New (to me) Exciting Canadian Rep: Queen of the North

I just received a piece from composer Christopher Butterfield titled Queen of the North (2007) for clarinet and percussion.

The Queen of the North tragedy was a terrifying event that resonated with all members of the British Columbia costal area. Read more about it here.

Once I start working on this piece I’ll have more information.

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The Clarinet Works of Murray Adaskin: Daydreams and Vocalise No. 2

There are four works by composer Murray Adaskin that feature the clarinet, Daydreams for clarinet and piano (1972)Nocturne for clarinet and piano (1978)Vocalise No. 1 for solo clarinet (1989), and Vocalise No. 2 “In 5/4 Time” for solo clarinet (1994). These works are similar in their clarity and simplicity of line, three part forms, brevity – each work is one movement, limited technical demands, and require extreme musicality. I first came across the music of Murray Adaskin at a concert in Vancouver, BC where I heard AK Coop and Rachel Iwaasa perform Daydreams. The seamless passing of the melodic line and overall beauty caught my attention prompting me to explore more works by Adaskin. In this post I will discuss two of the clarinet works by Adaskin, Daydreams, and Vocalise No. 2.  I will discuss Nocturne, and Vocalise No. 1 in a later post.

The Canadian Music Centre has a large number of Adaskin’s works including sheet music for all of his clarinet works. Also, the Canadian Music Centre catalogue contains an excellent annotated bibliography of his works, complied by Gordana Lazerevich and Robyn Cathcart, which is available online, and recordings of Adaskin’s works for clarinet. The Adaskin Collection also contains all of the clarinet works in Volumes 2 and 4, and can be acquired through the CMC or iTunes.

While Adaskin’s music is widely acknowledged as Canadian, in both content and sound, I find identifying his music regionally is less concrete. I hope that exploring more Canadian music through my research will help me understand the role Adaskin’s music plays regionally in Canada. The difficulty I have encountered comes from Adaskin’s career being rooted in a variety of different areas of Canada. He was born in Ontario, he spent from 1953 – 1973 in Saskatchewan where he taught at the University of Saskatchewan, and retired to Victoria, BC. (Lazerevich & Cathcart). Understanding the traits and characteristic sounds of Canadian clarinet music will help me to place Adaskin’s music.

Title: Daydreams for clarinet and piano
Composer: Murray Adaskin
Region: Composed in Saskatchewan (1968 for violin and piano), and revised for clarinet in Victoria, BC (1972)

Daydreams for clarinet and piano was originally composed for violin and piano, and later reworked for a variety of instruments, (saxophone and piano, clarinet and piano, 2 violins, and viola and cello) during Adaskin’s retirement in Victoria, BC after 1971. This work, like most of Adaskin’s clarinet music, has a distinct clarity of line which passes seamlessly between clarinet and piano. A sense of expansiveness is created by the piano playing very high in the right hand, and low in the left hand. This expansive character is easily translated to outdoor imagery. When I performed this work the image of being outside in a large meadow on a sunny day was a scene my pianist and I consistently returned to. Another musical feature of Daydreams is a sigh motive – three statements of quarter note, eighth note, eighth, descending a semi tone; whole tone; and perfect fourth. The sigh motive and wide sweeping character contribute to Adaskin’s Canadian style. Leonard Isaacs, in a commentary for the CBC, described the Canadian character of Adaskin’s Algonquin SymphonyIsaacs quote concludes the introduction to Murray Adaskin: An Annotated Catalogue of His Work : “…the texture is rather spare – the lines of the music are clear and clean, and the interstices are devoid of lush undergrowth. There is a feeling of great space and distance – not lacking in some asperity. Just as Aaron Copland’s music is very American, so is Murray Adaskin’s Symphony in some true but intangible way, very Canadian.” (Lazerevich & Cathcart 19). Isaacs provides a descriptive framework for understanding the Canadian elements in the Algonquin Symphony; his description also applies to the Adaskin’s clarinet works as well.

There were two challenging performance considerations that I encountered when performing Daydreams: capturing the character of this work, and matching intonation with the piano. As I explained above, my pianist and I established a scene to portray through our performance. Creating a unified imagery within our ensemble informed key elements of our performance like phrase endings, line direction, and balance. Tuning is a challenge in this work because the clarinet plays in the throat tones, specifically in the sigh motive mentioned above. This combined with the chord spacing in the piano and transparent and clear voicing of chords highlighted any waver in intonation. My solution for this was to work very slowly through this piece, stopping at any intonation problems. This allowed my piano player to voice the chords in a manner that would make it easier for me to tune and for me to employ resonance fingerings and adjust notes accordingly.

Title: Vocalies No. 2 “In 5/4 time” for solo clarinet
Composer: Murray Adaskin
Region: Victoria, BC
Date: 1989

Vocalise No. 2 captures a vocal quality and follows a clear stream of consciousness. Each shape and phrase relates to the next in a meandering sequence of musical thought. Tension and release happen organically through masterful use of rhythm and silence. I found that understanding the flow and contour of Vocalise No. 2 was the most difficult and confusing when learning this piece. The 5/4 time meter often does not align with phrase indications making it difficult to know where to place emphasis. My solution was to feel 5/4 where possible, but let the slur and phrase shapes dictate where I place emphases. This solution is effective, but Adaskin’s explicit indication in the title, “in 5/4 time”, leads the performer to believe the 5/4 meter is the most important factor in interpreting the intentions of the composer. This is mainly a concern in the opening and closing sections. The middle section changes character through change of register from mainly chalumeau to altissimo and clarion, faster tempo, and a more strict following of the 5/4 meter.