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Ursula Mamlok: atonal music with heart

With the death of Pierre Boulez on 5 January seemingly ended modernism, but the two-year older Ursula Mamlok (1923) is still alive and kicking. Although German-American Mamlok hopes to turn 93 on 1 February, she is steadily composing.# In 2009, she wrote Aphorisms II for two clarinets, in which, as in all her pieces, she manages to combine atonality with warm-blooded emotional expression. Bass clarinettist Fie Schouten will play this work on Saturday 16 January in the Vinegar factory in Den Bosch, together with Michel Marang. Seven questions for Fie Schouten.

When And how did you discover Ursula Mamlok's music?

'I heard that Lars Wouters van den Oudewijer had two pieces of her had recordedPolyphony I for clarinet solo and Confluences for clarinet and piano trio. I got curious and went looking for information. That's how I discovered that Mamlok had composed a duo for two clarinets in 2009. It is a gem, a bit Second Viennese School-like. It reminds me of the style of the Canons for clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano by Anton Webern. They are short particles, very beautiful and virtuosic, but at the same time fragile. The two clarinets are strongly intertwined, as a listener you do not experience a 'first' or 'second' voice. Atonal music has the reputation of being very complex, but for me, as a contemporary music specialist, it is not difficult, but very fascinating.'

In 2015, you played Aphorisms II personally to Mamlok, along with Lars Wouters of den Oudewijer. How did that come about?

Lars plays in the German ensemble Spectrum Concerts Berlin and had performed music by her before. He was in Berlin because of concerts and I was visiting friends there - who also happened to have a connection with Ursula Mamlok. She lived in New York for many years, but returned to her hometown in 2006, which she had had to flee as a Jew in World War II. When we introduced her to her Aphorisms II to play for, she immediately responded enthusiastically.

That we played it to her at home was really a present for her, because she had never heard her duo live before! She only knew it from a recording, which differed from her score on a few points and she was very happy that we did follow her notation in full. She also told a bit about her life and we listened to a recording of Breezes for clarinet and piano quartet, which Spectrum Concerts Berlin had premiered in April 2015.

Mamlok himself calls it important that music expresses emotion, do you experience it the same way?

'Her music is about sound and the subtleties therein. Her work is lyrical and 'beautiful' in the sense that aggression or sudden outbursts are absent. I wouldn't call the music directly communicative, rather thoughtful, but I can certainly find emotion in it. What matters most with her is the refinement in the sound.'

The second edition of the Bass clarinet fest, of which you are artistic director together with Tobias Klein. Are we going to hear Mamlok there too?

'Unfortunately not.'

Why a bass clarinet fest, does the bass clarinet need to be 'saved' like the bassoon?

The bass clarinet may not need to be 'saved', but we need to keep pulling for development, as there are still many people who do not know the instrument. We get new pieces written and organise education projects. I myself brought a teaching bundle out with specially composed pieces. In 2014, we organised the first Festival, as a party for bass clarinettist Harry Sparnaay, who turned 70 and bid farewell to the concert stage. This was so much fun and engaging that we wanted to make it a recurring event.

Incidentally, Mamlok has written a lot of chamber music for clarinet and I hope on another occasion to hear her solo Polyphony I execute once. Alariana from 1985 for (recorder) flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello I would also like to play, it's a nice instrumentation. There should also be an edition of Sonatina for two 1957 clarinets. I now only have a poor copy of that. If a better print of that comes out, it will also be very suitable to rehearse with (amateur) students.

Fie Schouten at BIMhuis i 27 Sept 2015,
Fie Schouten at BIMhuis 27 Sept 2015

Ig Henneman and Vanessa Lann wrote new compositions for the Bass Clarinet Festival, how did they turn out?

We just spent two days rehearsing it, partly with the composers present. So different the composers, so different the compositions, very fun to experience. Ig Henneman wrote Feather-light Monkeys for three bass clarinets that collectively 'wave' from low to high; there is no hierarchy in the parts. Ig drew inspiration in part from the poem Garden by Anneke Brassinga, with the verses "...Invisible birds may as well be monkeys as wind...".

Ig is herself a (alto)violinist and her partner is a clarinettist, so she has a great affinity with reed players. She moves into the realm of improvisation and in her new piece there are two moments where - within established frameworks - we get a bit more freedom. I previously collaborated with her on the solo Riassunto for my education anthology. With the new piece, I did not interfere because she knows what kind of player I am and what works well or not. So I was confident that something engaging would come out of it, challenging but still playable.

Vanessa Lann wrote Lather, rinse, repeat for bass clarinet quartet. The lyrics any American will recognise, as they are on all shampoo bottles. As in all her music, there is something repetitive in it, but in a different way than I knew from her. For instance, I played Then I'll have another cauliflower for bass clarinet, cello and piano and she wrote Sleep, sleep, gypsy for flute, bass clarinet and piano for my trio Kaida. In her new quartet, the four instruments are less intertwined than in Ig Henneman's trio, they are four 'quirky' voices. There is also a surprise in it, as there often is in her work, but I'm not going to give it away.

Are there common ground with Ursula Mamlok's music?

'The three composers are quite different, but I can express myself well in their pieces. I really like sound and playing with timbres, which is strong in the music of all three.'

#Ursula Mamlok died on the morning of May 4, 2016

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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