I never expected it to happen like it did. One early winter evening I arrived at my parents’ home to find it empty and the phone ringing – three months later my mother was dead, felled by a brain cancer that was at least brief in its otherwise merciless course. This record is for her.
My mother was a part of my musical life from the very beginning. In fact, my first instrument was a clarinet that Mom had played in high school in the 1950s. My mother ferried me to lessons and youth orchestra, to symphony concerts and auditions for honor bands. Over the years, she came to countless performances. Today I still play on an A clarinet she bought for me when I was just starting out as a professor.
This record begins and ends with two pieces by Ben Broening, “Arioso” for clarinet and piano, and “Arioso/Doubles”, for clarinet and computer. I love Ben’s music because it is lyrical and expansive—at the same time contemporary and also clearly rooted in tradition. The title “Arioso” reflects the works’ indebtedness to vocal music of the 17th century. A fascinating aspect of these works is that the clarinet part is identical in each, yet both pieces are totally different works of art. The thread that connects both works is lyricism—at first intense and brooding then opening up into a full-voiced and soaring statement of emotion. I find Ben’s craftsmanship in creating two totally different works out of literally the same material to be astounding, and I’m delighted to bookend my record with them.
The second work on this record, Ed Jacobs’ “Aural History” for clarinet and piano, is the result of both a commission and a relationship between friends. I premiered the work in 2004 and this is also the first recording. Eddie and I have been close friends for more than a decade. He was a confidant and mentor for me as a young college professor, and his friendship and advice have been essential. The inspiration for the first movement of “Aural History” is the sixth movement from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for The End of Time”, a movement that features complete unison across four parts. Eddie filters this idea through his own lens, that of a jazz combo burning through unison passages of their own, and ends up with a kind of trippy moto perpetuo.
The movement starts as a unison between the clarinet and piano but soon begins to break apart and come together again. The second movement, a recitative, is a long, contemplative monologue for the clarinet, accompanied by broken chords in the piano. The second movement bleeds into the third, which completely comes apart at the seams until a slight return of the first movement unison brings things to a definitive close. I’m extremely proud of this piece and I’m gratified that Eddie made something so cool.
Joan Tower’s “Wings” is the first of two consecutive works for unaccompanied clarinet on this record. I love Joan’s music because of its muscular virtuosity, its lithe and pulsating rhythm, and its full-winded lyricism. “Wings” is all about momentum—floating in almost timeless space, falling and swooping, spinning and crashing. “Wings” is not literally about flight, but the impression of flight, the idea of being lighter and heavier than air and wind. “Wings” asks for almost everything from the clarinet and the clarinetist—the very softest and loudest notes one will ever play; a range from the lowest possible note to some of the very highest on the horn; and difficult technical passages coupled with some of the most beautifully sustained lines in the solo literature. “Wings” has become a standard of the modern clarinet literature and I’m happy to finally lay down my vision of Joan’s great piece.
“The Abyss of the Birds” from Olivier Messiean’s “Quartet for The End of Time”, is the most well-known piece on this recording. Here’s what Messiaen had to say about this movement:
The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.
This piece was a late addition to the record. I included it because Messiaen’s words, which were written while a prisoner of the Nazis in a P.O.W. camp, resonate deeply with me. My mother’s death has given me at least a little perspective on the impossibly vast indifference of time; the very real presence of absence, the crushing reality of never. The question of hope in the midst of so much desolation is at the heart of this movement, and of this record.
This brings me to “A Function of Memory” for clarinet and tape, the second work by Ed Jacobs on the record and the title of this album. It is a difficult work, full of thorny technical passages and tricky coordination with the electronics, but it is also a work full of enormous heart and lyrical emotion. A recurring sound in the electronics, a sort of low metallic moan, is modeled after a sound from a recurring nightmare from Eddie’s childhood. The morning I drove to the hall at Purchase College to record this piece, Eddie called me with the news that his mother had just passed away. I was stunned. Saddened, I knew I had to go ahead and do the recording, but my heart was with Eddie. My engineer and I had budgeted four hours to record this difficult work, and it flew out of me in about an hour and a quarter. It felt uncanny. In that moment, it was as clear then as it is now that the record would be titled “A Function of Memory”.
I recorded the pieces on this record within a calendar year of my mother’s death and that in itself is as obvious a testament to her presence and influence in my life as I am capable of delivering. We edited this record with the idea of immediacy and realness—it is comprised almost entirely of long, unedited takes and has almost no post-production. We left in the sounds of breathing and sweating, of airleaks and key clicks, all things often swept away in the chase for the ideal. I don’t have much use for an ideal. I am proud of this record.
I love you, Mom.