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.

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.