Ode to the Clarinet

Graphic by Maura Cowan

By Nathan Hilyard

It seems the quintessential American experience to be, at one point in fifth grade, sat down by your music teacher and asked to choose the instrument that will define your musical experience through middle and, for some, high school. With deep concentration and a furrowed brow I made the valiant choice of learning to play the clarinet. Though in the first few years I was sonically equated to a fog horn, and spent months enduring the Essential Elements for Band fundamental scales, it soon became one of my favorite hobbies, and something I truly latched onto for the remainder of my schooling. By senior year I had picked up the additional skill of the bass clarinet, the clarinet’s longer and more esoteric older brother, but still maintained that the clarinet was the perfect instrument for me, happily bringing it with me as I left for college. 

For being, at essence, a small black stick, the clarinet packs quite a punch. The instrument sits in the middle of the orchestra, playing a little below the range of the flute, but operating closer to the timbres of the bassoon. As with many other music instruments, the clarinet appeared in a primitive form during the Baroque period. Early Baroque music featured the chalumeau, an instrument shaped as our modern recorder, but featuring a reeded mouthpiece. This early instrument was nowhere near the range on the modern clarinet, with a simple octave and a half range and no upper register. By the early 1700s, instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner developed the chalumeau to feature a register key, allowing the instrument to reach up into a higher range, though it didn’t connect gracefully, with an octave and a perfect fifth jump between these lower and upper registers. Denner’s developments allowed the chalumeau to play a greater catalog of work, encouraging baroque composers to write more pieces for the instrument. 

The instrument continued to undergo physical changes until it proved to be a reliable member of the orchestra, landing on its current form sometime around the mid 1800s, when its written repertoire greatly increased. 

The clarinet is valuable for its versatility and general quirk, the instrument being able to move between wonky jazz solos and more delicate classical passages. On the more classical side, Maurice Ravel paired flowing clarinet runs with a flute solo within the “Lever du Jour” portion of Daphnis et Chloe, initially performed in 1912. When darting between the flute runs, the clarinet’s airy, wooden sound leans more towards the mystical and aids in developing this mystical idea of daybreak. At the same time in history, the clarinet was being used as a formative instrument in the growing jazz genre. The big band set up of the early 1900s relied heavily on the clarinet for its wonky sound which easily bolstered the swinging melodies of new American jazz. As the century progressed, the clarinet was slowly phased out of jazz in favor of the more versatile saxophone, but maintains its place as a core of the jazz sound. 

As for modern jazz, the instrument is still kicking both in recorded and live performance. Angel Bat Dawid utilizes the clarinet in her 2019 jazz album, The Oracle, the track “London” heavily relying on crackling melodies the instrument is able to display. Clarinet layers over the rickey jazz piano as the perfect pairing, keeping the melody bright and thoughtful without losing the aesthetic crunch of a good jazz chord. Dawid’s solos are bright and strange with her unique message, and in an album dedicated to revealing the experiences of such an adept player, the clarinet proves the perfect addition to maintaining an intimate, personal sound. 

The summer of 2022 I saw Shabaka Hutchings utilize the clarinet live at the Newport Jazz Festival. Hutchings joined Esperanza Spalding on stage later in her set with a simple wooden clarinet, and after a long day of very energetic music, Hutchings’ playing leaned much closer to the calm and spiritual as complementary to Esperanza Spalding’s set. Though the clarinet does not have the projections of its brass counterparts, its calming whimsy was enough to send a simple calmness through the crowd. Though Spalding was the titular act of the set, Hutchings’ clarinet added a wonderful counterpoint to Spalding’s expert bass playing which helped to ground her fantastical playing. 

Clarinet’s have become more frequently utilized for this grounding sound. As they were in Björk’s latest release Fossora, which heavily featured collections of clarinets. In Fossora, Björk used the clarinet as a means of adding this woodsy, pounding sound. On the lead single “Atopos,” bass clarinet’s rip and pound the beat behind her famously sporadic singing and later on “Fungal City” a clarinet choir bounces around the chordal changes of the track, adding a tender jump to the melody. 

Though it doesn’t have the romantic prowess of a violin or the immutable sass of a trumpet, the clarinet has proven itself to be the reliable, fun-loving woodwind of the standard orchestra. Whether operating in jazz, classical, avant-pop, or a middle school band, the clarinet maintains its status as the perfect middle ground, an instrument of abundant promise and character. 

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