For Chamber Ensemble
5 clarinets and 5 pianos
April 20, 2010, Henson Composition Recital; Arkadelphia, AR
James Thomas, Savanna Burkland, Michael Henson, Holli Bennefield, Anna Eckstein, clarinets; Perla Santoyo, Matt Johnson, Craig Wynn, Mary Kate McNally, Drew Worthen, pianos; Phillip Schroeder, conductor
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While piecing together the details of my undergraduate composition recital, I had a strong desire to incorporate an ensemble I spent several years in. Composers Phillip Schroeder, Drew Worthen, and I spent a few years rehearsing and performing Phillip's music at venues in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Playing chamber music with a set group of people tends to form bonds that extend beyond basic friendship, and I wanted to honor our bond by writing a piece for the three of us to perform on clarinet, piano, and electric bass.
At the time, I was completely enthralled by all things minimalism--particularly the music of Steve Reich. I decided to use a technique Reich began using in his piece Different Trains. This piece utilizes three separate string quartet parts. The performers would record two of them, then play back those recordings while playing the final quartet part live against the recorded ones. Using this technique, a composer can take a small ensemble and create incredibly complex and thick textures otherwise unavailable to the particular instruments and their physical limits.
Having chosen to write five separate parts for each of our instruments (for a total of fifteen independent lines played by three people), I began to muse over the particulars of our compositional styles and personalities. I settled on "waves" of sound for the pianos, light and playful clarinets, and meditative electric basses. Ultimately, I realized the electric bass parts both did not compliment the others and were unnecessary to the over-arching structure of the piece, and were omitted.
The piece begins with quintal harmonies slowly emerging and receding through the texture emphasizing mediant relationships to "fill in" the missing triadic sonorities. After a time, the clarinets begin chattering amongst themselves. All five of them play the same figure, but displaced in time from the other parts. The pianos occasionally add their own commentary to this chattering. The clarinets then begin to shift from their comfortable register to a more uncomfortable one and adopt a more syncopated rhythmic figure. The whole piece then shifts from an E-flat lydian center to a B-flat ionian one. This final section features all the piano and clarinet parts in consort. The clarinets eventually fade out and the pianos recede in the distance.
Having a limited amount of time and resources, it was eventually decided that a fully acoustic performance with ten players and a conductor would be the most effective performance solution to the problem of recording four individual parts on each instrument. The stage arrangement consisted of a semicircle around the conductor with five clarinet/piano pairs for a minor surround sound effect.
- Michael Henson