August 25, 2009

Two clarinets at once? That's playing a mouthful

Posted: August 25, 2009
man playing two clarinets
Robert Spring will debut as a bi-clarinetist when he performs in "Premieres and Legends," Sept. 13, at Katzin Concert Hall.
September 12, 2009
2:30 p.m.

The average person has a difficult time playing the clarinet. You have to get the reed attached to the mouthpiece just so, and position the instrument perfectly in the mouth. Then hope sound comes out, at least in the beginning. (You do get better as you go along.)

Robert Spring, professor of clarinet in the Herberger Institute School of Music, is not only light years beyond the beginning stages, but now he has taken another giant leap with this complicated wind instrument: he’s going to play TWO clarinets at once.

Spring’s debut as a bi-clarinetist will take place at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, when he performs in “Premieres and Legends” in Katzin Concert Hall.

Spring will debut the aptly named “Double Life,” a new piece by clarinet virtuoso Eric Mandat, that’s played on a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet simultaneously – by one performer.

He was originally scheduled to perform a new work written for him by noted clarinetist Bill Smith, who was the first to explore playing with two instruments, but Smith, who is in his 80s, told Spring a few months ago that he didn’t think he’d have the piece finished by Sept. 13.

Spring then contacted Mandat, who teaches clarinet at Southern Illinois University and also writes experimental music for clarinets, to ask him for a piece. “He’s a genius,” Spring said.

Some clarinetists might think Mandat is more along the line of a mad man than a genius, however. Performers of his “Double Life” have the option of adding an extension to the B-flat clarinet made with PVC pipe that has three holes in it, enabling the pipe to be “played” with the knees.
(Mandat sells the completed extensions, and also instructions so you can make your own.)

To be able to play two instruments with just two hands, clarinetists must make a few modifications to the A clarinet – the top holes have to be closed with corks, and the register key propped open with a wedge of cork, thus enabling one hand to play the lower register on one instrument and the higher notes on the other.

“I bought corks at Michaels and I’ve been sanding them to get them to fit,” said Spring during a preview of his upcoming feat.

Spring began practicing “Double Life” in May, and he’s learned that it works best when the mouthpieces are touching. “I started by playing one clarinet on one side of my mouth, then playing on the other,” Spring said. (The clarinet is usually played with the mouthpiece resting on the middle of the lips.) “Then I put them together and pffffft.” (Imagine air escaping from the mouth.)

Aside from learning to direct air into two instruments at once, Spring said it is difficult to think about – and play – two lines of music, some with different rhythms at the same time. “And, it’s hard when you have to tongue on just one side.”

Smith, Spring and Mandat are not the first wind players to try to play two instruments at once. Spring said he has heard musicians in nightclubs playing two saxophones at once, and two trumpets (which didn’t sound good, he said).

So why try to play two clarinets at once?

“I’ve done a lot of new things with the clarinet, such as circular breathing and multiple tonguing, and you have to stretch things,” Spring said. “You can only do that here, at a university.”

The program for Sept. 13 includes “Riptide for Clarinet and Bassoon,” by ASU graduate Theresa Martin; “Dance Duo” for clarinet and piano, by ASU composer Rodney Rogers; “Hold Em,” by ASU composition professor Roshanne Etezady; and “Igor’s Ladder” for two clarinets, by Rogers.
Tickets are $8 ($4 for students). For more information call (480) 965-6447.

Judith Smith, jps@asu.edu
Media Relations