Evan Johnson – Ground (2010) for contrabass clarinet
Carl Rosman, contrabass clarinet
Janet Sinica, video
Daniel Seitz, sound design
“My work with Evan Johnson has been one of my most important collaborations for over a decade now – he didn’t write Ground for me, though, and it would have been a completely different piece if he had.
Evan composed Ground for Gareth Davis, as part of Davis’ ‘Standards Project’, a series of solo works responding to jazz standards. Ground features, as Evan points out in his programme note, ‘virtually no audible snippets of the melody in question’. The ‘virtually’ is important, though, as two climactic moments from the song are cited almost verbatim and the sinuous chromaticism of the original is present throughout – and, most importantly, the structure of Stormy Weather is, as Evan puts it, ‘faithfully retrace[d]’.
The title, though, refers not so much to jazz as to the Renaissance/Baroque technique involving melodic variations over a repeating bass line – a technique sharing certain preoccupations with jazz, many of whose most famous examples (Purcell, Monteverdi…) are, like Stormy Weather, laments for female voice. The Baroque references go further: on pitch structures abstracted from the song, Evan superimposes layers of ornamentation, both characteristically Baroque (trills, turns, mordents) and rather less so (bursts of flutter-tongue, breath sound, vocalisations, brief squeaks caused by placing the teeth directly on the reed). Sometimes the ‘ornamental’ layer appears without any pitch material, posing a deliberately ambiguous interpretative challenge to the performer – thanks to Janet’s camera, the viewer has a rather better chance than in a recording or even a concert to appreciate that in these moments there is indeed still something happening!
‘Ground operates in indirect homage to what is most interesting to me about the song: its pressure on the breath and on the lowest register, its repetitions, its aimless chromatic wanderings followed by plunging descents.’
It might be interesting to hear Evan’s main reference recording for Stormy Weather, the performance by Lena Horne from the film of the same name; another essential reference is the recording by Ethel Waters, for whom Arlen and Koehler first wrote it.”