Making Clarinet Cool!
– by Lee Greene
On November 5, SOU’s Music Recital Hall hosted a concert, “West Coast Bass Clarinet Takeover”, conceived and fashioned by clarinet students in SOU’s Music Department, and featuring the unique American bass clarinet quartet, Edmund Welles, in addition to several student clarinet ensembles. (Edmund Welles is not the name of a person, but the name of a group. If the name seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the group was named for a comedy sketch in the British television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) The quartet, Edmund Welles, is based in Oakland California, and was founded by progressive rock and heavy chamber music composer Cornelius Boots. They play what they describe as “heavy chamber music”, which it seems subsumes many different music genres, including avant-garde, gospel, jazz, and heavy metal. Using four bass clarinets, they perform cover versions of songs by such groups as Radiohead, Primus, Black Sabbath, The Residents, Iron Maiden and Spinal Tap, in addition to original works composed by member/founder Cornelius Boots.
Now if you’re thinking of the long straight instrument made popular by Benny Goodman in the 1930’s and 40’s, you’ve got the wrong picture. Goodman played a soprano clarinet, which is just one type of instrument in the clarinet family. Edmund Welles plays four bass clarinets, which are considerably larger, with a curvature near the opening and a much deeper more resonant tone than a soprano clarinet. The director of SOU’s student clarinet ensembles (the Cascade Clarinet Consort) and professor of music, Rhett Bender, explains “There is a whole family of clarinets, and the bass clarinet was rarely, if ever, the featured instrument.” Edmund Welles uses the bass clarinet as “a primary instrument rather than a secondary instrument.” He continues, “The band has a heavy-metal influence, a rhythmic way of composing and playing that comes from progressive rock. I’ve never heard anything like them.” So, how did he come to hear them now? “The students brought them to our attention and did the fundraising to get them here.” Edmund Welles’ sound, assimilating rock, metal and jazz, attracts and appeals to students. But the group’s training is derived from classical music, employing techniques and skills instructive to the students, and producing “a genre of progressive bass clarinet music” that is unique and well received by audiences. The end result, say Bender is “Edmund Welles is making clarinet cool”, which hasn’t really been the case in the past 70 years since the height of the Benny Goodman era.
This student-organized concert was both an opportunity to have Edmund Welles come and play some cool bass clarinet music, and also for the student ensembles to get in a few licks performing. The concert began with a piece (Runion by Jonathan Russell) performed by SOU’s own bass clarinet ensemble, the Bassilisk Quartet, which gave the audience a good first taste of what bass clarinets are and can do. Though bass clarinets may be cool, and may be taking over, the concert was not limited to bass clarinets however.
Next up to play was the students’ Antibassilisk Trio (get it? Antibassilisk = NOT bass clarinets! A trio of soprano clarinets – the familiar licorice stick instruments ala Benny Goodman). The Antibassilisk Trio performed Mozart’s Rondo from Divertimento IV and Beethoven’s Four Contre Dances. Very traditional classical clarinet music, performed well; a reminder to the audience of what standard clarinet music sounds like, and what one ordinarily would encounter in a clarinet concert.
Then WOWZERS! Edmund Welles took the stage. Other than founder, Cornelius Boots, the group’s personnel is apparently continuously in flux, as Boots explained to the audience. At this performance, he was joined by members Cory Wright and Rachel Condry, with the fourth chair filled in by SOU clarinet student Christina Dietlein.
What Edmund Welles played was nothing like the traditional music performed by the soprano clarinet trio, and as promised by Professor Bender, very unique and very cool. No wonder the students go for this group and their bass clarinet music. Edmund Welles played an extensive variety of pieces, covering a wide range of genre’s including Montana Taylor’s Indiana Avenue Stomp;, a couple of Gospel pieces: Touch Me Lord Jesus and Prayer in My Mouth; the Pixies’ hit, Is She Weird; and an assortment of original compositions by Cornelius Boots, including Passive Illumination, Seventh Furnace, and the last Edmund Welles piece, Moira the Warrior. The ways in which the group were able to use the bass clarinets, as lead instruments, as ersatz string double basses, and more, and the sounds they were creating with them, were a revelation. There was such a variety of musical genres and pieces, and of roles for the bass clarinets that it is impossible to present one example that typifies it all. However, one can at least get a sense of how different, skillful, appealing, and cool the music of the bass clarinet quartet can be from listening to the last minute excerpt of Moira the Warrior presented below:
Last minute excerpt of Moira the Warrior by Cornelius Boots, performed by Edmund Welles with SOU student Christinas Dietlein, at West Coast Bass Clarinet Takeover concert on Nov. 5, 2014 at SOU Music Recital Hall, Ashland, OR.
To cap things off, and provide a real treat for themselves, the clarinet students who organized this concert presented a joint ensemble on stage, pairing their own combined group of soprano and bass clarinets (the Cascade Clarinet Consort) with Edmund Welles (see photo at top of page) to perform two pieces, contrasting the relatively traditional O Magnum Mysterium with the original, contemporary Cornelius Boots piece, Va Larga.
Professor Bender had it right. “This concert [was] unlike any clarinet performance we’ve had here in Ashland.” Edmund Welles indeed “[made] clarinet cool.”
The next SOU Cascade Clarinet Consort concert, presented jointly with the Siskiyou Saxophone Orchestra, will be on Thu., Feb. 12, 2015, 7:30pm at SOU Music Recital Hall, Ashland. For tickets: online at http://bit.ly/1F6QIH4, by calling the box office at 541-552-6348, or in person at the box office in the lobby of the SOU Music Recital Hall on South Mountain Av. in Ashland, OR.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on November 14, 2014 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/making-clarinet-cool/