For Clarinet and Tape

This post aims to offer an insight into the preparation of this piece of music. When researching it myself, I found it very difficult to find people who had played it before to ask their advice. So here are my experiences intended to aid anyone else who plays it.

 It has long been an ambition of mine to prepare a work for clarinet and backing track or electronics but I could never find the right piece to start with. Many pieces were just a little too ‘out there’; very dissonant and technically complex. It was when I was shown Peter Jenkin’s CD ‘A Day in the Life of a Clarinet’ (1996 [TP086]) that I found what sounded to be an extremely exciting piece appropriately and simply titled ‘For Clarinet and Tape’. 

 Very quickly, the score and tape were dispatched from the Australian Music Centre and I was greeted by ten A3 pages of photocopied, spiral bound manuscript. A first look at the piece took me back, here were pages of fast syncopated semiquavers, large interval leaps and hardly any tape cues before page six! I had been deceived, in a good way that is.

 I knew that this piece would require many hours of work; not merely to learn the notes but to learn, aurally, the tape and its interactions. As with all pieces that I (and presumably you too reading this) undertake, some passages come together more quickly than others. This is certainly not the piece to learn front to back. Its loose ABA’ form is composed so that references or phrase fragments which return many times over the course of the piece inform each section differently. That is to say, the beginning makes much more sense once you understand how the ending functions rhythmically; or that the free section, B, motives are almost all based on motives or distinctive intervals from the A and A’ sections. 

 After some practise I wanted to get a feel for how it would be to eventually play with the tape. Be assured that this was not the best time to have the tempo revealed to me. It had been a little while since I had last listened to the recording, usually I put all recordings of repertoire away once I begin learning it, but this was an exception. The tempo is quite fast. Faster than I was able to play comfortably and fast enough for me to get lost within only 5 measures. 

 To rectify this situation I spoke to some friends and did some research online to find a very handy iPhone app called ‘robick’. It’s classified as a ‘slower downer’ meaning it is able to slow an audio track from your library but rectify the pitch shift that would usually accompany such a change. I began to use the app at 50% before taking up the tempo in very slow graduations.

 The ability to hear the tape track in such detail was extremely helpful since it made it so much easier to follow the rhythm at a slow tempo. At full speed it is very easy to drop a quaver, or even worse, a semiquaver, due to the silences between short phrases. Playing in time with the tape in this piece is difficult and really it is only achieved by knowing the accompaniment so well that it is impossible to get lost.

 The general tip that helped me was to always look for the landings, those instances where it is very clear that the clarinet part and tape come together. From there you have the unique ability to work backwards from the landing point to find where a particular phrase should begin. Thankfully, this piece has good signposts to work with.

 So whats this piece all about then? This is defiantly a different sort of piece for Martin Wesley-Smith. In many instances his pieces all have some sort of explicit extra-musical meaning attached to them. These range from climate change to treatment of refugees as well as many other endemic social problems. So the choice of title for ‘For Clarinet and Tape’ says that this is a piece was made only to exist for itself, a whole entity. The composer says, in his brief programme notes, that the piece was originally composed as a tape piece only yet, as it progressed, a line emerged that was very clarinet like and hence made the choice to adapt the work. 

 It is extremely important to note how this piece was written. The electronic music studio at the Sydney Conservatorium was lucky enough to have a ‘Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument’ (the Fairlight). This was a revolutionary, digital synthesiser and sampler conceived and developed in a basement in Sydney which allowed composers to draw, with the lightpen device, on the CRT display to manipulate sounds. The manufactures included a library of sounds with the unit but the musician could also use the peripheral microphone to record any natural sound and then play it, with differential pitch on the systems keyboard.

The most legendary feature of the Fairlight was its ‘Page R’ rhythmic sequencer where the operator could compose using traditional musical notation. I believe this is the key to understanding why ‘For Clarinet and Tape’ is such an excellent piece. It’s a technical demonstration of forefront musical technology 1983. In this way is it not so different to Bach’s new found capacity to move between keys on an equal temperament keyboard instrument. The legacy of ‘Clarinet and Tape’ rests within the legacy of the Fairlight, it really did open up a new sound world to both composers and more mainstream musicians including artists such as Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel and Jan Hammer. 

So, whilst upon listening to the piece you may be caught up in its distinctive 1980’s sound, I would encourage any clarinet player who wishes to move beyond Brahms and Mozart and expand into the more current avenues of music to consider ‘For Clarinet and Tape’; it is certainly a great project to take on. 

‘For Clarinet and Tape’ is available from the Australian Music Centre

 ps. If you do choose to play Clarinet and Tape, get in touch with me. The people who have played it are hard to find !!