Gregory Oakes: Aesthetic Apparatus: Clarinet Chamber Music of Helmut Lachenmann


Clarinetist Gregory Oakes releases a recording of the complete chamber works for clarinet by eminent German composer Helmut Lachenmann, the first including all three pieces together on the same release. Of particular interest is the virtuosic performance by Oakes and his colleagues of the seldom heard "Trio Fluido" for clarinet, viola, and percussion.


As much as any living musical figure, German composer Helmut Lachenmann has shaped the landscape of contemporary composition. Through the practice he calls Musique Concrète Instrumentale, Lachenmann has exploded the vocabulary and timbral palette for instrumental performance, and has invited a whole generation of composers to follow in his footsteps to fascinating effect. Of particular importance to Lachenmann’s process is the creation of sounds and timbres for specific pieces — in this way, he avoids the pitfalls of cliché textures and always employs extended techniques in the service of a focused expressive goal.

Gregory Oakes’ recording of his complete chamber music for clarinet is an ideal window into these aspects of Lachenmann’s work. The title of the opening work on the disc, Dal Niente, translates from the Italian as “from nothing” but is also a musical term that calls for the player to begin from silence and emerge ever so subtly. Lachenmann finds myriad ways to explore the musical boundaries of audibility and to extend the sonic palette of the instrument to include variations in breathing sounds and key clicks. In this way, Lachenmann’s interpretation of “from nothing” extends to the creative process of compositional discovery itself, and the blank slate approach to the clarinet as object that he uses to unearth new sounds.

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The rarely heard Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola, and percussion opens more traditionally, with hybrid ensemble timbres resulting from triggered rhythmic interactions between the three instruments. As the piece unfolds, Lachenmann turns his attention to less conventional sounds such as the sound of the wood of a mallet playing a glissando on the bars of the marimba, slap tongues in the clarinet, and wispy harmonics in the viola.

In the final, longest work on this recording, Allegro Sostenuto, Lachenmann sustains large scale structural activity beneath the surface of music that alternates between dense and sparse moments. Similarly to Dal Niente, his title communicates layers of meaning, as the conventional Italian musical meaning of allegro sostenuto, “fast and sustained”, here manifests itself in an energy and pace of pulse that often lies beneath the heard surface. This wonderfully performed recording by Oakes and his colleagues gives a wide view of Lachenmann’s chamber music writing from his thirties into his fifties.

From the austere sonic exploration of the solo work, Dal Niente, the evolution from traditional chamber textures towards unorthodox playing techniques in the rarely heard Trio Fluido, and the expansive structural shapes of Allegro Sostenuto, we hear a composer who is never content with operating within a predetermined compositional status quo. This quality, combined with the refinement he embeds in his experimentation, is what has inspired and left such an indelible mark on the next generation of composers, and what gives his music such communicative power even at its most avant-garde.

Recorded at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa (Martha-Ellen Tye Recital Hall)

Recording Engineer: Chad Jacobsen

Recording dates: Track 1: March 14, 2016

Track 2: June 2, June 4, August 27, 2015

Track 3: May 9-10, October 16-17, 2016

Gregory Oakes

Gregory Oakes is an energetic and exciting clarinetist and a passionate champion of the music of our time. From his Carnegie Hall debut with members of Ensemble Intercontemporain and Pierre Boulez to his performances as a member of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Oakes has been praised by critics for his “outstanding performance”(New York Times)and “jazzy flourishes” (Denver Post). American Record Guide says “Oakes is the rare player who has both excellent classical training and a mastery of the otherworldly procedures demanded by non-traditional repertoire,” and Fanfare Magazine lauds the “formidable technical armamentarium at his command.” His performance highlights include a concerto with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a concert at Amsterdam’s venerable new music hall De IJsbreker, a feature performance at Thailand’s MUPA Festival, and a solo feature at Berlin’s prestigious MaerzMusik festival.

Matthew Coley

Matthew Coley is an internationally acclaimed performer and the founding executive director of Heartland Marimba. Primarily active as a marimba soloist and dulcimer artist, he has performed throughout most of the U.S. states, Canada, and several European countries. Matthew has released four albums, is a published composer and a passionate chamber musician, performing year-round with the Heartland Marimba Quartet, sonic inertia, and Clocks in Motion Percussion.

Jonathan Sturm

Jonathan Sturm, viola, fills multiple roles in music as the concertmaster of the Des Moines Symphony, violist in the acclaimed Ames and Amara Piano Quartets, and professor of music history at Iowa State University. He has recorded for the Dorian, Sono Luminus, Albany, Fleur de Son, and New Focus Recordings labels and has performed as a soloist and chamber musician on recital series across the United States and in Russia, South Africa, Cuba, and Albania.

Mei-Hsuan Huang

Mei-Hsuan Huang is Assistant Professor of Piano at Iowa State University. She has been a prize winner in several international piano competitions, including the Wideman Piano Competition and the International Chopin Piano Competition. Huang is on the piano faculty at The Atlantic Music Festival in Maine and the Caroga Lake Music Festival in New York during the summer. She has been a Steinway & Sons Artist since 2014.

George Work

George Work is the cellist of the Amara (formerly Ames) Piano Quartet. The Quartet has released fifteen critically-acclaimed CD recordings and appeared in concert throughout the United States and Canada. International appearances include Russia, Austria, France, Taiwan, Mexico, South Africa, and Cuba. Work has appeared as soloist with orchestras in Taiwan and Russia and has recorded the Ibert Concerto for Cello and Winds with the Baton Rouge Symphony Chamber Players.


The Whole Note

Utter the name Helmut Lachenmann in a loud stage whisper, being sure to accentuate fully the consonants, exaggerating the different vowel colours, and you’ll have an idea what it is like to perform his music. He asks performers to make varying sounds which require a complete rethinking of one’s technical approach. Lachenmann, Maurizio Kagel and Heinz Holliger have led the way to innovative notations depicting the strange breath effects, kisses, clicks, squeaks and honks they demand from performers. In Aesthetic Apparatus, clarinetist Gregory Oakes has compiled three substantial chamber works by Lachenmann. The first, Dal Niente, for solo clarinet, is an extension of silence into a variety of soundscapes. Oakes conveys conviction that all the sounds he generates belong in a congruent whole, and with more hearings I’m certain I’d agree. What is unusual in this recording is the extended periods of nearly empty time, where the effects produced might be more easily perceived if one could see them produced. It takes chutzpah to publish this performance on a sound-only recording. Trio Fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion, provides a richer soundscape, although the writing is still full of attenuated pauses. Early exchanges between the instruments seem full of repressed violence, which occasionally breaks out into outright hostility. Beyond this, there are delightful moments of simply elegant trialogue, as if three species of creature are employing their various intelligences to match one another’s language. Allegro Sostenuto, for clarinet, cello and piano, completes this wonderful exploration. I use the term “tonal” modified by “somewhat more” to indicate that in contrast to the first two tracks, this work exploits more interplay between pitches than raw sounds, making it perhaps the most immediately listenable.

— Max Christie, 3.2018, The Whole Note

Avant Music News

Some of the most challenging music of recent years—challenging to play as well as to listen to—has been written by German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935). The conceptual core of much of his music has consisted in laying bare the conditions underlying and assumed by music production—essentially, the physical prerequisites of performance practice, as well as the determinations, both accepted and rejected, of genre. For Lachenmann, musical sound is a complex of factors reaching back within the tradition or genre in relation to which it is created, and reaching forward into the moment—the physical situation of specific possibilities and the choices they elicit—in which it is actually produced. Thus the title of his book of writings, which translates as “music as existential experience.” This standpoint puts extraordinary demands on the performer, who must be familiar with all the aspects and resources his or her instrument has to offer. With Aesthetic Apparatus, a set of three Lachenmann compositions, clarinetist Gregory Oakes takes up the challenge.

Oakes, who is principal clarinetist for the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra as well as an assistant professor of clarinet at Iowa State University in Ames, is particularly interested in contemporary art music. Much of his repertoire is the product of collaboration with currently active composers, and he seems especially drawn to new music that assumes a broad notion of what kinds of sounds are permissible in the concert hall. Thus Lachenmann’s music is a natural fit for him.

The affinity between Oakes and Lachenmann’s sound world is immediately apparent with the first piece, 1970’s Dal Niente (Interieur III) for solo clarinet. The composition calls for a number of extended techniques for the instrument, many of which involve the sounds of breath on the borderline of silence. In his liner note, Oakes points out that the title of the piece derives from a musical marking that translates as “from nothing;” his performance accordingly pivots on the flux of sounds proceeding from and returning to nothing. The Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola and percussion of 1966, in which Oakes is joined by violist Jonathan Sturm and Matthew Coley on marimba, also centers on sound but in a more assertive way. The piece begins with a fragmented Modernist counterpoint that, through a kind of compositional auto-deconstruction, gradually dissolves into abstract sound. What’s striking about the piece is its underlying consistency; the division of the three voices focuses attention on their individual timbral characteristics, whether played conventionally or with the extended techniques that come to dominate the final third or so of the performance. The interplay among the three performers manages to be both refined and (subtly) dramatic. The final performance, the nearly 32 minute long Allegro Sostenuto (1986/1988), is a trio for clarinet, cello (George Work) and piano (Mei-Hsuan Huang) that Lachenmann has described as mediating between resonance and movement. The piece begins as an archipelago of rapid bursts, truncated phrases and points of sound that accumulate and build length and mass over time. The resonance inheres in the individuation of each of the three instruments, which is helped by the three players’ precise articulation. Here as on all three pieces, Oakes plays with a fine-grained, well-modulated and vivid sound.

- Daniel Barbiero, Avant Music News, 3.5.2018

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