Kirkoskammer: The Clarinet at Powerscourt Theatre, 17 July 2017 | Review
The theatre at the Powerscourt Townhouse (slightly less accessible than usual after hours) is a very quiet venue, its second storey windows facing out onto Clarendon Street. There are candles and sealed plastic envelopes on the small tables and the audience are given a complimentary glass of wine, sangria or spritzer as they come in. The plastic envelopes contain the concert programme notes laid out on eleven sheets of A5 paper. It’s an attractive alternative to the usual booklet – a clean, contemporary design with lots of white space that focuses attention by having notes for the individual pieces on individual sheets. Sebastian Adams, co-director of Kirkos, thanks those gathered for coming out on “one of the nicest evenings you’re likely to see”. He gives a short introduction to the Kirkoskammer series and to tonight’s featured (and only) performer, clarinettist Léonie Bluett.

Inside Powerscourt Theatre

She hops up the couple of steps onto the stage, which is bare but for a pair of music stands with some audio equipment at their base. The lights dim and Bluett performs clarinet:solo by Kevin Volans. Volans is as much a common thread in this concert as the clarinet, having taught most of the other composers. The one-line programme note for his own piece tells us that “the title clarinet:solo refers more to a state of mind than a literal description of the piece.” A foot pedal allows Bluett control of the ‘tape’ part of the performance, an energetic, burbling partner to the quiet, controlled tone of the clarinet.
The next two pieces, e by Irish composer Andrew Hamilton, and 32 Breaths by American Tom Johnson, are effective solo pieces. Both are based on musical lines: e starts with a diatonic scale that is gradually subsumed by chaos, and 32 Breaths uses a falling melody that is built from the exotic sound of the octatonic scale. The full revelation of this melody comes at the end of the piece, emerging from the meditative deep breaths that the performer is instructed to inhale and exhale through the instrument.
Bluett moves balletically as she performs, responding to the internal pulse of her solo music making. For Jonathan Nangle’s piece, Particle, however, she dons an earpiece and plays in synch with the electronic part of the composition. Now playing against the fixed external pulse, Bluett’s movements are more rhythmical. Her feet tap and her heels pivot as the virtuosic clarinet writing interacts with the flickering ‘tape’ part. Nangle has taken his inspiration for this piece from an intriguing article by science writer Oliver Sacks on the strange, insubstantial elements found at the hinterlands of the Periodic Table. The excitedly curious tone of his programme note is infectious and illuminates the structure of the piece. The extensive range of the clarinet is used in the first section, culminating in some quiet multiphonics towards the end. This technique allows more than one pitch to be heard, ethereally bubbling off. A stillness takes over the music and Bluett’s movements broaden, her limbs tensing and relaxing as Sacks’ ‘Island of Stability’ emerges.
Johannes Kreidler’s Two Pieces for Video and Clarinet round out the programme. Bluett apparently reacts to the images on the screen and, in the absence of an explanatory note, we are caught up in a game of trying to understand what’s going on. It is clear, certainly, that the titular ordering of “Video” first and “Clarinet” second is a deliberate one. The first animation is of a bank of faders, such as you’d find on a mixing desk. These slide up and down and the clarinet seems to have to translate this movement to sound. It’s an amusing set-up and there is certainly humour as the vertical faders rotate upside down and then sideways. The second video is similar, but uses a two-dimensional ball bouncing inside a square. (Picture that game, ‘Snake’, that got us through the pre-smartphone years.) The ‘rules’ of this scenario are clearer, and therefore easier to subvert for laughs. It is a genuinely charming idea, but the delay between our seeing the animation and hearing the reaction to it gets tiring. There’s also an inherent panic that sets in with these kinds of pieces, and the gestures become exaggerated beyond meaning. A more worked-out live soundtrack to the video – as opposed to the improvised musical reaction – might have been more subtle and satisfying.
The feeling afterwards is like that after wandering through a well-curated art exhibition – a quietness, a gentle tiredness, as the new ideas just encountered formulate into questions. Some of the questions will be voiced, perhaps immediately after the concert, perhaps later in the pub, perhaps later still in an anecdote (or a review), but most will not.
Kevin Volans: clarinet:solo
Andrew Hamilton: e
Tom Johnson: 32 Breaths
Jonathan Nangle: Particle
Johannes Kreidler: Two Pieces for Clarinet and Video