A Composer's Notepad ::

Square Dance, Opus 72, Clarinet Quartet

In the middle of preparing music for the November 2003 Festive Choral Evensong at St Paul’s, I wanted to write a piece for clarinet quartet. Knowledge that my fellow composer-clarinetist Mark Simon in Ithaca leads a quartet of students (and indeed his generous suggestion that he would gladly read a quartet whenever I might have one to pass along to him) played a large part in this. Why at that time, and why this kind of piece? I had been concentrating a great deal on sacred choral music, and my inner ear wanted refreshing, by visiting a very different sonority; and since the shape of the choral anthems for St Paul’s were perforce closely allied to the texts; and since the latest instrumental piece I had then composed was a demanding organ toccata which I had organized quite closely ... with Square Dance, I wanted to write something of an impromptu; I wanted the piece to wander, sonically, where it wished, for I had had my fill, for the time being, of micro-managing musical space.

I began writing without any particular notion of where the might wind up at the final double-bar. I would started with a musical idea, maybe a chord, maybe a texture, and I would let it go where it wanted, without over-close monitoring; and when I felt that this idea had run its course, and that the piece should do something else, I stood by, and waited for the next musical idea.

With my experience playing the clarinet, and as the idea of writing for a clarinet ensemble had been slow-cooking in the back of my mind many years, this piece discovered its material just by the thought of what I felt would sound well, given four clarinets by turns noodling and ringing together.

I cannot promise to explain the title to anyone’s satisfaction other than my own. In its suggestion of the well-loved entertainment traditional to most of the Midwest, the title is frankly misleading. But the piece is certainly a dance, even in the sustained coda, where my thoughts were much more attuned to ballet than to the barnyard. The four players might be thought to form a sort of square, but this becomes numerically untenable with the octet version which will be read at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

While there is nothing musically allied to the actual practice of square dancing, there is a kind of gravity, a sort of earthen weight, to the piece, which perhaps recalls the relatively relaxed gait of square dancing, as compared with some of the more energetic folk dances of Europe, for instance.

The piece was first performed in Ithaca, New York, by the Ezra Clarinet Quartet (Mark Simon, director).

Karl Henning
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