Originally published in The Clarinet 43/3 (June 2016), this online version contains a supplemental Discography and List of Works. Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Part one of two in a series of interviews with British experimental clarinetists. Part two will feature E-flat clarinetist Virginia Anderson.
by Elizabeth Crawford
I had the good fortune recently to meet a stalwart of the British experimental music scene, Ian Mitchell. Retired head of music at Trinity Laban in London, Mitchell is a fantastic bass clarinetist who has recorded extensively and for whom countless works have been composed.
On April 13, 2015, I talked with Ian Mitchell about his life and career, especially with regard to the genre of British experimental music. He premiered Cornelius Cardew’s Mountains, and has worked extensively with virtually all of the major 20th- and 21st- century composers, resulting in numerous additions to the clarinet repertoire, especially for bass clarinet. He has led a fascinating life, with an insider’s view into British experimental music. His playing has been described as “outstanding, combining control and beauty of tone with apparently effortless disregard of the fearsome technical demands.”1
Elizabeth Crawford: Would you give me a little background information about yourself – where you grew up, where you’re from, your early training?
Ian Mitchell: Well, I started a long time ago now. When I was very young, about 5 or 6, my parents took my older brother and me on holiday to the east of England to a place called Great Yarmouth on the coast. We went to a show on the pier and all I can remember is the lights went out, it was pitch black and a brilliant white spot came on stage left and this guy in full tuxedo walked on playing a clarinet. And he played it, took the bell off, played it, took the lower joint off, played it, took the upper joint off, played it and just had the mouthpiece, played it. And apparently from that moment on I said I wanted to play the clarinet. Extraordinary! Years and years later somebody interviewed me for a magazine and I told this story and somebody, I think from Belgium or Holland, got in touch with me and sent me a letter and a sheet of music and said, “I think the man was probably playing this” – and it was a 19th- century piece called a “Galop.” You do exactly what he did and you end up playing on the mouthpiece, whatever the rhythm is, and it ends on a G at the top of the staff. Presumably the composer was a clarinetist who knew that once you’ve taken the bottom joint off you can just play around here [left hand] and then you take the top joint off and you can get this note.
EC: So this was a solo piece? Not with piano? There is the piece called Immer Kleiner– I forget the composer.2 But it’s with piano.
IM: I think it probably is with piano but he didn’t send me a piano part and I never got in touch him. Who knows? This man might have written it himself, but that really got me hooked on the clarinet. I’d never seen one before. I’d never heard one, but that’s what I wanted to do. When I got a bit older my parents inquired about clarinet and they were told that I was a bit small to play, so I played a recorder for a while. Then when I was about 10 or 11 they took me down to see this clarinetist who had just moved into the area – this was in the north of England – his name was Jock McLean, and he was a wonderful Glaswegian guy who had retired and I think his wife was from Yorkshire and they’d moved back to where she came from. He had put an advert in the paper for clarinet lessons so my parents took me along and he started giving me lessons. I didn’t have an instrument and he lent me an old Buffet, brown rather than black, not being stained, and the bell had a little plaque that said Crystal Palace Exhibition 1904.
EC: Oh my gosh! How awesome!
IM: One time I went back to visit him there [after going to the Royal Academy of Music] and he said, “Look I’m getting rid of all my instruments. Do you want to buy this?” He was in his late 70s or 80s and was quite ill. Whatever the price was, I couldn’t afford it. And to this day I regret that.
Then in high school, as you people call it – secondary school, [laughter] they had just started bringing in free lessons in the early ’60s for instrumentalists. It was the beginning of the huge music education development in the U.K. and a clarinetist – Julian Hall who studied with Sidney Fell at the Royal College of Music – came in to teach. It was free lessons, so my parents, to everybody’s embarrassment, said “We’ll have free lessons with him rather than having to pay for lessons with Jock.” I loved my lessons with Jock and I can literally still remember some of the things he said. You can open a page of the Otto Langley book anywhere and I’ll say something he said – very often it was a story or an anecdote – he was amazing with his anecdotes.
EC: How long did you study with him?
IM: Probably about three years. So then I went through school and did the grade exams and my class music teacher wanted me to go to university. I got a place there, but I also had applied to conservatories. My clarinet teacher wanted me to go to the Royal College of Music to study with his old teacher – Sid Fell – and I missed the deadline to apply for that, but I met the deadline for the Royal Academy of Music so I applied to that and went down to audition. I played the Mozart first movement –surprise, surprise – Brahms F minor – surprise, surprise – and they said you had to play something on a second instrument. I didn’t have a second instrument so for six months I learned the piano and what I learned was one piece by Grieg called “The Night Watchman.” That was fine because it was in octaves for the first couple of bars and then it went into chords for the cadence. The problem was getting the cadence with the four notes all together. Anyway I played it and John Davies, who was the senior clarinet teacher there, and John Gardner, who was one of the academic teachers, said, “Thank you. What else can you play?” And I said, “I can’t play anything else!” It was very embarrassing! I think my honesty got me in. I was allocated to Alan Hacker. That was the beginning of it all!
EC: Excellent! So you went to Royal Academy then. You studied there for four years? Is that the program length?
IM: Well it was three years and I did an extra year with Alan Hacker – he was in a wheelchair – I started with him in September 1966, but the previous year he’d had a thrombosis of the spine, which left him paralyzed and he was just coming back to teaching. Some of the students knew him as he had been able-bodied, but I only ever knew him as somebody in a wheelchair. He was the youngest member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – he played second clarinet there, and then left and began to develop a solo career.
He met up with very influential people – Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr – and with Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies he formed a group called the Pierrot Players, named after Pierrot Lunaire because that was the form of the ensemble, except they added a percussion player. And that group became really well known and gave those composers international reputations. Harry Birtwistle had studied the clarinet and Max used to transcribe some of the Purcell fantasias for the ensemble and would put the ground bass on the bass clarinet. Harry would play the bass clarinet except if it was a gig out of town, somehow he would say, “I’m not free that day,” so Alan, my teacher, would get me to go along to all these extremes of the countryside to play. I became his second clarinet for a while and I became his legs in many ways as well. He was really involved in contemporary music. People like Stockhausen would come into his room, he toured with Dallapiccola – all these people were around all the time. But he was also researching the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.
IM: He was the first person in the U.K. to have a basset clarinet and to play the concerto on that. If you look in the Musical Times, I think it’s 1968,3 you’ll see his big article about it all and there’s a photograph of his basset clarinet. I took that instrument to the photographer to get it photographed so I was right in a very exciting time. Week after week he would show you photocopies of these bits of manuscript, because it was originally for basset horn in G, as you probably know. There are sketches around of that and he would bring them in and talk about it, show you the passages where it should be down to a low C and all that. And then he became more and more involved in early music and period instruments. It was through him that I got heavily involved in contemporary music. As I said we used to play with Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle and Sandy Goehr, who had a music theater ensemble. His father was Walter Goehr, the famous conductor who gave the first performances of Schönberg, Webern and Berg, and came to England in the 1930s when lots of Jewish people left Vienna.
EC: So how could you not be involved in contemporary music when you had them right there?
IM: It was mainstream contemporary music, the avant-garde. But when I got to Goldsmiths about four or five years later, to do a BMus, the person a year ahead of me, but quite a lot older than me, was a wonderful pianist called John Tilbury. He was heavily involved in an alternative kind of music, which became known as experimental music. He was a very, very close friend of Cornelius Cardew and in fact has written this amazing biography of Cardew – 1000 pages – a massive book. I didn’t know John, but Stanley Glasser, the professor of music, had organized a conference and said he wanted the two of us to do a recital together, I guess because we both had reputations as performers. So I met up with John and said, “What should we play?” and he said “Well come up to my flat and we’ll have a look and see what I’ve got.” I went to this tiny, tiny flat in north London that’s just got this upright piano and a chair in the little room. Above the piano there were shelves and shelves of music and he dived into these and pulled out these extraordinary pieces of music which were nothing like I’d ever seen before and one of them was a piece by some guy I’d never heard of called Earle Brown. It was called December 1952 and he said, “Let’s play this.” So I sort of looked a bit vague. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the piece but it’s an A4 sheet with just black oblongs or squares all over the place.
EC: So when he said “Let’s play this” and you saw it, what was your reaction?
IM: Well, I was game for anything you know! As I said, I was involved in contemporary music so I played these sort of avant-garde contemporary music gestures, but he was playing in a different way – a different style of music completely, but anyway we did this and he said, “Well, when we get to the end, we’ll just turn it upside down and do it again!” [laughter] So we did this concert and I played some Birtwistle and I played John Cage’s Sonata, unaccompanied, and he played some of his repertoire (Cardew, if I remember correctly) and then we played this piece together. And afterwards, Keith Potter, who is a writer on experimental music and minimalism said, “It was very funny hearing you two play, because he was playing American experimental music and you were playing European avant-garde music! But you were playing at the same time!” [laughter] So that took me on my journey to get into experimental music.
EC: Tell me a little about the Gemini Ensemble? How long has it been in existence? How large is the group?
IM: It started in 1973. There was an organization called the Society for the Promotion of New Music and they used to do composer weekends and for each weekend they had a different ensemble. If the composers wanted to write, they had to write for the ensemble that was on that weekend. On this occasion they had two clarinets, two cellos, two pianos and two percussion, and if you wanted to write for clarinet you had to write for two clarinets. If you wanted to write for cello and clarinet you had to write for two clarinets and two cellos. There was a Ph.D. student from Durham University, Peter Wiegold, who came down for the weekend and he brought this piece with him for two clarinets and two percussion and it was called Gemini. It was about 25 minutes long and was one of the hits of the weekend. The BBC recorded it and we played it at the Southbank Centre. When he finished his Ph.D. he came down to London and got in touch with us and said he wanted to form a new group to perform his music, the basis being this piece.
So we commissioned a lot of new pieces and then gradually the group expanded a bit – we added a couple of strings (violin and cello), a piano, percussion and voice. We did all sorts of things and became very involved through Peter with education work as well. We were the first new music ensemble to work in music education. We went to the schools and did masses of BBC recordings. We would go into a school and get the class of students to work with us on composing music which we would then put into our concert, usually with them playing as well. It could be primary or secondary school students, but we made sure they all performed alongside us in pieces we had created together. Then in 1985 Peter was asked to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to develop a program to teach this method of music education so he stepped down and I took over as director.
EC: I have become very interested in the music of Barney Childs. When did you meet him?
IM: Mid-late 1980s after I finished my degree at Goldsmiths I was still involved and I did a bit of clarinet teaching there and it was sort of a center for experimental music. Somebody asked if I would do a concert. They said there was this guy coming over to do a residency and it turned out to be Barney. We had a concert where I played with him a piece of his called Sunshine Lunchh, with myself on bass clarinet and him on keyboards and crummy percussion and voice.
EC: Did you say “crummy” percussion?
IM: Yes, crummy, cruddy, crappy! The keyboard was sort of a cheapo thing. It was wonderful fun, because he knew he didn’t have a very good singing voice and he just made it all sound wonderful. We did that piece and I got students to play a piece for five clarinets [Of Places as Altered] as well and I got to know him a bit. Then I started teaching at De Montfort University, in Leicester, where Virginia Anderson lives and Gavin Bryars was head of department. Various people got involved – Chris Hobbs, Virginia’s husband, would be involved – and they’d have various British experimental people coming up doing projects and concerts. Barney was quite ill at that time with his Parkinson’s. I have a vague memory that he would sort of sit around and then galvanize himself to give a short talk and then have to lie down. He was really quite ill. That was the last I saw him. I brought out a CD of bass clarinet music in 2000 and it must have been in the late ‘90s that I recorded Edge of the World, his piece for bass clarinet and organ, with Chris Hobbs playing the organ part. The CD was called Edge of the World after him and I dedicated the recording to him.4
EC: Very nice.
IM: I recently recorded another work by Barney for solo clarinet that was written for Virginia Anderson called ‘Sleep’ and then going on…. It’s based on a song by Peter Warlock and it starts out with the opening tune and then branches out. I decided to have somebody sing the original song and then I took over. It’s not variations – it’s just Barney’s inspiration from that. He studied Renaissance poetry at Oxford University so he was a poet. The words for Sleep were by a 16th -century poet and the song is interesting rhythmically in that it doesn’t just settle in 2/4 or 4/4. It’s very flexible and that’s something that appealed to him. He was always very verbal in his music so a lot of times it was as if you were talking and at times instructions, as if he were telling you as an actor what to do. There are silences, there are outbursts and he just took it in whatever direction he thought. The piece is about nine minutes and you have to play cymbals as well because it’s written for Virginia and she was a second study percussion player, but luckily you just hit a cymbal. It’s not complicated. It’s meant for the clarinet player to play.
EC: Do you consider some of his music experimental?
IM: I have to admit that I don’t know a lot of his music, because a lot of it’s not accessible and wasn’t played, or isn’t played. I think he’s really interesting and I don’t mean that in any sort of pejorative way – I think he’s genuinely interesting, because he only ever seemed to have done what he wanted to at that time. Never ever following any trends or anything. It was only ever what Barney Childs wanted to do at that time and I respect that.
EC: When did you start teaching at Trinity?
IM: I started doing chamber music coaching in 2001. From 1996 I was part-time lecturer at Exeter University in charge of performance. In 2007 the university decided to close music. I was asked to stay on to help it run down, so I was literally the last person out of the building after it all happened. That was at the end of the 2006-7 year and in 2007 I was going to be out of a job. Then somebody got in touch with me and said there was a job coming up at Trinity Laban as head of wind, brass and percussion. So I applied for the job and in December 2006 I got the job. I had to stay on at Exeter so I was doing two jobs. Trinity agreed I could be sort of part-time until July. Then Exeter closed so I became full time at Trinity Laban in 2007. I stepped down at the end of September 2014, but I go in and do the bass clarinet teaching and occasional other things.
EC: Are you still performing with your ensemble?
IM: I do occasional projects. I can’t play as much as I did so I am rather careful about my repertoire. I have a solo CD coming out and then I’m hoping to do another bass clarinet CD.
IM: The next one will come out on Metier – the umbrella organization is called Divine Art, which is now based in the States. Metier is the contemporary arm, so that’s got Christian Wolff, Bill Smith – it’s all American music actually – a little piece by Eric Mandat, Barney Childs.
EC: When is the release date?
IM: September 2015. Oh and also the John Cage Sonata. It wasn’t intending to be all American composers. It just happened that way. I worked a lot with Christian Wolff since the mid-’80s. Bill Smith is a really close friend – I’ve known him since the ’70s. I see him as much as I can. He’s written pieces for me and we’ve worked together and he is one of my inspirations. He’s great. Knowing Bill and Christian and Barney and then meeting Eric Mandat and knowing the connection with Barney, I thought that’d be nice. Alan Hacker, my teacher at the Academy, introduced me to the Cage Sonata and he thought I possibly gave the first English performance of it, but of course there is no way of knowing. But he didn’t know of any other performance and he was the contemporary clarinetist.
EC: Finally, how would you define experimental music?
IM: I suppose the way people tend to think of it is there is no predictable outcome. That’s a bit simplistic but for me the definition doesn’t matter, it’s what it embraces, and what it embraces for me is a very different relationship between composer and performer than what you would call non-experimental music. A lot of it was a reaction to the 1950s second Viennese coming out with all their serial notation not only of pitch, but of rhythm, dynamics – Stockhausen, Boulez and others. Cage reacted against it. And, particularly in this country, Cornelius Cardew, who when he was at the Academy, premiered works by Boulez. He and Richard Rodney Bennett had a piano duo. He worked with Stockhausen and gradually turned against that kind of demand that you have to serve the composer. What Cardew is all about is sharing – “Here’s what I have to offer and I hope that allows you to be your person as well,” so that the performer gets back ownership of the music and that to me is the most important thing, I think, that it’s a partnership. To me one of the people who personifies that is Christian Wolff. He and Cardew are the two most likeminded people. There are issues some people have with Cage – that it is too closely defined what you have to do sometimes, whereas Cardew will present something but not tell you what to do. There is a huge piece that we gave a complete performance of in Greenwich in March this year – it’s 193 pages of graphic score with no instructions whatsoever – it’s just page after page of graphics, beautiful graphics – and that’s up to you.
EC: So it’s your interpretation of the graphic at that moment. How liberating.
IM: There’s lots of argument and that’s very good and very healthy. Christian Wolff will write a lot about what to do but not how you do it, so he might say, “Play after you’ve heard a sound.” There’s a lot more to it than that, but he’s telling you what to do, not how. I find him extremely challenging because I don’t think you should ever in experimental music fall back on contemporary music or avant-garde clichés. It’s the same in improvising – you’re always trying to find something totally honest and that’s really difficult. When I played with AMM I wasn’t really aware of that. You’d never talk about what you played or what you were going to play. You’d just walk out on stage and somebody would start and then somebody would finish.
I struggled, because I was in a sense brought up on the avant-garde. Peter Maxwell Davies would write every note he wanted me to play. I still find it very difficult to avoid falling into those clichés sometimes. If you’re honest, most jazz improvisation is all about the riffs you’ve learned and you’ve heard. Very rarely does anybody do anything that’s totally new. You might put your slant on it, but it’s a 12-bar blues or it’s a chord from “Autumn Leaves” and so on. Experimental music and free improvisation challenges me, but I enjoy that.
EC: Very nice. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to further my education!
IM: You’re welcome!
For more information about Ian Mitchell and the bass clarinet scene in the United Kingdom, read his article “A Personal View Of The U.K. Bass-Ment,” The Clarinet, 41/4 (September 2014): 38-41.
Ian Mitchell – Solo Recordings
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Recordings with Gemini Ensemble
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Recordings with Michael Nyman Band
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Recordings with other ensembles
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Ian Mitchell Bass Clarinet Commissions (by or for)*
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4. This CD also includes Cornelius Cardew’s Mountains. In an email a few months after our conversation, Ian wrote, “When John [Tilbury] was going through Cardew’s papers after his death he came across a pencil manuscript of the piece [Mountains] that no one knew about. He asked me to premiere it at an Eisler Collective concert at the QEH [Queen Elizabeth Hall] on 19 Jan 1984. It made quite an impression and I played it lots of times all over the place. It was published by Forward Music in 1988 and I eventually recorded (recorded by Chris Hobbs) for a disc that came out in 2000 – the first solo bass clarinet disc by a British artist – on Metier. It also contained works by Chris Hobbs, Dave Smith, John White and Barney C.”
About the Writer
Clarinetist Elizabeth Crawford is associate professor of music at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. A long time member of the Jacksonville Symphony, she has performed throughout the U.S., U.K., Europe and South Africa. Passionate about expanding the repertoire for the E-flat clarinet, Elizabeth has commissioned two solo works for the instrument and is working on an edition of the operatic fantasies of Giuseppe Cappelli. She is the Indiana State Chair and Advertising Coordinator of the International Clarinet Association.