Program & Sleeve Notes

Sleeve Notes for Naxos Disc: `Nigel Clarke – 8.5700429’

Nigel Clarke (b. 1960)

Pernambuco · The Miraculous Violin · Loulan · Samurai · Premonitions · Black Fire

Scan from Milton’s `Paradise Lost’ / Illistrated by Gustave Doré.  London: Cressell, Petter, and Galpin, Ludgate Hill, EC., 1866

Scan from Milton’s `Paradise Lost’ / Illistrated by Gustave Doré. London: Cressell, Petter, and Galpin, Ludgate Hill, EC., 1866

Nigel Clarke began his musical career as a military bandsman, a trumpeter. It is fascinating that so much of his most adventurous music has been for string instruments. His writing for strings is extraordinarily idiomatic; like other non-string players such as Sir Michael Tippett or Hans Werner Henze, he often seems to find his most personal expression in the instruments which are furthest from his experience as a performing musician.

For two decades, Nigel Clarke has collaborated with the British violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved. Together, they have led workshops for performers and composers in China, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Turkey, and the United States. This work has proved to be a vital spur for the techniques and ideas behind his compositions.

The Miraculous Violin was jointly commissioned by the British Council and I Solisti di Zagreb, to whom it is dedicated. In order to prepare to write the work, composer and violinist spent time ‘workshopping’ with this virtuoso chamber group. Typically, in the course of workshops, Nigel Clarke can be observed listening out for musical gestures with which players are comfortable on their instruments. These can appear in two opposing ways; most obviously, through the gradual exploratory process of the workshop, exploring colour by colour, or in the ‘off-the-cuff’ licks and runs which most players will use to relax, warm up, or in fun. This careful listening enables him to construct ‘swatches’ of soundcolours; from these, little tapestries of effect can be constructed, which are often the raw material, the Stoff from which a piece will emerge. In one instance in Zagreb, Krešimir, a viola-player, burst in with a spectacular dance-tune, played with fantastic colours. Nigel Clarke sprang up from his chair in the middle of the circle of players. “That’s great, we’ll use it! What is it?” This was greeted with hoots of laughter, and good-humoured derision was hurled at the violist. The leader, Andelko Krpan leant over to Sheppard Skærved. They say “Please don’t use this one. It’s a Serb tune”. “Then I am definitely going to use it” retorted Clarke. This moment provided the stimulus for the viola countermelodies in the fast inner sections of the work. As a result of this close collaboration, The Miraculous Violin reflects the energised physicality of the Solisti di Zagreb. The success of this work, with its dedicatees and subsequent ensembles, is testament to the success of what the anthropologist Genevieve Bell has called ‘deep hanging out’.

Loulan was the result of just such ‘deep hanging out’. In the autumn of 2002, Nigel Clarke and Peter Sheppard Skærved spent time in the city of Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang province in China. The experience of this extraordinary landscape, the desert, the profound melting-pot of cultures, affected him deeply. On the last night of the visit, the composer and violinist were treated to an extraordinary banquet which included performances of many of the traditional music and dances of the region. Both composer and soloist took copious notes of the performances, and these became the raw material for Loulan. Like Pernambuco this piece is not a synthesized version of the music which Clarke heard, but a highly distilled response to the whole experience, one which manifested itself in new colours and timbres on the violin, and a profound simplicity of structure and utterance.

This exploratory approach was also fundamental to the earliest violin piece on this disc, Pernambuco. Clarke had been speaking of his determination to write a piece about the bow, an instrument, which, despite its extraordinary technological and technical subtleties has barely entered the public consciousness. ‘Pernambuco’ also known as ‘brazil wood’ became vital to the construction of the modern bow, developed in the 1780s by the French maker François Tourte. Clarke took inspiration from the rhythmic excitement and colouristic brilliance of South American folk instruments, as well as aspects of Pre-Columbian art, to create a piece of violin music unlike any other, one which has proved extremely popular with performers and audiences, despite its extreme physical demands.

During the 2002 Xinjiang visit, The Miraculous Violin reached its final form. In the course of working with the orchestra in Urumqi, Clarke decided that the piece needed a cadenza. This initially took the form of an improvisation, but then this was replaced with a written out cadenza by Sheppard Skærved, composed referencing a number of Clarke’s earlier works, most particularly Parnassus, a string ensemble piece which had marked the beginning of their collaboration as students. This cadenza is placed, in Mendelssohnian fashion, at the midway point of the piece.

In the course of collaboration with Sheppard Skærved in Ankara, Nigel Clarke was able for the first time to work on his music with a Turkish military orchestra. This experience, combined with long-term collaboration with Turkish composers such as Sıdıka Özdil and Yiğit Kolat, was a vital element in the development of the tumultuous fast music of Black Fire. Having begun his musical life as a bandsman, Nigel Clarke is profoundly affected by the relationship of the western European tradition of military music and the music of the former Ottoman Empire, which still finds echoes in the military music of Turkey and the Balkan states.

In 1995 Nigel Clarke was commissioned to write Samurai for the Royal Northern College of Music Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Timothy Reynish in the northern English city of Manchester. He responded to the fact that the work was due to have its première in Hamamatsu, Japan, by basing the work on aspects of Samurai culture and warfare. Two Japanese instruments are specifically evoked, the taiko, a large drum used for battlefield communication, and a conch-shell trumpet, the horagai. He is keen to stress that he was equally impressed by the creative culture of the Samurai, and the piece alludes to this in the ritual slow sections. Clarke was seeking to write a piece that would not be out of place in an Akira Kurosawa film.

For some years prior to the composition of Black Fire, Nigel Clarke had been speaking of this determination to write a major work for violin and symphonic wind orchestra. As Samurai had become a core repertoire work for wind orchestra, he was determined to take up the challenge thrown down by Kurt Weill’s classic concerto for violin and wind and to bring together these usually separate worlds. The title was inspired by Gustave Doré’s engravings for Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s ambivalent parable seemed a perfect metaphor for the ‘age of anxiety’ in which this work was composed; to emphasize this mood, a quotation from Richard Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung is used. Clarke stresses that this piece is not a concerto, but rather, a drama for orchestra and soloist in the tradition of Berlioz, with the soloist cast in the rôle of Satan. In Paradise Lost Milton refers to the devils, cast out of heaven and lying scattered like dried leaves in the Arno Valley. Clarke loops time in his piece, which ends with Satan, flying off on his mission of suicidal evil heroism to spoil God’s newest creation, Earth, the silence of his departure only slightly disturbed by the rustle of the downcast demons. Black Fire had its première in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, conducted by the late Gerald Loren Welker.

Some time after the first performance, Clarke realised that he had unwittingly already written a prelude to this work, in the form of his early trumpet work Premonitions. This became a fitting, almost Ivesian, questioning voice, to upbeat the sound and fury of Black Fire.

It is not necessary to know any of these things in order to enjoy Clarke’s direct, impassioned music, but he has never felt it necessary to hide his inspirations, and is always candid about the ‘triggers’ that fascinate and inspire him.

Stella Wilson


Pernambuco • The Miraculous Violin • Loulan • Samurai • Premonitions • Black Fire

Nigel Clarke begann seine musikalische Laufbahn als Trompeter in einer Militärkapelle. Es ist faszinierend, dass er viele seiner mutigsten Werke für Streichinstrumente komponiert hat. Seine Schreibweise für Streicher ist äußerst idiomatisch: Ähnlich wie andere Musiker, die kein Streichinstrument spielen – Sir Michael Tippett etwa oder Hans Werner Henze –, so scheint auch Clarke oftmals seinen persönlichsten Ausdruck bei jenen Instrumenten zu finden, die am weitesten von seinen Erfahrungen als ausübender Musiker entfernt sind.

Seit zwei Jahrzehnten arbeitet Nigel Clarke mit dem britischen Geiger Peter Sheppard Skærved zusammen. Die beiden Künstler haben gemeinsame Workshops für Interpreten und Komponisten in China, Mazedonien, im Kosovo, in Kroatien, der Türkei und in den USA veranstaltet. Diese Arbeit hat sich als ein wichtiger Antrieb für die Techniken und Ideen der hier vorliegenden Kompositionen erwiesen.

The Miraculous Violin („Die wunderbare Violine“) entstand im Auftrag des British Council und der Solisti di Zagreb, denen das Werk auch gewidmet ist. Als Vorbereitung zu diesem Werk verbrachten Clarke und Sheppard Skærved einige Zeit mit dem virtuosen Kammerensemble. Man wird den Komponisten bei Workshops dieser Art immer wieder nach solchen musikalischen Gesten suchen sehen, bei denen sich die Spieler auf ihren Instrumenten wohlfühlen. Das kann in unterschiedlicher Weise geschehen – entweder in Form eines graduellen Erkundungsprozesses, bei dem eine Farbe nach der anderen untersucht wird, oder aber bei der Betrachtung der improvisierten Figuren und Läufe, die die meisten Spieler zur Entspannung, zum Aufwärmen oder zum Amusement verwenden. Dieses genaue Zuhören ermöglicht ihm dann die Konstruktion von Klangfarbmustern, aus denen sich kleine Tapisserien verschiedener Effekte erstellen, lassen die häufig das Rohmaterial, den Stoff abgeben, aus dem das Stück entstehen wird. Bei einer Gelegenheit platzte Krešimir, einer der Zagreber Bratscher, mit einer spektakulären, in fantastischen Farben gespielten Tanzmelodie los. Nigel Clarke, der inmitten der Musiker saß, sprang von seinem Stuhl auf: „Das ist großartig, das nehmen wir! Was ist das?“ Es folgte ein johlendes Gelächter, und der Bratscher wurde von seinen Kollegen auf den Arm genommen. Andelko Krpan, der Konzertmeister, wandte sich an Sheppard Skærved. Sie sagen: „Bitte verwenden Sie das nicht. Das ist eine serbische Melodie!“. „Dann nehme ich es auf jeden Fall,“ erwiderte Clarke. Dieser Augenblick lieferte die Anregung für die melodischen Gegenstimmen der Bratsche, die in den schnelleren Binnenteilen des Werkes zu hören sind. Infolge dieser engen Zusammenarbeit reflektiert The Miraculous Violin die energiegeladene Körperlichkeit der Solisti di Zagreb. Der Erfolg, den das Stück bei seinen Widmungsträgern und anderen Ensembles erringen konnte, ist ein Beweis für die Richtigkeit dessen, was die Anthropologin Genevieve Bell als „tiefes Eintauchen“ bezeichnet hat.

Auch Loulan war das Ergebnis eines solch „tiefen Eintauchens“. Im Herbst 2002 verbrachten Nigel Clarke und Peter Sheppard Skærved einige Zeit in Urumqi, der Hauptstadt der chinesischen Provinz Xinjiang. Die außergewöhnliche Landschaft, die Einsamkeit und der große kulturelle Schmelztiegel berührten den Komponisten zutiefst. Am letzten Abend ihres Aufenthalts wurden Clarke und Sheppard Skærved mit einem ungewöhnlichen Bankett geehrt, bei dem viele traditionelle Musikstücke und Tänze der Gegend aufgeführt wurden.

Beide Künstler machten ausgiebige Notizen von den Darbietungen, und diese wurden zum Rohmaterial des Stückes Loulan, bei dem es sich – ebensowenig wie bei Pernambuco – um eine synthetische Variante der Musik handelt, die Clarke zu hören bekam, sondern um ein außerordentliches Destillat des gesamten Erlebnisses, das sich in neuen Farben und Timbres der Geige sowie in einer großen strukturellen und sprachlichen Einfachheit manifestierte.

Dieser informatorische Ansatz bildet auch die Grundlage von Pernambuco, dem ältesten Violinstück auf dieser CD. Clarke nahm sich vor, ein Werk über den Bogen zu schreiben, ein Instrument, das trotz seiner außergewöhnlichen Technologie und technischen Feinheiten kaum ins öffentliche Bewusstsein gedrungen ist. „Pernambuco“, auch bekannt als „brasilianisches Holz“, war von großer Bedeutung für die Konstruktion des modernen Bogens, den der französische Instrumentenbauer François Tourte in den 1780er Jahren entwickelte. Clarke ließ sich von der aufregenden Rhythmik und den brillanten Farben der südamerikanischen Volksinstrumente sowie von Aspekten der präkolumbianischen Kunst inspirieren und schuf ein Violinstück, das sich von allen andern unterscheidet und sich trotz seiner extremen physischen Anforderungen sowohl bei den Musikern wie auch beim Publikum größter Beliebtheit erfreut.

Während des Aufenthaltes in Xinjiang nahm The Miraculous Violin ihre endgültige Form an. Als Clarke mit dem Orchester von Urumqi arbeitete, stellte er fest, dass dem Stück eine Kadenz fehlte. Diese bestand anfangs aus einer Improvisation, wurde dann aber durch eine auskomponierte Kadenz von Sheppard Skærved ersetzt, die auf verschiedene frühere Stücke von Clarke anspielt – besonders auf Parnassus, ein Stück für Streicherensemble, mit dem seinerzeit die Zusammenarbeit der beiden Studenten begann. Diese Kadenz steht, wie bei Mendelssohn, in der Mitte des Stückes.

Als Nigel Clarke mit Sheppard Skærved gemeinsam in Ankara arbeitete, hatte er erstmals die Möglichkeit, mit einer türkischen Militärkapelle zu kooperieren. Diese Erfahrung und die lange Zusammenarbeit mit türkischen Komponisten wie Sıdıka Özdil und Yiğit Kolat waren wesentliche Elemente, die zur Entwicklung der tumulthaft schnellen Musik von Black Fire führten. Da Nigel Clarke selbst seine musikalische Karriere als Militärmusiker begonnen hatte, interessierte ihn natürlich besonders die Beziehung zwischen der westeuropäischen Militärmusiktradition und der Musik des einstigen Osmanischen Reiches, die in der Militärmusik der Türkei und der Balkanstaaten noch immer ihren Widerhall findet.

1995 erhielt Nigel Clarke den Auftrag zu Samurai für Timothy Reynish und das symphonische Blasorchester des Royal Northern College of Music im nordenglischen Manchester. Im Hinblick auf die Tatsache, dass das Stück im japanischen Hamamatsu uraufgeführt werden sollte, berücksichtigte er bei der Komposition verschiedene Aspekte der Samurai-Kultur und -kriegskunst. Insbesondere evoziert er zwei japanische Instrumente: die große Fasstrommel Taiko, die der Kommunikation auf dem Schlachtfeld diente, sowie die Muscheltrompete Horagai. Der Komponist betont, dass er auch von der schöpferischen Kultur der Samurai beeindruckt war, auf die er in den langsamen, rituellen Abschnitten des Stückes Bezug nimmt. Clarke hat hier versucht, eine Musik zu schreiben, die zu einem Film von Akira Kurosawa passte.

Einige Jahre vor der Komposition von Black Fire äußerte Nigel Clarke immer wieder seine Absicht, ein großes Stück für Violine und symphonisches Blasorchester zu schreiben. Nachdem Samurai ein zentrales Repertoirewerk für Blasorchester geworden war, fasste er den Entschluss, die Herausforderung anzunehmen, die Kurt Weill mit seinem klassischen Konzert für Violine und Bläser gestellt hat, und die beiden üblicherweise voneinander getrennten Welten miteinander zu verbinden. Der Titel ist durch Gustave Dorés Stiche zu Miltons Paradise Lost angeregt. Miltons mehrdeutige Parabel erschien ihm als perfekte Metapher für das „Zeitalter der Angst“, in dem das Stück komponiert ist. Um diese Stimmung zu betonen, wird ein Zitat aus Richard Wagners Götterdämmerung verwendet. Clarke betont, dass es sich bei diesem Werk um kein Konzert handelt, sondern um ein Drama für Orchester und Solisten in der Tradition von Berlioz – wobei hier dem Solisten die Rolle Satans zugewiesen ist. In Paradise Lost spricht Milton von den Teufeln, die aus dem Himmel vertrieben wurden und nun vertrockneten Blättern gleich im Tal des Arno liegen. Clarke verdreht die Zeit in seinem Stück, das damit endet, dass Satan in bösem Heroismus zu seiner selbstmörderischen Mission abhebt, um Gottes jüngste Schöpfung, die Erde, zu vernichten. Sein stiller Aufbruch wird dabei nur ein wenig durch das Rascheln der niedergeschlagenen Dämonen gestört. Black Fire wurde in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, unter der Leitung des inzwischen verstorbenen Gerald Loren Welker uraufgeführt.

Einige Zeit nach der Premiere stellte Clarke fest, dass er, ohne es zu wissen, schon ein Vorspiel zu diesem Stück geschrieben hatte – in Gestalt seines frühen Trompetenwerkes Premonitions. Dieses wurde zu einer passenden, an Ives erinnernden Frage und geht als Auftakt dem Klang und der Wut von Black Fire voran.

Es ist nicht nötig, etwas von diesen Dingen zu wissen, um sich an Clarkes direkter, leidenschaftlicher Musik erfreuen zu können; er aber hält es nicht für nötig, seine Anregungen zu verbergen und spricht immer freimütig von den „Auslösern“, die ihn faszinieren und inspirieren.

Stella Wilson
Deutsche Fassung: Cris Posslac

Sleeve Notes for Metier Disc: `Premonitions – MSV CD92024’

Nigel Clarke (b. 1960)

Pernambuco · Spectroscope · Premonitions · Echo & Narcissus · Chinese Puzzles · Lindisfarne Stone

Peter & Nigel

Peter & Nigel

In 1993, Nigel Clarke and I were working on the sketches for Pernambuco. The piece had grown from the initial blank page with which he had confronted me, and we were `test-driving’ various ways of using the instrument. He was puzzling out how to integrate or discard the extended techniques and extreme colours that he had developed for the work.

This is Nigel’s favourite way of working; to confront his interpreters with ideas and fragments, to see how far the performer is willing to “push the envelope”; and he is more persistent with it, almost as an article of faith, than any other composer that I have encountered.

I was frustrated at my inability to immediately execute the dense chordal harmony that Nigel had presented me and stamped on the wooden floor of the room in which we were working in self-disgust. “How did you do that? How much of that can you do while you play? How can we make it louder-faster-more exciting? Can you stamp one rhythm and play another….? Thus was the climax of this piece born.

Through this empirical method Clarke gets under the expressive skin of the instrument and player. He knows that if he can infiltrate the performing aesthetic of his collaborators, then he will have freedom to alter the perception of the instrument itself, and thus remould the whole package, performer and player into his ideal. The resulting works are always perfectly conceived for the instrument, without ever feeling that a musical goal has been smudged in the quest for technical expedience. This is, of course, very close to Hindemith’s compositional technique. Hindemith experimented extensively with deriving passage-work from the convenient `fall of the hand’. A glance over any of the chamber works written in the 1920’s reveals this. Take for example, the especially brilliant solo writing in the finale of the “Fünf Stücke” for string orchestra written for the “Ploner Musiktage” concerts in 1924. The very stuff of much of Clarke’s music, harmonically and melodically, is drawn from the hand-configurations, turns of phrase, colours, that the intended performer finds natural. Unlike Hindemith, this language is not related to the feel of the instrument for a composer performing his own music.

Talking with Nigel Clarke, one soon discovers that he identifies strongly with the virtuoso performer; his voice almost seems liberated by the transcendental technical approach. In fact he has said that he wonders if it is possible to express himself freely at all unless he is able to write for the instruments at the very precipice of technical collapse, and for interpreters who are happy to explore a certain emotional and expressive danger. This can cut two ways, as is intriguingly revealed in the language of Premonitions. This is the only work on this disc written for Nigel’s original instrument, the trumpet. It is perhaps the most withdrawn, half-lit work recorded here; ”… ancestral voices prophesying war”, it may be, but very much in the distance. A tremendous depth and range of expression is exploited by exploring the instrument’s fragility and colouristic ambiguity in certain registers and articulations. This is very much held within limits; much said by silence and hesitation. In complete contrast, the white heat of Solstice seems to arrive at its expressive goals through what are apparently the opposite technical means; blistering runs, piled up dissonances, with the athleticism of the pianist at full stretch, but similarly revealing of this composer’s particular lyricism. This restraint is complemented by the structural restraints that Clarke imposes on himself in his piece of scientific augury, Spectroscope. The succinctness and near classical shaping of this work lend it an extraordinary grace, which belies the many technical innovations.

This identification with the spirit of the performer can reveal itself in a charming, ingenuous way. Because of the extreme clarity of his harmony, a wrong note will show, and the performer is not, for instance, at liberty to submerge notes into a complex expressionist swirl. Such music is not improved by a welter of quarter-tones and random scurrying that some composers seem to be trying to access through extreme textual density and technical gaucheries. Clarke’s approach is interestingly empowered. His response to a performer in this situation is to insist that they accept the “wrong” note that they are playing; I have seen him confront a player’s resistance to the preservation of their own lacunae by changing the note in the score. He knows that the integrity of his language will only be enhanced if the performer is playing the notes that they feel; even if this involves a flexible approach to the text.

This approach may have its origins in the complex relationship that Clarke’s music has with the aleatoric techniques of a Lutoslawski and Penderecki, particularly the “box” system. Many of his earlier ensemble works used this technique extensively; notably Parnassus, where the thirteen violently independent string lines manoeuvred into a kind of counterpoint using this system. Like many composers, he has gradually moved away from this method, but its legacy remains in his treatment of multiple lines. The two duo works on this collection give a number of clues to the remarkable degree of control that the understanding of this system has given this composer. The result is that the vertically coordinated passages in say Chinese Puzzles are full of the swagger and apparent freedom that the players would have had if they were playing floating “box”-notated figuration, but with the added edge of required co-ordination. This reciprocated by a certain tension in the free, “senza misura” lines of, say, Lindisfarne Stone; any players working on the explosive floating passages in this piece soon come to an awareness that, yes, they do have liberty to play their lines independently of each other, but that there is most definitely an ideal version, which they have some how to divine. This ideal version is certainly not represented by the vertical alignment of the music in the score, but rather implied contextually.

Nigel Clarke

Nigel with Paul Hindemith! On the steps of the Conservatoire Ankara 2007. Photograph taken by Marius Skaerved

These factors are lent another layer of sophistication by Clarke’s provocatively inconsistent use of titles. Are they keys to the works? Just to run through them, we have Lindisfarne Stone, alluding to the atmosphere of a Norse attack on the holy island in the Dark Ages; Echo and Narcissus, a representation of the Ovid Metamorphosis; Spectroscope, referring to the device for examining spectra revealed by different elements; Solstice, somehow hinting at some ritualistic associations of the title; Premonitions, a title which begs the question `of what?’: Pernambuco, which alludes to the `primal violin’ through the name of the source hardwood used to make violin bows, and finally, Chinese Puzzles. This last title is at once the most prone to mis-reading; it refers to the interlocking pieces of a three dimensional conundrum. This would seem to be the source for the structure of the piece, but gives no indication or clue to the savagery therein. In stark contrast, Lindisfarne Stone is actively helpful, for both listener and performer, in suggesting a performance style aimed at reproducing a certain dramatic context.

Perhaps there is a Margritte-esque game going on here. Do these titles misinform, enlighten, or merely manipulate the anticipation of the audience and interpreter? There can be no question that any player playing Lindisfarne Stone will be encouraged by its title to exaggerate the pictorial nature of the “frozen” coda by the implication of the title. However, one might ask who or what is to be learnt from the title Spectroscope? This tells the performer nothing about the execution of the work, and the listener nothing about what to listen for. It is, however, a window onto the composer’s compositional process, perhaps the most intimate clue Clarke gives us as to his private working method.

The constant adjustment of “point of view” that we can observe in the titling of the works, can also be seen as paradigmatic of a similar variation in the music’s nature, from Polemic, Prophecy, Monologue, Dialogue, Soliloquy, Dramatic Scene, from pure abstract, writing to quasi-cinematic levels of depiction and representation. The music is enlivened by this constant shift of the mode of address; the listener is constantly left unsure of their level of intimacy or alienation from the message, which consequently can shock as much by its uncompromising directness as by its obliqueness.

© 1999, Peter Sheppard Skaerved