First Lab session – Sept2019


Heather Roche and I had a 3-day lab* in September, the first time we had the chance to begin probing the landscape [the phase space] of the assemblage** that is the entwined multiple of performer and instrument. I’ll discuss the lab itself below, but first a brief aside to reiterate the point of the project; exploring compositional possibilities of the clarinet’s material agency using unstable/metastable areas of sound production on the instrument.

Landscape metaphors (after Tim Ingold)

What do we know and not know? Heather is a highly skilled clarinettist so she knows what the instrument can do, by which I mean she knows the tracts of the landscape marked by the paths she’s learned via traditional repertoire AND modern/experimental repertoire. She knows what is easy and hard, stable and unstable, and what techniques to employ to navigate those particular paths. Every experienced clarinettist will be familiar with some sections and near-variations of these paths. Obviously the common historical repertoire is the core path for the standard techniques of the instrument, while contemporary music and so-called ‘extended techniques’ add a set of additional paths that variously gloss or completely sidestep those standard techniques. The non-standard techniques are also supported by a set of resources that catalogue and categorise contemporary techniques such as multiphonics—books by Philip Rehfeldt, Sarah Watts, etc—which for the most part limit themselves to those fingerings that are reliable and predictable in performance: additionally, scores and compositions often extend the landscape further, though sometimes these extensions are tied explicitly to the practice of one player. These paths align more-or-less with the physical propensities of the instrument since it’s been co-designed through the interaction of builders/players/repertoire to reliably produce these sounds. These are the reliable paths of the instrument, what we know that we know. The landscape also contains paths that are less usable from my perspective: e.g. those are completely unstable or cannot produce pitched sound to any degree. Between the stable paths and the completely unstable are skeins of partially stable sounds. Tim Ingold’s approach to space is entirely apposite here. He speaks of ‘wayfaring‘; ‘a being who, in following a path of life, negotiates or improvises a passage as he goes along. [original emphasis] In his movement as in life, his concern is to seek a way through: not to reach a specific destination or terminus but to keep on going.’ This project explores the compositional possibilities of those other paths through the instrument, wayfaring in search of emergent structures and material agencies. At this early stage I don’t know exactly what those will look like, so we explore the territory in many different ways to see build-on what emerges.

The Lab

So what did Heather and I do in our lab? The starting point was to find some ‘known unknowns’ to experiment with. Some things that are familiar to both of us but that we can push-around a little, to see what breaks and in what ways it breaks. Here’s what I asked Heather to prepare for this lab:

  1. Initial questions are all about categories of instrument behaviours. I’m thinking here of behaviours ‘per fingering’. That each different fingering configuration (taken as a fixed reference point which is itself an territory defined by overlapping resonances in dynamic relationships) allows for variations of embouchure/throat/etc. that can alter the behaviour of that fingering
  2. Can you prepare a bunch (5–10?) of fingerings with a range of stable–unstable (predictable–unpredictable) behaviours? That can be a useful reference point for us. Play around with these to discover the limits of their stability; map them out.
  3. Looking at other people’s categories:
    • Unpacking rehfeldt’s 6 categories of Bb multiphonics. Test a few from each category to see how do they behave? are they defined by behaviour? Is this a useful categorisation for us?
  4. Type 1 and type 2 multiphonics, is there a hybrid category?
    • Watts/Bok talk about bass clarinet multiphonics but presumably the same division exists for Bb and across the board: i.e. spectral/embouchure manipulation of stable notes VS special fingerings that afford metastable configurations (multiphonics). Can the type-1 techniques be applied to type-2 multiphonics? Is this ‘just’ altering throat tuning and/or embouchure?
    • Which ultimately leads to; ‘to what extent are type-2 multiphonics variable by embouchure/throat manipulation?’
  5. Repetition as exploration:
    • This is (currently) central to how I’m thinking about the early composing ideas. That by repeating a single multiphonic you can start to work past the initial levels of predictable behaviours (e.g. the two prominent pitches of a dyad) and start to see what behaviours lie on the edge of that, what other pitches/resonance can be revealed. In theory it could be like peeling an onion, as each layer gets stabilised it reveals other possibilities that can then be sought out and stabilised. I expect we’ll hit a hard limit pretty soon, but it’s important to see what that limit looks like and how variable it is across the range of multiphonic types.
  6. Misc (probably won’t get to these):
    • multiphonics starting at the top or at the bottom register: are behaviours consistently different?
    • what about starting in the middle with throat tuned to the difference tone, is this possible? Is it possible to tune throat resonance to the extent of altering the multiphonic (in cases where there’s a strong difference tone that can’t be isolated)?

We did a lot of playing and listening, and testing the behaviours of a selection of multiphonics that Heather knows well. We tested point-4 above to see if the embouchure techniques used to isolate partials in type-1 multiphonics (spectral overblowing of standard fundamental fingerings) would be effective in type-2 multiphonics (forked/non-standard fingerings that produce stable multiphonics by splitting the air column). In dyad multiphonics this was effective in all cases to activate additional stable pitches above the dyad’s upper pitch: we mostly looked at dyads where the two pitches were more than a 5th apart, sometimes more than an octave. We found that the low note of (type-2) multiphonics didn’t respond to attempts to bring out its harmonics. It’s tricky to tell really without extensive analysis, but our impression was that the lower note was isolated, and only the higher note of the dyad was open to spectral manipulation through embouchure; maybe we’ll test this more later. This did open up interesting discussion about ways to manipulate the clarinet physically to alter this, watch this space for developments in that area…

Overblowing and underblowing came up a lot as techniques, or possibly two extremes of a spectrum of related techniques. With the dyads at least, it seems that they almost always respond to overblowing (the upper pitch) but not all respond to underblowing. This needs to be examined further. Heather arrived at a technique she dubbed an ‘ultra-underblow’, with an extremely dropped jaw (fig.1) that is physically ‘below’ the production of the low note alone, but results in a strange unstable multiphonic. Heather will discuss this in a blog on her own website at some point [link to follow].

jaw tightness to ultra-underblow

fig.1: jaw tightness to ultra-underblow

A key strategy to explore further is to sidestep the model of multiphonics as ‘things’ (i.e. fingering A = pitches X/Y/Z), instead we’re looking at multiphonic behaviours emerging at the ‘intra-action’ (Barad 2007) of configuration and techniques. That any given fingering is a configuration of the instrument that affords a set of resonances in the instrument body, and the performer enacts any of a range of techniques—embouchure, tongue/throat-tuning, breath pressure, etc—to stabilise certain of those resonances as pitched sound. All fingering configurations have the possibility of more than one sound through the use of different mouth techniques, across a range of pitch-timbre percepts from the simple to the highly complex: i.e. single pitches, perceptually single pitches with strong overtones, multiple pitches, pitch-timbre complexes where individual pitches are difficult to isolate but still having a sense of being ‘pitched’. Also worth noting that virtually all the technique books on clarinet and other woodwinds make points similar to the above either explicitly or implicitly, but they rarely delve further because this path tends to lead away from reliable/predictable performance solutions. This will come up again soon when we look at Thomas Bergeron’s ‘scalar method’ for saxophone multiphonics, which takes a similar basic approach.

The final day we spent on a single task, to re-categorise the Bb multiphonics in Philip Rehfeldt’s book. This was mainly done as an abstract exercise to help us think-through the way we were starting to categorise the techniques we were using. The act of breaking Rehfeldt’s categories and reforming them was not intended to ‘correct’ his approach, but to present an alternative segmentation with a different focus. Fig.2 shows the result, after printing out and cutting out the originals (‘Top Trumps’ style!) Heather started again with the pile and ended up with four categories (down from Rehfledt’s six). Heather will do a post on her own blog about this soon, and she can explain the technical better than I so I’ll leave that to her. Suffice to say this recategorising focussed on the behavioural constraints of different fingerings across the range of over-/under-blowing as described in fig.1, and allowed us to further explore the behaviours arising from different techniques.

rehfeldt multiphonics recategorised

fig.2: recategorised Rehfeldt multiphonics

Looking forward to the next lab, I’m going to compose some basic studies that start to expose some of the techniques as starting points. This will probably also lead to some very simple and minimal pieces involving repeated playing of the same or similar material to see what changes as boundaries are gently pushed.

One final result of this lab is an ever-growing list of ‘Questions for David’. These are phenomena and behaviours that we don’t yet understand, but we’re hoping acoustician-consultant David Sharp can shed some light on. More on that when we go to meet him later in the year.

* The ‘Lab‘. I’m indebted to Ben Spatz, whose Judaica project demonstrated to me the possibilities of an artistic laboratory project built around intensive periods of experimentation with practitioners. The open-ended-ness of the lab context is ideal for my project, and my own temperament as a researcher.

** Assemblage is a term from Deleuze and further explored by Manuel DeLanda who says:

What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (DeLanda 2016 p.1)

While DeLanda’s discussion of assemblage is largely built around the social, I use the term here to emphasise the entwined-ness of the instrument and performer. The clarinet and performer are not unified, but are allied/alloyed through resonances; an ongoing liaison of the resonant potential of the clarinet’s chambers excited and supported by the resonant shaping of the performer’s apparatus (throat, mouth, breath pressure and focus, etc). The two components remain heterogenous and with their own agentic potential, but in performance they act as a multiple. Agency—and by extension, music—emerges from their ‘intra-action’ (Barad): Barad describes this as ‘[signifying] the mutual constitution of entangled agencies…the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-actions.’ (Barad 2007, p.33)