Jointly commissioned by Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, WDR Sinfonieorchester, Philharmonia Orchestra (with the generous support of The Meyer Foundation), Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic (Alan Gilbert, Music Director) with the generous support of The Francis Goelet Fund)
After solo concertos for piano, violin, cello, sheng and a double concerto for prepared piano, percussion and ensemble, my Clarinet Concerto is the sixth in this genre. As in previous instrumental concertos, I was no longer interested in the traditional idea of a competition between soloist and orchestra. As primus inter pares, the clarinettist, from whom a high level of virtuosity is demanded, is a part of the whole ensemble – apart from a few striking exceptions, in which the clarinet is contrasted with the entire orchestra.
The clarinet sound forms the core of the piece; the orchestra reflects and comments on the clarinet's impulses in multiple ways. The orchestral sound itself is subjected to incessant processes of transformation. In general, it was a matter – as in my other orchestral works – of creating a virtual ‘super instrument’, which in this work was a particular challenge, as the clarinet sound is very specific and seems to come from a quite separate sphere. The sound of the symphony orchestra, this wonderful relic from the 19th century, is altered by various playing techniques and by the various combinations of instruments. A small example is the treatment of the percussion group, which, inter alia, is sonically enhanced by ‘readymades’ such as fishing reels, a washboard, coil springs or a wineglass filled with vinegar water. Nevertheless, the creation of new timbres is not an end in itself, but it is closely linked with harmonic and formal qualities.
My enthusiasm for the clarinet stems from its wide range of dynamic shades, the diversity of their expressive possibilities and their enormous manoeuvrability. For the purposes of expressive development, various special techniques were required from the clarinettist. Of the many facets of the clarinet (as beyond Western classical music, it played a prominent role in early jazz and in many traditional musical cultures from various continents) I was interested in those that seem to lie outside a classically balanced, ‘cultivated’ sphere. Another idée fixe was the presentation of an imaginary, semi-ritual folk music, which is not, however, related to a particular time or place and is implemented in the most artificial manner.
My Clarinet Concerto unfolds in three movements, but the three-movement structure must not be understood in the classical sense. The first movement lasts ten minutes, by far the longest. It is entitled Mirage – Fanfare – Ornament and it is based on three very different musical characters, which merge into one another: the first is volatile, mysterious and elusive, and was inspired by the phenomenon of whistled languages; the second gives the flavour of a flourish; the third consists of ornaments. The second movement, Hymnos (Hymn), which formally resembles a kind of passacaglia, opens with a quiet and simple solo melody for the clarinet, which appears repeatedly in the course of the movement. It is based on very advanced multiphonics, which gives it its fragile nature. The third movement is called Improvisation on a groove. It begins without a break and with its consistently lively and agile character, stands in stark contrast to the previous movements. It consists of various small fragments and resembles a ‘patchwork’; continuity induces a rhythmic pattern (a ‘groove’), which runs through the movement like a thread. The musical language is neither avant-garde nor traditional, nor a postmodern collage; I went in search of new harmonic, tonal and rhythmic processes beyond tonality and atonality.
A première of one part of the work took place in Gothenburg under the direction of Kent Nagano in May 2014; the complete work was premiered by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic in September 2014. The soloist in both cases was Kari Kriikku.
Programme note © 2015, Unsuk Chin
English translation © 2015, Nicholas White / Boosey & Hawkes
"...the ethereal solo that opens the slow movement sounded like two distant voices mingling in a pungent blend of chanting and sighing... The effect is not spooky, but spellbinding. The music unfolds in fits and starts, with the clarinet breaking loose like some avant-garde jazz improviser... The last movement, true to its title, Improvisation on a Groove, is fractured, restless and brash. Mr Kriikku gave a vivid, colourful and technically stunning account of this elusive concerto."
New York Times