Dancing Solo: A case study

This post is my first attempt at quantifying my artistic research as a case study. The piece at hand, "Dancing Solo" by Libby Larsen, will be one of the works included in my lecture recital in September in Vilnius (see event calendar), and also in my D-Vitamin series concert in Kerava in October.

I chose this work, first, because I have never played any pieces by Libby Larsen and I thought it was high time! The topic of my doctoral research is contemporary clarinet repertoire by Finnish and American composers, and Libby Larsen is one of the most widely performed living American composers. She has composed over 500 works, from solo pieces such as "Dancing Solo" to operas, and her compositions are performed all over the world. "Dancing Solo" was commissioned by Professor Caroline Hartig, of the Ohio State University, for her solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1994. Professor Hartig also commissioned Larsen to compose "Song Without Words" in 1986 for clarinet and piano.

The notes provided by the composer are as follows: "Dancing alone—improvising with the shadows, the air, on an inner beat, upon a fleeting feeling—has always enthralled me. With Dancing Solo, I am making a dance for clarinet, a dance composed of color, rhythm, beat implied and explicit, and breath: the music is the dance and the dance is the music." Though concise, Larsen's note contains much information for the performer - to treat each movement as a dance, to play to lightness and darkness (shadows) in both tone color and maybe even air speed, and to keep a firm rhythmic pulse (again - dance). The performer can still take a wide amount of liberties with the piece, as it is solo and unaccompanied.

In my background research of the work, I came across an article that Professor Hartig wrote in the International Clarinet Association (ICA) publication The Clarinet (available through Professor Hartig's website, here). The article, part of the "Masterclass series" in the December 2002 issue, was created as a guide for students learning the work for the 2003 ICA Young Artist Competition. For the competition, players had to prepare the 1st, 2nd and 4th movement (all except the 'slow' 3rd movement). Professor Hartig's article focuses on technical preparations, noting some particularly difficult passages and how to approach them, as well as a few note errors in the edition. There is surprisingly little mention of the composers intent, the collaboration between the player and composers in the works' creation, or comments/suggestions for musical approach. This could be because it was intended to aide competition preparations - meaning either Professor Hartig did not want to influence musical interpretation of the performers and create the possibility everyone performing the work the same way or since the work was being performed for competition, that artistic study of the composition should focus on technical precision and accuracy. Only at one point, on page 9 towards the bottom of the second column, does Hartig comment on a musical aspect of performance, remarking "the section on page 11 must have the feel of improvised, free-form jazz" (Hartig 2002: 9). Otherwise, the comments are strictly analytical, how to practice something with the instrument or what to do, or not do, physically when playing the clarinet.

What is in this work for the performer, or the orchestra musician? This is one of my research questions for my artistic project, and therefore I would like to touch on it here. I would say that this piece is very approachable, and would be very accessible for the musician who might not have much experience with contemporary solo clarinet repertoire. Compared to other works composed the same year (Jörg Widmann's Fantasie, Elliot Carter's Gra), it is much more technically straight forward, dare I say even 'easier'. The work does not require extended techniques like multiphonics or quarter tones, in fact the only 'extended' technique employed is flutter tongue in the final movement. All movements are measured, and the performer can practice it easily with a metronome, not the case with many contemporary works. All tempi are indicated in the score, and there are not many style markings, but a wide range of dynamics (pppp in the first movement, to fff, occurring just once towards the end of the last movement). Technically, the work lies quite well in the fingers, with no "impossible-to-play" passages, nor rapid tonguing. Hartig recommends using double-tongue in the first movement, but at the tempo suggested it is really not necessary (single groups of 4-32nd notes at quarter note = 60-66, which amounts to roughly to a single beat of sixteenth notes at quarter-note equals 120 or 124, quite manageable for a single-tongue).

I think the challenge lies in both its length, and its apparent simplicity. The four movements, in total, take around 13-15 minutes, which is quite long for a solo piece. Each movement challenges stamina and the only 'breaks' the performer has are in between movements. The first movement is maybe the least tiring, while the third and fourth movements are very draining. The third movement is a long, lyrical one-page solo, without so much as an eighth rest to breath. Hartig even recommends using circular breathing to maintain a full sound. And the fourth movement, is very long, with 'jazzy' technical passages interspersed with a simple syncopated ostinato, usually presented for its full 8-measure iteration. While nothing is difficult to play, per se, playing the movements all together are incredibly physically demanding.

Furthermore, I think the apparent simplicity poses its own challenges to the performer. With the musical inspiration of dance, shadow and light, the performer must bring the work to life oneself, if that makes sense. While it would be easy to play everything as written, with proper tempi, and dynamics, I fear this would not be enough to make the work effective for an audience. As musicians often say, this is one of those works that does not simply 'play itself'. Larsen repeats motives many times, in all the movements, either transposing a musical passage, like the three cadenza-like passages of the first movement, or through full recapitulation of a musical motive to provide form, like opening eight measures of the last movement, that returns with the exact same notes eights times (though not always for the full eight measures). It was useful, in my preparations, to try and assess, musically, the purpose of the repetition. If it is to provide form and structure, as in the jazzy fourth movement, I actually felt that I could take musical (and physical) pressure off the of the passage, and play it almost as if it were background music. The eight-bar passage is itself eight identical measures, and when repeated ad nauseam, it becomes almost a-musical. The player is left with a couple choices: barrel through and pretend that the repetitions are all equally musically meaningful, take a slightly comical approach when arriving at a repetition as if to say "surprise, here we are again!" or "oh this again?!", or, as I do for the time being, allow the repetitions to be a laid back, jazzy, background ostinato that allows the audience to mentally pause for a moment and reset for the next moment of 'musical action'. This repetition stands in contrast to the nine measures, beginning just before "Push ahead" in the first movement, where the same rhythm harmonically progresses to the throat tone A-whole note. Here, the player must play a very slow accelerando, but the starting tempo is so slow, the figure is quite stagnant. I feel the best approach would be to pace the crescendi; even though each measure is marked identically mf cresc. sub. p, repeating it this way might make the musical progression to the whole note A difficult. While not a comprehensive analysis, these are two examples of different way to address repetitions throughout this work.

I have just begun reading Denise Von Glahn's biography of Libby Larsen, which I am sure will positively influence not only my understanding of the composer but also contribute to my musical interpretation of this work. As mentioned, "Dancing Solo" will be analyzed and presented along with Markku Klami's solo work Twirl in early September in lecture recital format. So I shall pause for now, and more to come soon!


Lucy Abrams