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Music for Clarinet and Percussion
Richard Stoltzman (clarinet) Nexus. Percussion Ensemble. Bob Becker; Bill Cahn; Robin Engleman; Russell Hartenberger.
Recorded CBC Studio 44, Toronto. 22 Jan 1999 BIS. CD - 1108 DDD [71'44"]
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In the contemporary world, so much depends upon being able to put people and their doings into the correct categories. Governments and officialdom do it all the time, but even at the everyday level there is a tendency to be slightly cautious about anything which cannot readily be pigeon-holed. These philosophical meanderings are a reviewer's waffle while he tries to think of something to say about a CD such as the one detailed above. The title "Garden of Sounds", incidentally is a phrase Toru Takemitsu used. As a friend and mentor the work is dedicated to his memory.

On this BIS disc there are thirteen sections, each one separately named - "Eternal Triangle Beckons", "Wonderings", "Rhapsody in Green" - and so on. None has any thematic connection with any other section. Each part has the same constant elements, the solo clarinet of Richard Stoltzman and the four members of the percussion ensemble Nexus playing from their array of instruments - as co-soloists, not in any way as a rhythm support.

The problem is, I cannot, decide what sort of music it is. What it isn't is what you and I would agree to be "classical", nor is it pop, nor crossover, nor would it come under the umbrella of "World Music". In no way is it Jazz either, despite the reference to improvisation in the supplied notes. Let me quote from those notes. "The music in this "Garden of Sounds" is spontaneous. It is free-form improvisation, inspired by a mutual interest among the artists in exploring this kind of musical creation. By listening intensely, by allowing (rather than forcing) one's innermost being to be evoked, and by harnessing skills developed over many years of experience, the music is born". There follows an approving reference to a quotation from Cornelius Cardew, the composer, which reads, in part "Improvisation cannot be rehearsed".

This is where the writer and I part company. To me 'spontaneous' means 'of the moment, now, without rehearsal'. I find it hard to believe that players of the skills and professionalism shown in this recording simply start the tapes and go on from there absolutely from scratch. Remember there can be five individuals involved in difficult and numerous switches from instrument to instrument, that would involve considerable actual movement for the percussionists. Some choreography must have been pre-arranged, surely? Or am I being too pedantic? What about stage performances of their material?

Jazz solos are often spontaneous (the first time they're played) but even the best jazz is usually arranged even if it is only to fix the order of soloist. Imagine the Duke one night saying "Right lads, for tonight take your solos when it suits you. You, Johnny (Hodges) and Ben (Webster) - come in when you're ready".

I can offer nothing but praise for the playing. Richard Stoltzman is a top-flight performer with a warm tone and impressive control. He obviously would be at home in any company at any level. The percussionists too are highly impressive. The list of their collection of instruments is remarkable and is as follows: Marimba, vibraphone, Deagan "Songbells", Emax keyboard, steel pans, amadinda (Ugandan xylophone), bass drums, conga and bongo drums, Ghanian drums, concert tom toms, ocarinas, Waterphones, quicas (Brazilian friction drums), bass harmonic, panpipes, chang (Chinese zither), toy accordion, various types of cymbals, and dozens of rattles, shakers, scrapers and wooden and metallic percussion instruments from all over the world. Included there you will see several melodic instruments which added some variety to the programme.

So what do you hear? A highly original and intriguing aural world of conventionally tonal playing on clarinet and snatches of a piano accordion, keyboard or harmonica. The clarinet playing varies from jazzy to rhapsodic, occasionally being no more than a supporting role in the sound picture with the odd interpolated phrase or single note.

There is nothing you would recognise - except in No 9 when there are snatches of "Yankee Doodle" and "Amazing Grace" in an almost Ivesian piece ("Amazin' Gazin' - they call it). With it is this incredible range and variety of sounds - very slow, very fast, very quiet and VERY loud - from the percussion. All helped by a magnificently clear and balanced recording.

An interesting recording even if I still don't know what to classify it as. Only devotees of percussionism are likely to listen to it regularly but more casual listeners might think it worth a try. I would suggest an auditioning at your dealer's might be worthwhile before buying.


Harry Downey


Harry Downey

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