The Barrels and the BBC

an idea

I met Halldór Úlfarsson in 2003. Then he had just made his first “punk-fiddle” which later evolved into his famous Halldorophone. In 2013 however, he introduced me to a piece of equipment called a 3d printer. To me it was a hilarious device because I had been thinking that in the future people will simply buy a toothbrush online and print it out. The future was already here.

We talked about what we could do with a 3d printer in relation to musical instruments. We thought about digital routers and laser cutters also. All of these eventually found their way into our collaborations.

An elaboration

After I had slept on the concept of 3d printing though, I felt that the clarinet barrel was a piece that was an “easy target” so to speak, in order to transform a traditional instrument into something slightly different. Perhaps something very subtle however, almost like a trumpet mute.

Little did I know that a student at the Iceland University of Arts had approached him with exactly the same observation. He happened to play the clarinet. Þráinn Hjálmarsson was involved as well and we got busy right away. We got to the drawing board and almost immediately started printing out experimental versions.

A further elaboration

The first ones were way too grotesque, too extreme and some where not very helpful to tone production of any kind. Already by version 3 however, we found something that I immediately fell in love with. We started developing version 3 into 3.1 and so on until we got to 3.2.1. By then I was satisfied and wanted to use this particular barrel in a piece that I was writing. By now it has appeared in 8 of my pieces so far.

What touched me about the 3.2.1 was that it had a very subdued timbre and made the interval structure of the instrument narrower in a non-linear manner. A lot of my music had been dealing with some sort of subdued timbres with melodies and counterpoint of narrow intervals. For instance Helfákn:

I am a part of a composer collective in Iceland which is called S.L.Á.T.U.R.. It was at its peak of activity in those days. We had many annual, monthly and sometimes weekly events in this period, public or private. The one that usually drew the biggest crowed though, was our New Years concert. We decided that we would do the 2014 new years concert with people writing short pieces for a clarinet quartet with 3d printed clarinet barrels and other variations. It was a success, now we had created not only weird clarinet barrels but a musical repertoire.

A grotesque prototype

This was the start of a busy year – a year in which I traveled more than I have done previously or since. I also wrote several pieces – many of which use 3d printed clarinet barrels.

Starting with the 2014 S.L.Á.T.U.R. New Years Concert, the pieces I wrote are called Skrund 1, 2 and 3 and they were performed as interludes between other pieces (yes perhaps those 3 were just one piece – a matter of definition, 3 individual stück nevertheless).

Skrund – from the Slátur 2014 New Years Concert

Then there were the 5 Norræn abstrakt verk (or 5 Nordic Abstract Works) for solo clarinet written for Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson from Ensemble Adapter. Then I wrote Siglitør for the Norwegian Ensemble Tøyen fil og klafferi and the first out of four in a particularly fruitful collaboration (which also includes Hyglitør, seen and heard below).

The clarinet with barrel 3.2.1 is in the middle

This fall also had the premier of the biggest piece I had done using my preferred method of notation, namely animated notation. Conductor Ilan Volkov had taken over the baton of the Iceland Symphony in 2011. All of a sudden there was a leading figure in the Icelandic music establishment that was not only open to experimental music but had primary enthusiasm for not just new music in general but experimental music in particular.

There were many collaborations that Slátur did with Mr. Volkov during his stay in Iceland and at one point he had asked me if I wanted to have a piece on a concert that he was setting up in Glasgow. He mentioned my piece Laur but after talking I expressed my wish to write something new. When I asked about the instrumentation of the group he told me that it was the BBC Scottish Symphony. Yikes.

Big opportuinites tend to bring out the most conservative. I was aware of that. A lot of interesting composers write less interesting pieces for orchestras for some reason. For me comfort and compromise would have been betraying everything I believe in so I decided to write this piece as if it was the last piece I would ever write. Plus, I had already once written a more traditional orchestral piece mainly in order to get some grip of its machinery in case such an opportunity would rise.

The original 3.2.1

I worked on Sporgýla in 2013-2014 in parallel with the other pieces I already mentioned. I also had a part time job as a museum guard at the time. There was a lot of juggling. I wanted to have the barrels in there. I wanted to use animated notation. These were to things that I needed to “sell” the people at the BBC so to speak. One out of two would have stopped most orchestras from performing it.

How would I bring my vision to a full orchestra? It was a problematic medium for me in many ways. Incidentally I met with a lot of musicians in Iceland, many of whom were in the Iceland Symphony to talk about various techniques. The individuals are always great even when the group tends to be a bit politically, well . . .

Discussing technical details with the principal clarinettist of the BBC SSO

When I arrived in Glasgow my first mission was to introduce the clarinet barrels to the clarinet section as gently as I could. It’s not that there wasn’t skepticism but the principal clarinetist was particularly tolerant and collaborative which was key. For a musician of that caliber it’s not a given to want to be seen with a see-through plastic, or even green or yellow instead of a proper looking barrel on the instrument.

My second mission was to get the screen technology working for 6 groups, 36 musicians in all. This was the part that went cuckoo. In short, the piece was going to be the starter of the concert and the computer synchronization failed – on stage. We had to try again after intermission by starting manually by cue (which is a practice I have found myself doing increasingly over the last years). My synchronization had worked the same way for 8 years and never failed. With changes in recent operating systems due to security reasons, things were no longer the way I was used to. No more excuses, my bad. On second try, however, it sounded this way:

5 minute excerpt from the premier of Sporgýla

I was fairly pleased with the performance despite of it all. I don’t think the BBC SSO administration was happy about this whole thing however. They remained polite nevertheless as they are all nice people. Things like this are common place in S.L.Á.T.U.R. performances in Reykjavík but are seldom seen on the global orchestral stage. If a conductor drops the baton, the performance doesn’t stop. If a violist breaks a string, the performance doesn’t stop (both of these things happened in the same concert). These are important considerations and the streamlined orchestra machine is a lot to compete with. The barrels performed splendidly however despite some quirks they still had – the players handled them well.

In the end of the year I wrote a piece for Ensemble Crush from Duisburg for the Winter Akademie in Schloss Benrath hosted by Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim. The clarinettist of the group Kyusang Jeong was thankfully very open to this. This piece also used the 3D printed clarinet barrels. This was a memorable event as well, and luckily no fiasco.

For some reason I haven’t used the 3d printed clarinet barrels since, but I’ve sent the “recipe” to several people who are interested in developing this idea further. The plan has been to go deeper into this at some point, we’ll see. Perhaps we will go deeper into this project again – we had a lot of ideas we still haven’t tried out. We are interested in seeing other people develop these ideas for their own purposes as well. We want to try making the barrels with other materials as well. Remaking other parts of various wind instruments is also an option but this is a larger assignment. In some ways it opens the woodwind instrument up as a modular phenomenon like a modular synthesizer or a chain of guitar effects pedals. One could imagine students having crazy 3D printed additions or substitutes on their instruments to switch around play with (in every sense of the word play). These technologies have a lot to offer which we haven’t even started to scratch the surface of and inevitably it will influence a lot of things musically in the years to come as I believe it already has done in various other fields.

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