Looking backwards and forwards

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column. These personal reflections are now reprinted with his permission. The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in December 2002 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

A few weeks ago, I was delighted to receive an invite from Pamela Weston to a launch party for her new book Yesterday’s Clarinettists: a sequel. I picked up my teacher John Davies from his apartment in Kew and we drove down to the south coast. Surprisingly, the weather held up for us and together with the players Colin Bradbury, Paul Harvey, June Emerson (publisher) and others, we settled down to a wonderful lunch and chat. Among many other fascinating bits of information that emerged was the fact that Pamela’s mother and John’s father both played in the same orchestra in Eastbourne – they were virtual neighbours as children, though it was many years before they actually met!

Pamela’s book is full of gems. Being a pupil of a pupil of a pupil of Henry Lazarus, one of my personal favourites concerns the great patriarch of English clarinet playing himself. In September 1872, Lazarus organised a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was to be a concert ‘to enable all classes to enjoy music at exceedingly low prices.’ Indeed many of the tickets were priced at 3 pence. The punters certainly got their money’s worth – there was sufficient music in the programme to fill up two or three evenings by today’s standards!

Part of my work is as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. I also do quite a bit of ‘behind the scenes’ work and I’m presently involved in coordinating a new series of exams for young players which are to be called Music Medals. Within the state education system in the UK, Music Services provide lessons for anyone who wishes to take up an instrument. Owing to the numbers involved, a lot of pupils are taught in groups and in the hands of a skilful and imaginative teacher such teaching is both extremely effective and successful. This series of exams has been designed to provide structure to such teaching, and will include playing both solo and ensemble music and a choice of ‘musicianship’ tests: sight-reading or improvising a completion to a given musical idea. (This is very timely in view of the fact that the Government has recently stated that every child should have access to instrumental music lessons.) The Music Medals team have been commissioning various composers to write specially-dedicated ensemble music for use in these exams, and as a result some wonderful stuff has been popping through my letterbox. If nothing else, the repertoire for small ensembles will be greatly enhanced.

In this column I have previously mentioned ‘Unbeaten Tracks’ – a collection of new pieces that I have recently edited, featuring eight clarinet pieces by contemporary composers. The word ‘contemporary’ often conjures up images of incomprehensible rhythms, mutiphonics and extreme technical difficulties. In this volume (published by Faber Music) we’ve tried to put together works that are stimulating and engaging, whilst being completely approachable technically. None of the pieces use contemporary techniques as such (except a bit of key tapping!) but rather, each composer has used the opportunity to explore their own conception of melody at the start of the twenty-first century. In this way it makes for a particularly interesting ‘document’. Perhaps the most traditional sort of melody has been contributed by Christopher Gunning (composer of much music for television and film) and the most futuristic, by Lloyd Moore. The Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has written a charming miniature ‘Reef Singing’ and there is an effective Brittenesque March by Huw Watkins. For anyone interested in broadening their repertoire, this volume is well worth a look.
On a lighter note, I’m shortly off to South East Asia to give a series of workshops and classes. Before I go, my quintet has a recital in which we are including a rather whimsical piece of mine called The Unhappy Aardvark (for Wind Quintet plus narrator). We were to be joined by Bruce Boa as the narrator (perhaps best known for playing the part of the General in Star Wars!). Regrettably Bruce fell over last week and can’t walk at the moment. But he has arranged for a friend to take his place and that friend is the actor Shane Rimmer – star of three James Bond and two Superman movies, and voice of Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds. I can’t wait!