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Reflection: Perceptions of Strife


A week from tomorrow, Perceptions of Strife for Solo Clarinet will see its 2nd performance in over two years. Although it is not my favorite piece from my portfolio, it is an important work of mine as it served as a pivotal point in my career as the moment when I began writing more vertically, and less horizontally. It's a tad strange to think of writing a vertical piece for a solo voice incapable of producing simultaneous pitches. Generally, when composers think of vertical writing they believe that it applies to the focusing on multi-voice counterpoint in which each individual line works together with its simultaneous counterpart. So how is vertical writing achieved when you only have one independent voice? The answer is nothing rare, as it is a very common technique used in many unaccompanied works for wind instruments. The best way is to make the one voice become two, or three. Although you will never be able to achieve different pitches at the same time, it is possible to create this allusion by exploring the different timbres and utilizing the full potential of the instruments range. The clarinet is an excellent choice to use for this type of construction because, like the Saxophone, it is a very versatile instrument. Take the below Example taking from Perceptions of Strife.

In this example, the clarinet becomes its own accompaniment. The melodic line is produced above the staff while the clarinet is jumping to the lower register to maintain the essence of driving movement. The harmonic series and the lack of a register key prevents this technique from being able to be achieved quite as cleanly on a brass instrument, however more conservative approaches have been taken. I took this technique from my experiences playing Fred Clinard's 'Sonata for Unaccompanied Euphonium', however a more famous example of this comes from the last variation of the Carnival of Venice Variations, originally for cornet but transcribed for euphonium, tuba, and even trombone. The piece sounds much more difficult than it is, considering the key and the fact that is based on a simple tonal harmonic progression using mostly scaler motion.

Alright, so must unfortunate souls who have ever attempted to perform this piece might really resent my notion that this piece is 'easy', however the point was to show how the illusion of vertical writing in a single voice can be achieved through different instruments. Below is a video of Al Hirt performing the last variation.

Perceptions of strife really brought my out of my comfort zone in composition. Being used to writing with strict homophony, it was an very helpful practice to learn how to generate complexity with a single voice. Eventually, I reversed this practice by attempting to writing a piece that simplifies my music while creating a misconception of complexity. I did this in several instances in the my piano trio 'Scenic Impressions.' The example below is taken from the second movement, 'Starfield,' in which the strings are playing static harmonies for much of the time while the piano produces random fragments of tone rows outside of the string harmonies while at the same time speaking a distinct rhythmic language.

As I had mentioned before, Perceptions of Strife will once again be performed by Carrie Ravenscraft next Saturday at A/Tonal: The Fall Experience. I strongly encourage you to attend if you are in the area, not just for my piece but because of what this group stands for. Rather than claim themselves as a 'new music' ensemble, their goal is to bridge the gap between the conventions of the classics and the contemporaries of the 20th and 21st centuries. It will be a great show!

- PJF


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