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.

- D. Lippel

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 WholeNote

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, 3.06.2018


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, 3.05.2018


Records International

The first thing that may strike the listener accustomed to Lachenmann’s texturally dense, noise and cluster-laden large-scale, more recent works, is how relatively little there is of that kind of thing in these relatively early works with clarinet. Trio fluido, from the late 1960s, almost sounds like a ‘conventional’ piece of chamber music of the time; atonal, but with textures built up from complex rhythmic relationships between parts; some limited extended techniques appear only later in the piece, as though the composer was developing increasing confidence with these methods in the course of the piece. Textures are subtle, simple and open, and undemonstrative; silence, or the approach to silence of a fading note or chord, is very important. Dal Niente, from 1970, is a virtuosic exploration of how a world of new sounds for the clarinet can emerge ‘from nothing’, and here breath sounds, key and tongue slaps and other extended techniques predominate. The half-hour Allegro sostenuto dates from the late 1980s, and is sonically more typical of the composer. The early stages of the piece are an obsessive examination of how notes start and, more particularly, finish; the approach to silence is an evolution of that encountered in the trio. Structurally the work follows a distinct dramatic arc, with six sections each with its own sound-world, leading up to an aggressive climax—the kind of viscerally exciting tumult that Lachenmann does so well—and then retreating into the fragmented sounds of the opening.


New Music Buff

Helmut Lachenmann (1935- ) is a composer who has been “on my radar” for some years now but, like a lot of names I get, I had yet to hear much of his music. Along comes Gregory Oakes from, of all places, Iowa. The Midwest in the United States doesn’t have much of a reputation for embracing the avant garde (though they actually do). So into the CD player goes this one and…wow, I really need to hear more Lachenmann and whoever this Oakes guy is I want to pay attention to what he is doing with that clarinet.
Admittedly this disc languished a bit before I heard it but I am now glad I did.

This disc consists of only three tracks comprising three works by this major German composer from three different periods in his career. Dal Niente (Interiur III), Trio Fluido, and Allegro Sostenuto.

Dal Niente (1970) is for solo clarinet and, as the title prescribes, the music is to be played as “from nothing” the meaning of the title. In fact this seems to be practically a textbook of extended techniques for the clarinet. But far from being a dull accounting of dry techniques, this is a tour de force which will challenge the skills of even the most experienced players. It is quite musical and listenable but the virtuosity will knock your socks off. Oakes pulls it off with a deceptive ease that demonstrates his rather profound knowledge of his instrument. It is easy to see the seeming cross pollination between the avant garde and free jazz here.

Next up is Trio Fluido (1966-68) which is a respectably avant garde trio for clarinet, viola, and percussion with Matthew Coley, percussion, and Jonathan Sturm, viola. Like the previous work this one is also about extended techniques (for all three instruments this time). This is a fine example of mid-twentieth century modernism and deserves a place in the repertoire. All three musicians are challenged to play their instruments in unconventional ways and the effect is almost like some of the electronic music of the era. It is a complex and pointillistic texture that has a strong and serious content.

Finally Allegro Sostenuto (1986-88) is another trio, this time for clarinet, cello, and piano. So while this work would make a fine companion work to the Brahms clarinet trio the work is unambiguously avant garde in the finest Darmstadt traditions. It is, at about 30 minutes, the longest piece here and it reflects the further maturity of the composer as he creates another challenging but almost surprisingly satisfying work.

This album serves as a nice way to be introduced to Helmut Lachenmann and to get to know some major new champions of the avant garde. And one would do well to stay informed about the work being done by this fine new music clarinetist.

— Allan J. Cronin, 11.20.2018


International Clarinet Association

Taking on a single work of composer Helmut Lachenmann requires a certain kind of penchant for precision, patience and intensity. In combining not one but three of Lachenmann’s works into a single album, Gregory Oakes and a list of wonderful collaborators breathe life into music that many clarinetists might fear to explore. Oakes, on faculty at Iowa State University, is known by many clarinetists and composers as a renowned performer of contemporary music. His album Aesthetic Apparatus: Clarinet Chamber Music of Helmut Lachenmann brings listeners into the threads of Lachenmann’s work and the silences and spaces within it, making this album fascinating.

Oakes’s performance in Dal Niente (Interieur III) captures the essence of the title, which translates as “from nothing.” Through what seems like sometimes deafening silence, the subtle air sounds and crescendos from niente become inflection points. The openness of these silences is captivating, allowing one to appreciate the nuance in the work brought about by well-executed interpretation. Oakes’s variety of articulation helps to climb out of these valleys of silence. A sparse section can be interrupted by a singular high harmonic pop or a flurry of rapid attacks.

The second track, Trio Fluido, features fantastic ensemble playing from percussionist Matthew Coley and violist Jonathan Sturm. A fluid opening connects the three instruments along snaking melodies of varying timbres and textural identities. Throughout the work, the different techniques begin to blend into a melded cross-instrumental timbre.

The final track Allegro Sostenuto fills the second half of the album at 32 minutes long. A mammoth work on its own, Allegro Sostenuto requires a great deal of intensity from the performers in capturing what is a raucous climax around the latter third of the work. Mei-Hsuan Huang’s piano playing features colorful treatment with contrasts between glissandos and striking interjections while cellist George Work manages to blend into the lower bass clarinet texture with ease. Oakes’s bass clarinet performance is engaging.

Aesthetic Apparatus expertly and intelligently conveys the nuances of a composer that can sometimes be lost in a recorded medium. The quality of Chad Jacobsen’s engineering lets the individual artists speak. Although this album might be lost on someone if listened to in a crowded world, a noisy and busy life, hearing it without distraction reveals so many colors and timbres that make this a remarkable listening experience.

— Ford Fourqurean, 9.09.2021

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