The Mazzini-Cutler Case
A random breakthrough of new music
Clarinet players during their bachelor years have to master a secondary side skill that is required by their study course: transposition.
But what does it mean?
For very long and complicated historical reasons, some wind instruments are built so that the note that they read on the paper and the connected sound they produce is not the sound that is meant to be. With clarinet, for example, when we read a central G, and we perform it, it sounds as an F. Hence, one note, or tone lower. This means that when we play a G, an F key must be pressed on a piano, in order to have a unison. This seems rare and complicated. Maybe a little nonsense too, but as soon as we zoom out from the clarinet world, we realize that many other instruments transport, and not just of one tone! The alto saxophone is an instrument in E flat, which means that it transposes by an even larger music interval: a third. Some brass instruments transport even a fourth (four notes up!).
To differentiate between these sound settings, composers came up with what we call “concert pitch”, that is: the note that you hear coincides with what it is written down, like the central A in violin key, at 440 hertz.
A music score can therefore be written in concert pitch and, in this case, some instruments will have to transpose. Sometimes, it can be mixed! Some instruments therefore will be written in concert pitch, while the transposing ones, such as clarinet, French horn, trumpet and sax among others, will be written to facilitate the players, so already transposed to the direct pitch they will have to read.
Usually, orchestra scores are written in concert pitch (easier to read for the composer), but single parts are handed down already transposed. This is done so that the players do not have to struggle more than they have to, and they all have to practice the music in their own key, for example in a violin key or a bass clef, depending on the instrument. This, of course, facilitates the practice and the good outcome of the music.
I say that scores are usually written in concert pitch because, sometimes, with very complex music, or with atonal music, as most of the contemporary western repertoire, things can be tricky and blurred. Misunderstandings can happen.
Why, on earth, did I explain all of this?
Because sometimes, it does not matter how much we train, we all make mistakes. It happened to me in December 2020, but somehow, the consequences of my mistakes - that, as you will see, were not simple slips - branched out so much and in such unexpected ways, that the story that I am about to tell is in fact of great interest to both musicians and not.
So… let’s begin!
During the last months of 2020, a dear Amsterdam-based friend of mine, the harpsichordist Katerina Ourfanudaki, asked me to play a piece of contemporary music with her for an exam that she had to take. The piece, called Urban Myths, was written in 1999 by Joe Cutler for Harri Sparnaay and Annelie De Man, respectively one of the most important contemporary music bass clarinet and harpsichord players; unfortunately, both are dead now.
The piece, soaked with an American-like groovy nature, and organized in a very clear classic three-movement form, is in fact very entertaining to play and to listen. We were happy to practise it.
However, we had a problem: Katerina, at the time, had access to only the original handwritten score of the piece. No single parts were available, and given the “academic” nature of her proposal, we did not want to buy the score - a common issue for contemporary music students- and we practised it on the handwritten original version.
As soon as I saw the score, I was puzzled. My bass clarinet part, which usually is notated in violin key, was written in a cello-like modality: a score subdivided in more keys, depending on the register of the instrument: bass clef, alto and violin key only for the highest notes. Unfortunately, nothing was written about whether or not my part was in concert pitch or in b flat (one tone up, ready to be practised by the clarinet player).
If we had played literally any music composed between the 18th and the end of the 19th century, there would have been no doubt: even though my part was notated in three different keys, I still would have to transpose. From Bach until the late Wagner, as a general umbrella, the Western euro-centric music had been composed tonally. This means that one or more tonalities, or chords, would have been at the centre of the piece: a gravitational pull which made it fairly easy to understand whether a note would have been wrong or not in a precise context. After all, would you notice more mistakes in a Mozart sonata or in a Ligeti study? I had no information to understand whether the part that I started to practice was indeed correct or not. A lazy part of me took over, and I decided that I would not transpose the piece.
I wish this had been the only problem.
The bass clarinet, the big cool brother of his smaller and more popular b flat clarinet, reads anyway in violin key, but the produced sound is one octave lower. Therefore, if a central G is played on a bass clarinet, that note equals a one-octave-lower F on a piano (F is one tone down from G).
So here is the problem: am I reading the sounds that my instrument produces or the sound that I would play if just reading my part?
I managed to make the wrong decision even here.
I decided to go with the second choice, and consistently with my first mistake, I practised many parts of the piece not only one tone down but also one octave down.
You might ask why we did not listen to a previous recording.
Well… We could not find one! For many months, we looked for it by searching on Youtube or Spotify with key words such as “Joe Cutler” or “Urban Myths”, and nothing came out. Hence, we wrongly assumed that either there was no original recording available online, or that was no recording at all. True pioneers of contemporary music at work!
Reinforced by the complete lack of any other data over the piece, we went on practising it this way. For many months nobody listened to us, therefore the wrong decisions that I took were somehow taken for granted by Katerina, who rightfully does not know much about bass clarinet. And the mistake locked in.
Nevertheless, when the piece was close to being ready for a recording, we went for a lesson to Katerina’s teacher: Goska Isphording -surely one of the most important contemporary music harpsichord teachers and performers nowadays. She was indeed the one who suggested the piece in the first place, and in fact, she performed it many, many years ago. But a long time had passed since her last performance, and some details do slip away easily with sounds. Even though the version that she heard from us was in some ways completely wrong, she gave us jolly good musical advice, and unconsciously let the major issues of our version go away completely unnoticed. At the time we were not conscious at all of our mistakes, therefore the performance was probably convincing either way.
And so, happily and unaware, we recorded the piece.
I gave it a decent mixing and I was ready to upload it on Youtube when I was interrupted by a message by Katerina.
She found the original De Man-Sparnaay first recording.
How? Instead of looking for the piece itself, she found it indirectly through a playlist of different Annelie De Man recordings.
(Now, these are the real mysteries of the Spotify search algorithm).
I cannot describe the incredible astonishment that I felt while listening. Sparnaay was not only playing one tone up but for most of the piece, one octave higher than I was!
We did not know what to do. There is no other way of telling it: our recording was rubbish.
On the other hand … If we did not notice ourselves, and not even the teacher, maybe the composer would not notice as well.
I uploaded the recording, privately, on Youtube and discussed further what to do.
After a hubris-exceeding parenthesis in which I was sure I could send the “wrong” recording to Joe Cutler, without even mentioning the differences, expecting an equally naïf and condescending reaction, we luckily decided to go another way.
Using instead the power of honesty, we wrote Joe Cutler an email that stated every single problem we had in practising and recording the piece, and therefore the decisions that I took and their consequent mistakes, and we attached the recording.
We really thought that our recording, even if paradoxically all wrong, would be indeed a very good version of the piece, and we asked him to listen to it with a “fresh” ear. A real gamble.
Against all odds, Joe Cutler replied and, instead of turning us down, stated that:
“ ( … ) Actually, as you say, the outcome is really quite good! I do like the slight ambiguity in harmony between harpsichord and bass clarinet, and I also really like the low octave playing, like at the beginning. I think mvt 1 and 3 actually work great, in the second maybe the harmony feels a little strange. If you do decide to keep playing 1 and 3 at this pitch/register, I'm fine with that actually as a sort of ossia version ( … )”.
We played with fire. And we came out lucky. Joe Cutler replied in such an open-minded way. Other options were more likely to happen, such as the conjectural: “You played well, but definitely you didn’t play my music”, or even the stricter: “You made a sloppy mistake. What you did made no sense. Please practise my piece again.” Not every composer is gifted with this flexibility. Moreover, composers who write in a traditional left-to-right way, without any improvisational element in their music, are even less likely to have it.
Great. But what have we learnt?
Maybe not to make such mistakes anymore …
Ehm … What else?
I have been practising an entire piece completely wrong, from the beginning to the end, and no one ever noticed. Cherry on top, the very composer was quite happy with the results.
Maybe the issue is that, in fact, stating that I played a piece completely wrong is a misleading form of communicating what happened.
For so many reasons. Not all parts of the piece were “wrong”.
The harpsichord part was entirely correct, for example.
And, even though technically all my notes were the wrong ones, clearly, I did keep every written melody, rhythm, dynamics, tempo changing and expression marks as they were. Only the intervals between the harpsichord and the bass clarinet actually changed.
After all, only one music parameter out of so many was indeed the faulty one. Every other music feature, quality or characteristic, was at its right place.
Many conclusions can be taken from this story. Here I would like to express some of them.
The simplest, and yet wrong conclusion that someone would reach is that, given that the piece worked so well in such a different way, then probably it was not so effectively well written in the first place.
It is very easy to fall in this trap. But it is a trap indeed. This conclusion implies for example that music would work only with the exact written notes. Any mistake would ruin the piece completely - otherwise, what is the threshold after which the piece would come out devastated?
This theory also does not count all contemporary music that is naturally based over a free, personal and improvisation-like interpretation of new graphical ways of music notation, as every performance would come out differently from before.
The natural development of this theory would state that it was an obvious result, because for most contemporary music, no mistakes can be heard, as the music does not sound good by itself already! Very traditional and narrow-minded musicians that do not like any sort of classical (or pop) music composed after the beginning of the 20th century usually keep this position. This conclusion is not only too radical but also too cold and dismissive, to be true.
A more nuanced way of seeing things can start from Beethoven himself, as one of his famous quotes goes: “To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable!”
Surely, he mentioned one note only ... I played all of them wrong!
But then, what was important in his quote was to play the music “with passion”, a thing that Katerina and I did.
It always seems like that the notes that we play would be the most important thing in our performances. Mostly in classical music, mistakes are monsters: we think about them too much, and their invisible weight pends on our shoulders like ghosts behind us.
However, as mentioned, music is made of many parameters at the same time. Pitches (or notes) are only one of them. Rhythm is equally as important as sounds. Other crucially important parameters are implicitly present in everything we listen to: melody, register, volume, expression (as in tempo, dynamics and articulation), timbre, texture and form. All of these parameters, except notes and, partially, register, were rightly performed in our version.
Therefore, we should always ask ourselves, what are the most important features of a piece? Is it its expression? Or rhythm?
Louis Andriessen wrote Workers Union, an incredibly high-energy piece for “any loud group” that was notated in such a way that every instrument would have to play the piece mono-rhythmically with the others -which means that everybody has to play the same rhythm together- but without any obligation of specific notes to be performed: only the shape of the melody was given in the score. The exact notes were free to be chosen by the players. Workers Union is a great example of a piece that has rhythm prioritized over notes.
A similar thing happened to us: I kept exactly the same shape of each melody, but without playing the specific notes! Was it a lucky incident? Probably yes.
But if I managed to get away with murder this easy, maybe this story is actually a cautionary tale to all musicians: notes are not everything. In fact, sometimes, they do not matter at all.
Anyway, there is no better way to “feel” our story better than to listen and compare the recordings! After all, music must be heard, not written down.
A dear friend of mine, the Ravenna-based bass clarinet player Zecone Da Barga, had a similar problem with this piece. He completely misread the score, and practised it a third higher than what should have been done. After so much work done together with his music partner Regina Strinasacchi, he decided to publish the third movement anyway, unbeknownst to everybody but me.