Giacinto Scelsi – Tre Studi (1954) for E-flat clarinet
Carl Rosman, E-flat clarinet
Janet Sinica, video
Daniel Seitz, sound design
Scelsi’s music is a slightly mysterious business for the new music performer used to being able to find hints towards specifics of performance practice either directly from the composer, or in the composer’s writings, or at least from the score. Working with the composer is of course no longer an option with Scelsi, and although the 2013 MusikTexte edition of his writings runs to 848 pages, this largely concerns his poetry and more general aesthetics rather than specifics of performance. Even the scores come to us at one remove, famously being in large part realisations by his assistants based on recordings of his improvisations — they are thus rather less informative than scores in which every detail of the writing (subtleties of articulation, verbal expressive directions, formal groupings such as bar structure) comes from the composer, as is of course the normal way of things.
Never mind. These little pieces are rightly classics of the no-longer-all-that-new-music repertoire; they move hypnotically between slow crescendo-decrescendo waves and blurs of demisemiquavers, between long slides and strangely charming arpeggios. They are also among the very few solo pieces for this particular member of the clarinet family, which has enjoyed a constant supply of glorious solos in the orchestra since Berlioz but which is almost entirely lacking in solo repertoire.
For those who are curious about such things: my E flat clarinet here is a Leblanc from the mid-1960s, the same instrument I generally use in Ensemble Musikfabrik. For many years I played a more up-to-date instrument, but its intonation in the low register was too unreliable for ensemble work (I can only assume that this must be less of a consideration in the orchestral market…). I briefly considered using for these pieces one of the even older E flat clarinets in my cupboard: the 1904 Buffet or the 1830 13-key boxwood Lefèvre. I indeed spent quite a few hours trying to coax these pieces out of the Lefèvre. The slow crescendo-decrescendo waves were glorious, and the long slides even more so… but the blurs of demisemiquavers were never a genuinely realistic prospect.
Carl Rosman, June 2020