Contemporary Clarinet Repertoire from Finland and the United States - New Ways of Artistic Expression and a Study of Sociocultural Differences

My doctoral project at the Sibelius Academy is an artistic/performance study of contemporary clarinet repertoire, by Finnish and American composers, written post-1980.  Through the performance and commissioning of new works, I will explore contemporary music from the perspective of an orchestral clarinetist and examine the differences in performance practice and contemporary music culture in the United States and Finland.


The inspiration for this research topic started in early January 2016, in my final semester in the Masters program at the Sibelius Academy, when I had the unexpected opportunity to focus on new music.  It started with a January performance of the James Cohn Concerto 1, with the Mikkeli Chamber Orchestra, a work I was familiar with because it was written for my former teacher Jon Manasse.  This performance inspired me to include it on my Masters Recital (April 2016), along with Sebastian Fagerlund's Sonata for clarinet and piano, Donald Martino's Set for Clarinet, and Elliott Carter's Esprit rude/esprit doux.  My spring of new music ended in May with the opportunity to perform as soloist in Magnus Lindberg's Kraft with the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.  

To be honest, contemporary music always scared me a little bit.  In my American music education, I did not play very much new music, first, because it just seemed too hard (to play, and musically understand), and second, there was a sense that it was not 'necessary', since what I wanted to do was be an orchestral player.  American orchestras do not play very much contemporary music, and there's a general feeling that still exists in many, many music institutions that new music simply does not appeal to audiences and that audiences do not wish to hear it.  

This spring term, however, was eye-opening to me.  While certainly not my first experience with contemporary repertoire, it was my first experience preparing such a large amount of it to perform publicly.  And I realized two very important things: first, the audiences really did respond well to it, debunking the adage that 'audiences will not listen to contemporary music'.  Second, I developed tremendously, technically and artistically, by playing this music.  

And thus my doctoral project was born.  Artistic research of contemporary music that sets out to study why contemporary music study is necessary for the 21st century orchestral clarinetist.


I received my musical education in United States and Finland (and 1 year in Malmö, Sweden), so those are the classical music and contemporary music cultures that I am most familiar with.  Second, ever since moving to Finland in 2013, I have noticed huge differences in classical music culture, and especially contemporary music culture, between the United States and Finland.  In Finland, contemporary music is much more mainstream within classical music society as a whole, and included prominently in instrumental music education.  Classical music audiences seem much more knowledgeable about contemporary music, and certainly are exposed to much more of it.  By studying and performing this repertoire, and talking to composers and musicians in both the US and Finland, I want to establish what the differences in contemporary music culture are, as well as how they came to be and what the effects on classical music culture have been.

WHY 1980?

Contemporary classical music, or modern music, is a tricky period for both musicians and music historians to define.  The fact is that after around 1945, musicologists and performers have been at odds to define the many overlapping periods and styles that have come to exist in the 2nd half of the 20th century and now in the 21st century.  I landed on 1980 for a couple reasons.  First, in Finland, the 1980s were a pivotal year in thrusting new music to the front of artistic cultural life.  The hugely important group 'Korvat Auki!' (ears open) was founded in 1977 by a young group of composition students that included Kaija Saariaho, Jouni Kaipainen, Magnus Lindberg, Olli Kortekangas, Eero Hämeenniemi, and Esa-Pekka Salonen.  In the United States, the 1980s marked the beginning of when distinct styles of contemporary music began to become much more fluid, and less defined by distinct geographic areas (NY/East coast serialism versus California/Pacific coast experimentalism).  

In my research, I also want to focus on playing works by living composers, which practically speaking means works that are composed in the end of the 20th century and later.  I think this is a crucial and unique aspect of performing contemporary music.  It is also necessary, for the purposes of my research, to be able to speak with and interview the composers of the works I play.  Finally, I want to focus on music that audiences probably are not familiar with, or most likely have not heard before.   


Artistic research is unique, as its methodology combines both the physical and mental act of performing as well as more traditional research methods (reading, writing, publishing).  On this site, I hope to share both with you, as I go along.  I will also announce my upcoming concerts.  Should questions arise, please feel free to contact me via email.  

Lucy Abrams