About this Recording
8.570429 - CLARKE, N.: Samurai / Black Fire / The Miraculous Violin
English  German 

Nigel Clarke (b. 1960)
Pernambuco · The Miraculous Violin · Loulan · Samurai · Premonitions · Black Fire


Nigel Clarke began his musical career as a military bandsman, a trumpeter. It is fascinating that so much of his most adventurous music has been for string instruments. His writing for strings is extraordinarily idiomatic; like other non-string players such as Sir Michael Tippett or Hans Werner Henze, he often seems to find his most personal expression in the instruments which are furthest from his experience as a performing musician.

For two decades, Nigel Clarke has collaborated with the British violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved. Together, they have led workshops for performers and composers in China, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Turkey, and the United States. This work has proved to be a vital spur for the techniques and ideas behind his compositions.

The Miraculous Violin was jointly commissioned by the British Council and I Solisti di Zagreb, to whom it is dedicated. In order to prepare to write the work, composer and violinist spent time 'workshopping' with this virtuoso chamber group. Typically, in the course of workshops, Nigel Clarke can be observed listening out for musical gestures with which players are comfortable on their instruments. These can appear in two opposing ways; most obviously, through the gradual exploratory process of the workshop, exploring colour by colour, or in the 'off-the-cuff' licks and runs which most players will use to relax, warm up, or in fun. This careful listening enables him to construct 'swatches' of soundcolours; from these, little tapestries of effect can be constructed, which are often the raw material, the Stoff from which a piece will emerge. In one instance in Zagreb, Krešimir, a viola-player, burst in with a spectacular dance-tune, played with fantastic colours. Nigel Clarke sprang up from his chair in the middle of the circle of players. "That's great, we'll use it! What is it?" This was greeted with hoots of laughter, and good-humoured derision was hurled at the violist. The leader, Andelko Krpan leant over to Sheppard Skærved. They say "Please don't use this one. It's a Serb tune". "Then I am definitely going to use it" retorted Clarke. This moment provided the stimulus for the viola countermelodies in the fast inner sections of the work. As a result of this close collaboration, The Miraculous Violin reflects the energised physicality of the Solisti di Zagreb. The success of this work, with its dedicatees and subsequent ensembles, is testament to the success of what the anthropologist Genevieve Bell has called 'deep hanging out'.

Loulan was the result of just such 'deep hanging out'. In the autumn of 2002, Nigel Clarke and Peter Sheppard Skærved spent time in the city of Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang province in China. The experience of this extraordinary landscape, the desert, the profound melting-pot of cultures, affected him deeply. On the last night of the visit, the composer and violinist were treated to an extraordinary banquet which included performances of many of the traditional music and dances of the region. Both composer and soloist took copious notes of the performances, and these became the raw material for Loulan. Like Pernambuco this piece is not a synthesized version of the music which Clarke heard, but a highly distilled response to the whole experience, one which manifested itself in new colours and timbres on the violin, and a profound simplicity of structure and utterance.

This exploratory approach was also fundamental to the earliest violin piece on this disc, Pernambuco. Clarke had been speaking of his determination to write a piece about the bow, an instrument, which, despite its extraordinary technological and technical subtleties has barely entered the public consciousness. 'Pernambuco' also known as 'brazil wood' became vital to the construction of the modern bow, developed in the 1780s by the French maker François Tourte. Clarke took inspiration from the rhythmic excitement and colouristic brilliance of South American folk instruments, as well as aspects of Pre-Columbian art, to create a piece of violin music unlike any other, one which has proved extremely popular with performers and audiences, despite its extreme physical demands.

During the 2002 Xinjiang visit, The Miraculous Violin reached its final form. In the course of working with the orchestra in Urumqi, Clarke decided that the piece needed a cadenza. This initially took the form of an improvisation, but then this was replaced with a written out cadenza by Sheppard Skærved, composed referencing a number of Clarke's earlier works, most particularly Parnassus, a string ensemble piece which had marked the beginning of their collaboration as students. This cadenza is placed, in Mendelssohnian fashion, at the midway point of the piece.

In the course of collaboration with Sheppard Skærved in Ankara, Nigel Clarke was able for the first time to work on his music with a Turkish military orchestra. This experience, combined with long-term collaboration with Turkish composers such as Sıdıka Özdil and Yiğit Kolat, was a vital element in the development of the tumultuous fast music of Black Fire. Having begun his musical life as a bandsman, Nigel Clarke is profoundly affected by the relationship of the western European tradition of military music and the music of the former Ottoman Empire, which still finds echoes in the military music of Turkey and the Balkan states.

In 1995 Nigel Clarke was commissioned to write Samurai for the Royal Northern College of Music Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Timothy Reynish in the northern English city of Manchester. He responded to the fact that the work was due to have its première in Hamamatsu, Japan, by basing the work on aspects of Samurai culture and warfare. Two Japanese instruments are specifically evoked, the taiko, a large drum used for battlefield communication, and a conch-shell trumpet, the horagai. He is keen to stress that he was equally impressed by the creative culture of the Samurai, and the piece alludes to this in the ritual slow sections. Clarke was seeking to write a piece that would not be out of place in an Akira Kurosawa film.

For some years prior to the composition of Black Fire, Nigel Clarke had been speaking of this determination to write a major work for violin and symphonic wind orchestra. As Samurai had become a core repertoire work for wind orchestra, he was determined to take up the challenge thrown down by Kurt Weill's classic concerto for violin and wind and to bring together these usually separate worlds. The title was inspired by Gustave Doré's engravings for Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton's ambivalent parable seemed a perfect metaphor for the 'age of anxiety' in which this work was composed; to emphasize this mood, a quotation from Richard Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung is used. Clarke stresses that this piece is not a concerto, but rather, a drama for orchestra and soloist in the tradition of Berlioz, with the soloist cast in the rôle of Satan. In Paradise Lost Milton refers to the devils, cast out of heaven and lying scattered like dried leaves in the Arno Valley. Clarke loops time in his piece, which ends with Satan, flying off on his mission of suicidal evil heroism to spoil God's newest creation, Earth, the silence of his departure only slightly disturbed by the rustle of the downcast demons. Black Fire had its première in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, conducted by the late Gerald Loren Welker.

Some time after the first performance, Clarke realised that he had unwittingly already written a prelude to this work, in the form of his early trumpet work Premonitions. This became a fitting, almost Ivesian, questioning voice, to upbeat the sound and fury of Black Fire.

It is not necessary to know any of these things in order to enjoy Clarke's direct, impassioned music, but he has never felt it necessary to hide his inspirations, and is always candid about the 'triggers' that fascinate and inspire him.

Stella Wilson


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