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That whole pianississimo thing…

We were thrilled to open our 2016/17 season as ensemble-in-residence at Gaudeamus Muziekweek! Lots of tasty performances were had, including world premieres by David Bird, Giulio Colangelo, and James O’Callaghan, works by Patricia Alessandrini, Reiko Füting, Lewis Nielson, and John Zorn, and a pretty rockin’ collaboration with jazz trio De Beren Gieren.

Expect vids/recordings in the coming weeks, but to get a taste of what we were up to check out this '1 Minute 'Till Showtime' clip courtesy of the good people at TivoliVredenberg:

Oerknal's season continues on November 5, when we will present a set of performances of Morton Feldman's Clarinet and String Quartet at the Portugese Synagoge as part of Amsterdam's Museumnacht. Feldman's luminous, meditative music is a perfect match for the synagogue’s acoustic and architectural aesthetic (seriously, this place is stunning...just check out the pic below).

These performances are part of Oerknal's multi-season retrospective of Feldman’s late chamber works, which continues with performances of 'For Philip Guston' at Korzo Theater on March 18 and the atypically melodious 'The Viola in My Life' series at the Portugese Synagoge on April 6. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Feldman’s music, it is something truly unique; fragile, repetitive, kaleidoscopic, and extremely quiet. It's the closest I've ever experienced to music existing outside of time.

To get you all in the mood for our November performances (click here for times and location) I caught up with Oerknal's clarinetist Daniel Boeke to chat about Feldman, out of body experiences, the subtleties of embouchure stability, and that whole pianississimo thing.

GC: 'Clarinet and String Quartet', clocking in at just under 45 minutes, is relatively short compared to other late period work by Feldman. Still, it requires a heightened kind of stamina and concentration. Could you talk a bit about what it's like to perform this piece?

DB: 'Clarinet and String Quartet' certainly requires a great deal of stamina in performance. I think compared to the really long pieces, like the string quartets or 'For Philip Guston,' we aren't yet talking about physical stamina. In those longer works one has to deal with physical fatigue, thirst, bodily 'Clarinet and String Quartet' the kind of stamina required is primarily mental. The difficulty lies in maintaining concentration for the full 45 minutes, something that of course applies to the longer pieces as well.

GC: So how do you go about developing that kind of mental concentration?

DB: When I first sat down to practice the piece I had a choice between taking it apart and working on sections one by one, or trying to tackle the whole thing from front to back. I opted for the latter; the first thing I did was to play through the entire piece without break (with metronome, of course). That was a few weeks before rehearsals started with the quartet. It was a way of telling my brain: 'Look, this is what you’re going to have to deal with, it’s not technically difficult, but you’re gonna need a lot of concentration and focus to get through it...'

GC: 'This is what 45 minutes feels like.'

DB: Exactly.

GC: Are there any challenges specific to the clarinet that the string quartet might not experience?

DB: I think this piece poses challenges specific to every instrument. For the clarinet, well...keeping the embouchure stable for 45 minutes with a perfectly constant airflow while performing fairly awkward, wide leaps. Overall, though, I think the salient difficulties are more or less the same for the entire group: concentration, endurance, consistency.

GC: Feldman was a remarkably prolific composer, yet he wrote very few pieces for clarinet. ‘Clarinet and String Quartet’ is the most substantive, both in terms of length and content. There's a great piece for bass clarinet and percussion, some early chamber stuff…but clearly he didn’t feel at home with the instrument in the same way he did with strings, piano, or percussion. Can you talk a bit about his clarinet writing, how he handles the instrument? Do you find it idiomatic, awkward, a combination of the two?

DB: I think Feldman's music is unidiomatic for every instrument.

GC: Really?

DB: Well, by unidiomatic I don’t necessarily mean technically awkward or un-instrumental...just that his music exists so much as a world unto itself that it's pointless to judge if it's well written for any given instrument in the traditional sense of being 'well written.' I wouldn't know where to start if I had to compare Feldman to the Weber 'Clarinet Concerto' or any other piece composed specifically to showcase the virtuosic possibilities of the instrument. Feldman’s music is on the other end of the spectrum, completely. Of course there are some serious technical difficulties - awkward leaps, long breaths, some fairly painful pianississimo high notes...

GC: Let’s talk about the whole pianississimo thing. Feldman is notorious for writing extremely soft dynamics in his music. ‘Clarinet and String Quartet’ is marked ‘ppp’ at the outset and literally never changes. Do you take this dynamic marking at face value?

DB: I tend to think of it as an indication for a certain mood. I set out to play everything within the range of ppp, but there are some concessions one needs to make for the sake of sound, for balance, to make certain passages sound healthy. Even though he marks this incredibly soft dynamic I'm convinced the music should never sound thin, or afraid, or breakable. It is very melodic and somehow 'cantabile' despite the repetitiveness and proto-minimal feel. Balance is of course super important; if the strings play at their softest - which is often much softer than I can play on the clarinet - I'll just come off kind of loud and out of place. If in these cases the strings play out a bit more (with ppp intention) the clarinet can play comfortably and still sound pianissimo.

GC: Pianississimo.

DB: I actually think it's pianissississimo.

GC: Piano to the 5th power.

DB: Hmmmm...

GC: I always have this 'out-of-body' experience when I perform Feldman. Like, something happens where I become just as much a listener outside of the action as a performer inside of it.

DB: Most definitely. There is this magical moment somewhere between the middle [of 'Clarinet and String Quartet'] and its golden section where each one of us tends to kind of lose concentration for a few seconds. It always happens in the same area and I think it's this 'out-of-body' aspect reaching its peak; we become listeners and are totally absorbed in the music, something approximating zero gravity. It really lasts for only a few seconds before we are fully back inside it, as performers.

GC: Do you have a favorite moment in the piece?

DB: When you start losing track of time because of the endless repetition and then suddenly the music changes...those are magical moments, especially in the second half when the clarinet goes into steady 8th-notes, or at the very end where suddenly after 40 minutes there is something like a development and you suddenly hear 16th-notes for the first time. That is absolutely mind blowing.

GC: What advice do you have for someone listening to late Feldman for the first time?

DB: Open yourself up to the experience, let it take you places, and maybe go to the restroom before the performance starts.

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