Empty Sky Ko Ku

Title: Empty Sky Ko Ku
Composer: Elliot Weisgarber
Region: Vancouver, British Columbia
Date: 1990

Elliot Weisgarber was a composer that I had never heard of before, but was introduced to his music by a professor at the University of British Columbia. Weisgarber was a clarinetist, composer, and ethnomusicologist; all of these aspects of his musical life come together in Empty Sky Ko Ku. A lot of Weisgarber’s works fall into the more traditional American, mid 20th century aesthetic, but he  also has composed works, for a variety of instruments, that are based on Japanese music. Empty Sky falls into the latter category being a condensed transcription of a shakuhachi flute piece. Shakuhachi flute is a Japanese vertical wooden flute that is played by blowing across the open top. There are no keys, only holes, and it is used for meditation in Buddhism. The full title and caption that Weisgarber provides for this piece is:

Empty Sky

A meditation on the Void – the Darkness beyond the star.

“The Voice of the Buddha
is liken to the sound of a bell
ringing in the sky.”

I found this piece in the Canadian Music Centre collection. As well, through the Canadian Music Centre web catalogue, there is a recording of Weisgarber performing Empty Sky.

Empty Sky is intended for A clarinet and requires a number of extended  clarinet techniques to achieve standard shakuhachi sounds.  Weisgarber provides a few notes  to the  performer on how to achieve these sounds. I found his notes to be only somewhat helpful. He  describes the sounds and techniques he wants achieved and provides suggestions on how to play  them. I found the descriptions to be more helpful then the actual technique. Most of the performance concerns I came across in learning this piece were trying to find ways to produce the likeness of the shakuhachi.

Ultimately, I believe that Empty Sky  is a conceptualization of a shakuhachi piece for clarinet, not a literal interpretation of shakuhachi music. Coming to the understanding that through this work I will learn about Japanese traditional music and shakuhachi flute, rather than imitating and “owning” this music has allowed me to explore this piece without fear of cultural  appropriation, and to acknowledge that there are sounds that I can not achieve on the clarinet that are can be produced on the shakuhachi. For example, Weisgarber describes a technique called meri-kari where the shakuhachi player moves there head up and down to achieve a type of vibrato that goes above and below the principle pitch. It is easy to produce a note below, by bending a note with the lips on the clarinet, but above is much more difficult/impossible without changing fingerings. The solutions that I came to are an embarrassing bastardization of the  shakuhachi skill; basically, I used quick trills with vibrato.

Weisgarber published an article in the journal,  Ethnomusicology, which explains in detail the history of the shakuhachi flute, composition, and technique. I found this article very helpful to understand Empty Sky, particularly with regards to tone quality. In Weisgarber’s notes he says that the tone: “… should remain very plain throughout in keeping with the austerity of the music.”. This idea of plain tone quality is further elaborated in his article.

“Delicacy and refinement of tone such as we find, let us say, in Western flute playing-particularly that of the French-are not highly valued in the shakuhachi world. What is often sought after is a quali- ty of roughness-not crudity, but a roughness not unlike that which is desired in a valued piece of pottery such as a tea bowl. In other words something which is old and faded.”

To create this tone quality was an equally frustrating and liberating experience which required me to do the opposite of everything I typically do on the clarinet to create a good tone. Instead of having a firm upper lip, I poked it out,  and even at times let my cheeks puff. It was a very difficult task to un train the techniques I have learned to produce a focus and refined tone. I also cheated a little and used trill fingerings and quarter tone fingerings, bent up or down, to create a more plain tone quality. The note B (middle line B) is used often in this piece; I used A with the first trill key for its more spread tone and slightly flat pitch.

Performing Empty Sky  is a meditative experience for the audience and performer. However, I always like to preface each performance by stating that my performance is not shakuhachi music. It’s my attempt to understand shakuhachi through the work of someone else trying to understand shakuhachi.

Weisgarber, Elliot. “The Hon-kyoku of the Kinko-ryu”, Ethnomusicology. Vol. XII no. 3  Middle tone, Connecticut: Weslyan University Press. 


Downstream for clarinet and piano

Title: Downstream for clarinet and piano 
Composer: Jordan Nobles
Region: Vancouver, British Columbia
Date: 2000

I discovered this wonderful piece on Jordan’s website where there are links to an audio sample, and the score. Having heard some of Jordan’s works before, I was prepared to enter a new sound environment rich in overtones with an organic sense of flow. Downstream maintained my expectations and delivers much more through its simplicity and context. This piece has influence from Avro Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel  which is evident in the steady flowing piano part accompanying a slow melodic line. Downstreamhowever, explores a variety of colours in the steady piano line through the instruction for the pianist to leave the pedal down for the entire work. This allows for sounds to blur together creating an interesting array of overtones. The “melodic” line in the clarinet is not really a melody, but can be better described as an added colour to the pianos steady undulations, or an energy which emerges and disappears throughout the 8 minute work.

From the clarinetists point of view, Downstream does not require the technical acrobatics, and extended techniques typically  associated with contemporary Canadian repertoire (the clarinet doesn’t play any rhythmic value faster than half notes tied to whole notes). However, this work still has technical challenges. Each note beginning and ending is marked niente for the clarinet. In the lower and middle register this is easily achieved. Difficulty comes in the final two statements of the clarinet which are altissimo F sharps which must appear from nowhere, grow, and disappear to nothing. I found that using a long F sharp fingering  TR 123 C#|123 Eflat provided that stability I needed so that this note did not pop out.

In a discussion with Jordan he mentioned that he really likes the clarinets ability to enter from nowhere; allowing the sound to hit everyone in the audience ear at different times. Consequently, the beginnings of each note should not to be perfectly  timed entrances. To give more time for the note to grow, I started each note 2 beats early and ended two beats late just to be sure I could exploit this effect.

I could ramble on about clarinet-y things all day, but the real heart behind this work is in the context. In this piece the piano and clarinet have symbolic roles; the piano is a stream and the clarinet is a soul floating on the stream to heaven. Downstream is dedicated to Jordan’s aunt, a spiritual person, who believed that when she died, her soul floating on the stream to heaven, would be the journey for her soul. This accounts for the direction and trajectory of this work. The piano and clarinet begin in low registers and work through all 12 keys ascending to their highest registers. For me, understanding this context opened up a new emotional pallet to explore and appreciation for this work. My timing to perform this work came a week after the passing of my Uncle, so it had an even deeper impact on my connection with this piece.