Interview with Clarinetist Carol Robinson

by Rachel Yoder

Paris-based clarinetist and composer Carol Robinson is a contemporary specialist known for her work with the music of Giacinto Scelsi, Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono, and Eliane Radigue. Here she discusses her background, current work, and her upcoming performance with Seattle Modern Orchestra on Mystic Clarinet, a program featuring works by Scelsi, William O. Smith and Jeremy Jolley:

Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and your early musical training?

I lived in many places as a child, but it was in the public school system of Rapid City, South Dakota that I received my initial musical training. This included group lessons, choir and playing in various school bands. Being first chair in the junior high band gave me the opportunity to play with the all-city band and later experience playing in an orchestra. My family moved back to Los Angeles when I was fifteen, and it was there that I began private lessons, working first with John Gates and then most importantly with the great performer and pedagogue Gary Gray. We lived in a neighborhood with a high concentration of people in “the industry” which brought me into contact with all sorts of talented people. The cultural environment was rich and stimulating. When I was sixteen, I went to a music camp called USC-ISOMATA. Once again, I was first clarinet, allowing me to play in the orchestra, chamber music groups and faculty ensembles. That summer, much to the bewilderment of my family, I decided to become a musician.

After graduating from Oberlin, you went to Paris to study contemporary music – what led to your interest in contemporary music?

I have always been interested in unusual sounds, even before I knew what “contemporary music” was. From an early age I played and listened to as much new music as possible. It was IRCAM and a desire to further expand my musical horizons that drew me to Paris.

Was there a particular teacher or mentor in clarinet or composition that you sought out in Paris? Did you train at a conservatory or in another setting?

Before arriving in Paris I spent the summer in Siena, Italy studying at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana. The French clarinetist Michel Portal happened to play a concert there, and hearing him was an inspiration because his approach to the instrument was very different from what I had known until then. I came to Paris just to see what was going on, and upon discovering a vibrant scene, decided to leave the master’s program at USC and stay in the city a while. I was awarded a Harriet Hale Wooley scholarship to study with privately with Portal. Another chance meeting brought me into contact with Maurice Gabai, the principal clarinetist of the Paris Opera. In addition to having brilliant technique, he had a particularly expressive vocal way of playing. I took lessons from him at a regional conservatory off and on for a year and received an advanced performance diploma. These French musicians offered another vision of clarinet playing, and were both important to my musical development.

I understand that you worked with Giacinto Scelsi on his music for clarinet. Can you describe this experience and the performance insights you gained?

If I were to name a master, Giacinto Scelsi would be mine. After visiting him in Rome, a friend brought some clarinet scores back to Paris and gave them to me. The music spoke to me immediately. I soon played the three pieces for E-flat clarinet (Tre Pezzi) in concert. The same friend recorded the concert and sent the tape to Scelsi. He subsequently invited me to work with him in Rome. Sessions with him were intense, not only because he was very exacting regarding the scores, but also for the degree of concentration and raw power required. He demanded total involvement, settling for nothing less. Every instant of every note mattered. Those lessons have never left me.

You’ve recorded an album of Scelsi’s music, and two of his works are programmed on the upcoming concert with Seattle Modern Orchestra. What drew you to his music, and can you describe some of your favorite aspects of these works?

I’ll be performing Kya, and coaching two SMO musicians on the stunning Ko-Lho duet for flute and clarinet. I love the power of this music, its urgency and gripping emotional impact. I have always been fascinated by how it sounds simultaneously archaic and ultra-modern.

One of my favorite things about Scelsi is his use of microtones, intervals smaller than the half-steps we typically find in Western music. How do you think this technique affects the listener, and what challenges does it create for the performer(s)?

Microtones, like glissandi, create shifts in the perception of time. They help us slip into another listening reality. Modern orchestral wind instruments were designed with elaborate key mechanisms to play diatonically. These mechanical systems for an instrument like the clarinet can be ill-adapted to producing smaller intervals, and in addition to being imprecise, are often plagued by timbral differences.

On the SMO concert, you’ll also be performing a work by Seattle-based clarinetist and composer William O. (Bill) Smith, who is widely known both as a jazz musician who performed with Dave Brubeck and as a pioneer of extended techniques for the clarinet. What do you see as Smith’s legacy to clarinetists?

Bill Smith’s lasting legacy will be his pioneering work with clarinet multiphonics [multiple notes at once]. His diligence in defining and cataloguing these sounds has opened untold possibilities for generations of clarinetists and composers. Though perhaps less widely known, his compositional exploration of the demi-clarinet, double-clarinet, “prepared” clarinet [using assorted accessories and modifications] and integrated electronics has likewise left its mark. His personal performance practice also includes the use of projections, hand gestures, texts and simple staging. He is a truly inventive and generous person.

Why did you choose to perform this particular Smith piece (Rites for clarinet and tape)?

Rites was written for me, commissioned by the CCMIX (formerly Xenakis’ UPIC studio) in Paris, as part of an multi-composition project for clarinet and electronics. Playing it in Seattle with the composer present is a real honor.

What other composers have you worked with closely?

Though I have worked with many composers over the years, perhaps most important is my ongoing collaboration with the French electronic master Eliane Radigue.

Your mesmerizing album Billows for clarinet and live electronics strikes me as exploring the visceral, mystical territory of Scelsi but with the slower pace and simplicity of Morton Feldman, another composer whose works you’ve performed and recorded. Then there’s the birbyne, a Lithuanian single-reed instrument you use on the album. Can you speak to how your musical influences and interests play out in your compositions?

I suppose that it is normal for there to be parallels between what I prefer to play, and the music I write, though there is no intentional overlap. There is something so physical in the perception and creation of sound, something almost integrated into the psyche. How could they not be mutually influential?

Billows grew out of the quiet section of long, very contrasted work for basset horn and electronics. The idea for it came from a record producer who, fascinated by that slow, floating section, wanted to release a complete CD with only that. The special open timbre of the birbyne was especially well-suited to the live electronic treatment I was working with.

What current or upcoming compositional and performing projects are you working on?

Upcoming compositional projects include a 13-minute piece for solo percussion and electronics, a duet for birbyne and voice, and a piece for string trio and electronics which will be part of my cycle THE WEATHER PIECES, inspired by meteorological phenomena.

In addition to performances of my own music, there will be a premiere of a new opera by Wandelweiser composer Jürg Frey in Ireland, and a new work for birbyne and harp by Eliane Radigue for the Venice biennial.

A longer-term project is recording a CD of new works for birbyne by various wonderful composers.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m very happy to be playing this program in Seattle!

Hear Carol Robinson perform works of Scelsi, Smith and Jolley with Seattle Modern Orchestra on June 3 at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle, WA (more info/tickets). To learn more about Robinson, visit her website.

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