing trend to do so in contemporary music because the genre is not limited in influences and viewpoints the way classical musical genres have been in the past. Or at least how we, decades later, can historically characterize them.

What I have observed amongst the Finnish composers I played in this first chapter of my project is that despite the small size of Finland, compared at least to the US, there is a strong tendency for Finnish composers to study and work almost exclusively in Finland. Of course there are composers, Kaija Saariaho for instance, who have left Finland to study and/or work, but there exists a rich enough contemporary music culture here presently to support an large number of composers. Likewise, composers also feel they have the opportunities to work in combination with various other genres, whether it is acousmatic music or opera or jazz, without leaving the country. Or in most cases, Helsinki. I look forward to investigating further how this Finnish ‘ecosystem’ developed, if there are parallel places in the United States, and what allows a system like this to become established and prosper.

John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons

Performing Gnarly Buttons incorporated many of the skills that I learned through my experience of preparing the repertoire for the first half of the program. First, there were the acoustic challenges and aspects first brought up by Pulkkis’ Aria. For Gnarly Buttons, we had only the afternoon before the concert to rehearse in Organo Hall, and the orchestra set up required some quick problem solving (so that I was not playing in the audiences’ laps). In the end, I decided to stand up on the organ podium, behind the orchestra. This provided kind of a cool theatrical effect, but more importantly, it both separated my sound from the orchestra, because I was physically above the orchestra), and allowed the sound of the clarinet plus orchestra to blend better before reaching the audience, who were seated much closer than in a typical concert. My sound philosophy of the Adams was that I thought the clarinet should be, at times, a solo voice, but also a member of the orchestra. I understand Adams to be a very good orchestrator, and someone who kind of ‘knows his sounds’. There are places, like when the clarinet is doubling bassoon and English horn, where I think it is ok for the blend of the instruments to sort of ‘take over’ from the sound of clarinet alone. In other places, like the opening of the second movement, the clarinet timbre is quite distinct from the solo viola, even though they are playing at the same time. These acoustic and timbral effects were educated, I think, by my experience with the Pulkkis.

The relationship of Adams to Klami is that I think both works try to get ‘the most’ out of what the clarinet has to offer. Klami picked the clarinet for its variety of sounds and colors, Adams knew the clarinet intimately as his first instrument. Gnarly Buttons presents not only the entire note-range of the instrument, but also the melodic range of characters of the clarinet, singing (opening of the third movement) to screaming (for example, climax of the third movement), to dancing (second movement), etc. As a concerto, or solo clarinet work, I am hard pressed to thing of another piece that showcases so many overtly differently characters of writing. Adams does not shy away from references to folk or popular sources, whether it be a hoedown or a corny rock ballad and this becomes a unique offering of a work like Gnarly Buttons. The opportunity to explore and music-make in such a wide variety of styles challenges the clarinetist to expand his or her preconceptions of what ‘classical clarinet playing’ really is.

In order to capture the musical contrasts of Gnarly Buttons, the performer must balance literal stylistic notations in the score with an larger understanding of interpreted musical style within a movement or section. Similar to the way one has to be precise but still think of the larger rhythmic picture in Rieha, in Gnarly Buttons, the player has to consider articulation markings, especially, and tempi as clues to the non-notated musical styles and extra-musical references Adams was making. In both Lintinen and Adams, I was challenged as a performer make sure I equal my focus on precisely performing the detailed articulations and rhythms, with the ability to ‘zoom out’ so I can listen for the larger picture - style and character.

John Adams was the only composer that I was not able to interview, unfortunately, in preparation for this concert. What I did use, extensively, was other interviews I found that he has given, as well as his autobiography Hallelujah Junction. While arguments can be made against relying on the composers’ own self written history (he or she will write what he or she wants you to read), I think the book was really important for me to understand both Adams’ musical influences and ideas but also musicologically how Adams developed as an American classical music composer. Through my reports on orchestral programming, I have seen that Adams is the most, at least currently, widely performed American composer in northern Europe. Of course, like Esa-Pekka Salonen, it helps that he is also a conductor who can spread his music conducting it, but it is interesting that amongst American composers, Europeans have latched on to Adams’ music in particular. John Adams grew on the east coast of the US, but his having studied composition at Harvard under the influence of Leon Kirchner turned him into a very different composer than if he had studied at Columbia or Princeton with someone like Milton Babbitt. Like Kirchner, Adams never went abroad to study, nor grew to adhere to a strict composing method or style, which was uncommon in that time. His decision to move across the country to San Francisco after graduation, in the early 1970s, placing him in the right place at the right time to become the director and conductor of new music concerts and a composition instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory. He then stayed in California, where he could mature as a composer away from the stricter and more serious academic composition culture of the east coast.

When comparing Adams with the Finnish composers for this concert, I would say that the sort of ‘career path’ and processes by which he came to develop his style were very similar to the Finnish composers I talked to: staying in the country, experimenting with different musical styles, developing ones own voice distinct from a particular teacher or musical trend. Whether the possibility still exists for American composers nowadays to kind of do what Adams did almost 50 years ago, is a good question. I am eager to work with younger American composers to get a sense of what composing in America is like today, and how it might be different from when Adams developed as a composer. In terms of the music, though, the American and Finnish works studied in this first chapter are very different; the Adams has much more in common stylistically and compositionally with the Libby Larsen solo piece than with any of the works on the first half of the Imagined Models program, signifying to me that there are very clear musical differences in Finnish and American contemporary works. With my second concert coming next year, I will look more closely at these differences in compositional style amongst younger American composers as well as the older generation of living Finnish composers.

Lucy Abrams