“Clarinet & Electronics:

Portuguese Works/Adventures of Sound and Electricity”

Nuno Pinto

portuguese music, clarinet & electronics

Miguel Azguime, João Pedro Oliveira, Ricardo Ribeiro,

Carlos Caires, Cândido Lima, Virgílio Melo

miso records (mcd025.11)

Between the 14th and 17th of November (2011), the Miso Records released a CD dedicated to Portuguese music for clarinet and electronics, performed by clarinettist Nuno Pinto. The CD was presented on several public occasions (Porto, Aveiro, Lisbon) and is part of an initiative developed by the Miso Music Portugal in order to disseminate contemporary music by Portuguese composers. Several soloists of the Sond'Ar-te Electric Ensemble collaborate in the project and a special emphasis is given to pieces, which explore the relationship/interaction between acoustic instrumentation and electronic sound generation. The CD contains works by Miguel Azguime, João Pedro Oliveira, Carlos Caires, Ricardo Ribeiro, Cândido Lima and Virgílio Melo, representing several generations of contemporary Portuguese composers.

The earliest clarinet work for combined acoustic and electronic sounds is William O. Smith’s “Duo for Clarinet and Tape”, dating from 1960. At those times the accompaniment was fixed, usually on a magnetic medium. The limitations and rigidity of such situation could be overcome in the hands of a good performer, still Pierre Boulez summed up this situation by stating: "as a performer, you are a prisoner of the support."

In 1996, the composer Cort Lippe wrote that offering performers the chance to exercise some control over the electronics was an important factor for the future of interactive music. This possibility should be based on the musical and expressive capacities of the performers. Therefore giving them some control over the flow of time is crucial; control over dynamics and timbres is also quite valuable.

In compositions with acoustic instrumentation/electronics, one can distinguish two paradigms, concerning the desired degree of interaction: "weak" interactivity (pre-determined, linear) or "strong" interactivity (a highly autonomous system, almost with artificially intelligent qualities). Many interactive works fall on a continuum (transformative, generative or sequenced) between these two extremes, performing a combination of fusion, conflict, continuity and contrast between various sound fields. The sounds themselves may be quite different from more "traditional" music  and are usually articulated by gestures, and compositional processes, such as acceleration/deceleration, increasing/decreasing and increasing/decreasing the density of the generated textures.

Although almost all acoustic instruments have been used in conjunction with electronics, the clarinettist/composer F. Gerard Errante (one of the foremost authorities on music for clarinet and electronics) described the clarinet as being particularly well suited for combination with electronics due to its range, agility, flexibility and variety of sound possibilities.

The undeniable Nuno Pinto’s artistry, combining a wide range of classical and contemporary instrumental techniques with a willingness to participate in more experimental music creation, establishes the conditions for a rewarding performance of the electro/acoustic works presented on this CD.

The first piece, "No Oculto Profuso" (2009), by Miguel Azguime, is dedicated to Nuno Pinto and was written in close collaboration between the composer and the performer. According to the programme notes, the harmonic material of the piece was constructed from the D harmonic spectrum. Indeed, in a small coda closing the composition, the clarinet presents a melody built upon the series (starting at D 147 Hz). Formally, the piece can be divided in three large sections: the first part is highly dramatic, with short/sustained notes and instrumental effects punctuated by the electronic sounds (which, according to the programme note, were derived from FM synthesis). The relationship between the acoustic and the electronic is articulated by means of transposition and spatialization. A kind of “super-instrument” is thus created, as a result of the electronic expansion of instrumental gestures. The agility and virtuosity of the performer is well in evidence in this section. After dense rhythmic layering between the clarinet and electronics, which (at 6’00”) "breaks" into rhythmic sound points, one is gradually introduced to the second section. Here the composer creates an effective contrast with the previous developments: the clarinet and electronics evolve in long, parallel inharmonic layers, with clearly audible sounds of the FM synthesis. The sonic fusion is very successful and sounds almost as "pure" electroacoustic music. An intense and complex inharmonic cluster, produced by the clarinet and electronics, leads us to the final section, where rapid figurations on the clarinet reverberate in a large virtual space. This creates a kind of clarinet "polyrhythmic" complexity. The section proceeds to a well-defined set of pitches, delicately arpeggiated by electronic processing into transposing arches decreasing in intensity. “No Oculto Profuso” is a very demanding piece but both the composer and the performer succeed in creating a consistent dialectic between the contrasting elements, generating a succession of well-focused sections.

João Pedro Oliveira is well known (at least by a more specialized audience) as one of the most active Portuguese composers, involved both in “pure” electroacoustic music as well as in interactive compositions. In spite of his relatively recent career, he has already composed an important collection of pieces for various solo instruments and electronics. He also strongly criticises the “technological fetish” as one of the main problems turning the focus away from creativity in favour of a mere skilful manipulation of tools. The composer’s aim is to overcome this easy attraction in order to create a personal language. By listening to his piece, "Time Spell" (2004), the second on the CD, one can easily agree that this goal is achieved. This composition presents a feature common to his other interactive pieces: a tight synchronization between the clarinet’s sound events and electronic sounds, with a profusion of constantly moving small gestures. Nevertheless, the result is fluid, with a permanent sense of the "inevitability" between each successive gesture. Throughout the piece, clarinet and electronics explore an extended range of possible interactions: accelerations/decelerations, resonances/decays, triggering relationships, temporal fluctuations, etc. The electroacoustic sounds  often remain in contrast with the clarinet and the interaction between the instrument and electronic sounds is mainly achieved through mutual transfer of gestures, morphologic similarities and spectral interactions. All this creates a continuous, constantly renewed flow between the electronic and acoustic gestures of clarinet, ensuring a strong consistency to the entire musical piece. Nuno Pinto navigates the piece’s intricacies with great skill, achieving the "liberation" of the Clarinet from the “spell of time” by means of a continuous timbric renewal.

With 6 minutes of duration, "Intensités" (2001-2009) by Ricardo Ribeiro, is the most compact piece on the CD. According to the programme notes, the real time electronics is used to expand the acoustic instrument "and never to hide it." In fact, this is a somewhat melodic piece with clarinet gestures irregularly punctuated by electronic sounds. Most of the time, they present a similar morphology to the clarinet, but with a distinct timbre. At 2’25”, a low-pitched electronic layer is abruptly introduced, beginning a transition (at 4’15’’) to a more intense clarinet part. There is an emphasis on trills and techniques that explore the clarinet’s rich timbric possibilities, when subjected to higher breathing pressures. Appropriately, the electronics becomes more passive creating a vast and resonant virtual space that extends the accents thus created. Up to the end of the piece and as stated in the programme note, the composer reintroduces the initial question-answer game between the electronics and clarinet. The global interaction between the clarinet and electronics is relatively simple and the resulting textures may not be as rich as those existent in the previous compositions. But the piece, for its duration, works quite well.

The composition "Limiares" (2004) by Carlos Caires, was the result of a commission from CCB (Belém Cultural Centre) for a dance piece with clarinet and electronics. Therefore one can say that this performance has also an invisible and inaudible component. This fact may have influenced the formal construction of the piece, with a clear separation between the clarinet and electronics, which contrasts with other works on the CD. In fact and according to the program notes, "the intention is not to seek for a true integration between the electronics and instrumental world", but to propose "a slow transformation from one to another." Thus, the piece "is a path between two extremes": one corresponding to the first half, in which granulation processes create a cloud of sound grains derived from noisy breath and clarinet key clatter sounds; while the second part introduces clear pitched/clarinet melodic gestures, which gradually rise in register until the sustained high note (F) ending the piece. During the first half the processing mixes low clarinet and electronic sonic grains in one evolving cloud. The grains are sometimes electronically processed by means of resonators, gaining a higher pitched sound quality reminiscent of stroked metal tubes or small glass objects. Thus treated, they establish a set of granular textures contrasting with the more noisy grains of the clarinet. This part of the piece may sound almost like "pure" electroacoustic music, until the introduction (around the 4’15’’ minute mark) of the clarinet’s clear sounds over an electronic inharmonic stratum in the same tone. In the second half, the presence of electronics becomes more focused, cluster-type and also more sparse. It would be interesting to hear the work in the original performance situation. With the visual accompaniment of dance, the piece could gain another quality. However, the deliberate contrast between the clarinet and electronic sounds results in a great aural freshness, making the perception of this realization a quite fruitful one.

With his piece "Ñcáãncôa" (1995), Cândido Lima managed to create a genuine evoking tribute "to the imaginary voices, time and environment" of the Palaeolithic figures discovered in the river Côa. For this realization, the composer employed a digital implementation of a delay system that captures and reproduces various gestures of the clarinet: one recalls the saying of William Faulkner's: "The Past is not past.” The system reproduces, in alternating left-right channels and with a delay of several seconds, the captured signal with no further processing of any kind. This is a conceptually simple musical device (a kind of imitative canon) and is easily “apprehended” by the listener. Yet simple does not mean simplistic: the composer creates a rich and interesting kaleidoscope of textures, exploring both the agility and dynamic range of the clarinet. The sustained pitches, often with recourse to multiphonics/harmonics, are especially evocative, using the electronic delays to create subtle sound inflections and spectral fusions. In turn, these strata are linked to sections of short pitches, creating a counterpoint of figurations with the digital system. On audition, one tends to gradually “forget” the omnipresence of the electronic process, consequence of the irregular formal linkage between the various sections. Additionally, the achieved homogeneity of timbres makes the piece flow in a quite organic way. The set of successive harmonic/spectral tensions thus created keeps the musical interest alive in this 17-minute long piece.

The last piece, "Upon a Ground II" (2001), composed by Virgílio Melo, also presents certain homogeneity. According to the programme note, the electronic part is derived from transformations applied to pre-recorded fragments of the clarinet, as recorded by Nuno Pinto. These not-specified transformations create a distinct but clarinet-related metallic/synthetic sounds. The piece is structured around small sections where, according to the composer, the clarinet/electronics pair performs several "spatialized arabesques” chosen among various possible paths. The sections are separated by small silences, which gradually disappear as the sections merge into more extensive ones, until a single dense cluster is created evolving during the last 5 minutes of the piece. This strong compositional gesture (from the sparse to the more dense) gives a formal unity to the work, although the composition could have gained from a bolder use of spatialization of the electronic part.

The CD is yet another proof that Nuno Pinto is a clarinettist of the first order. The compositions are performed with great skill and confidence, as he feels clearly comfortable whilst performing in an amplified setting with electronics. The quality of the recording is excellent and the overall balance between the acoustic and the electronic spots on. For a more specialized audience, it might be interesting to have some more details concerning the implementation of the electronics, in particular regarding the utilized strategies for the clarinet/electronics interaction.

Nonetheless it is not important or essential for an enjoyable hearing of the "clarinet & electronics" CD. It is yet another important contribution of the Miso Records to the internationalization of Portuguese contemporary music and an irrefutable proof of the vitality of the Portuguese contemporary musical scene, in spite of all widely known difficulties.


Miguel Azguime, “No Oculto Profuso”

João Pedro Oliveira, “Time Spell”

Ricardo Ribeiro, “Intensités”

Carlos Caires, “Limiar”

Cândido Lima, “Ñcáãcôa”

Virgílio Melo, “Upon a Ground II”

>> Back