Piece of the Week – ‘Overtones’ for four clarinets (1985)

I have always been captivated by the sound of the clarinet, and have written many pieces for clarinet ensembles over the years – so when, in 1985, The Ebony Quartet asked me to write them something I was delighted to respond. Clarinets come in a number of shapes and sizes, but for this piece I decided to write for four standard B flat clarinets, and also to give the excellent performers of this quartet a chance to demonstrate the wide range of colours that the clarinet can produce.

One aspect of the clarinet that particularly interested me was the fact that its shape means that when tongued a little more forcefully it jumps up by a twelfth, whereas other woodwind instruments jump up an octave. Slightly more technically, this is because only the alternate notes of the harmonic series are present in the clarinet’s tonal spectrum rather than all of them, and it is the presence of these ‘overtones’ that gives the clarinet its particular sound.  This phenomenon gives the clarinet a wider pitch range than most woodwind instruments, and also a marked change of character between the lower notes and the higher ones, with a group of four notes in between these two registers which tend to be less colourful (sometimes called the ‘throat tones’), though of course decent players are skilful at making them as tonally rich as the rest of the compass.

However, for my purposes, the distinction between these different registers became a feature of the piece – the throat tones are always marked to be played in a quiet and expressionless manner, and the interval of a twelfth between the upper and lower register, and the overtone series generally, became the basis of the harmonic structure.

Alongside this, I sought to exploit the wide range of dynamic colour and virtuosic technique within the driving rhythms and expressive interludes of this piece.  It’s not as ‘easy listening’ as some of my music, and perhaps I was slightly over- focussed on exploiting the concepts above, but, having not listened to it for some years, I have enjoyed re-visiting it.

I won’t say more about it because on this page you can find a link to an article I wrote about the piece, Overtones, in the BASBWE magazine, ‘Winds’, shortly after its first performance.  I will just add that the performers surpassed my expectations in a piece that was for me quite an experiment, giving a wonderful performance in the Purcell Room and then recording it for Merlin Classics on a wide-ranging and virtuosic CD including pieces by Elliot Carter, Stephen Dodgson, and Joseph Horovitz (which is still available – Overtones – Merlin Classics – MRFD 93100). The whole CD is well worth a listen, to hear these excellent performers present a wide range of clarinet quartet music.

More details, the above mentioned article, and a ‘scrolling score’ can all be seen here.