In 2000 JAMES CLARKE led the composition class at the Time Of Music Festival, Viitasaari, Finland. Previous incumbents of this position include Cage, Xenakis, Lachenmann and Ferneyhough. Several of Clarke's works were performed and the following article was published.

article by Andrew Kurowski (2000)
Head of Contemporary Music, BBC

The works chosen for performance in Viitasaari come from the last decade of what has been so far a quarter-century of writing. They offer a partial but representative picture of the sort of creative interests which Clarke has been pursuing recently even if they are all small-scale works, at least in terms of their performer numbers. But this period has also seen the composition of two orchestral pieces [Maailma (1990) and Pascal, pensée 206 (1993)] and a number of pieces for larger mixed ensembles including the tellingly titled La violenza delle idee (1991) written for the Nieuw Ensemble to a Gaudeamus Foundation commission. Equally tellingly, the presented pieces - through their extreme gestural range and the ferocity with which they can speak - show that for Clarke, small-scale does not mean reticent or mealy-mouthed.

Although he has produced a steady stream of compositions since the early 70s, Clarke - now forty-two - appears to be mounting the crest of a particularly productive compositional wave. Since 1988 (the year of Broken for four clarinets, Trio for flute, bass clarinet and piano, and Independence for solo cello) he has won the prestigious Kranichsteiner Prize for his Oboe Quintet (1992) and undertaken a three-year residency at The Queen's University of Belfast (1994-97), a post which carried with it both scope and responsibility for the creative direction of the Sonorities Festival. International commissions and performances, many of them from significant European groups, have provided Clarke with the means to examine the development of his work in detail and to establish a confident musical language which, though acknowledging the high regard he maintains for the work of influential forebears and fellows such as Xenakis, Lachenmann, Huber, Donatoni and Ferneyhough, is nonetheless able to breathe freely and with an assured sense of its own personality.

In the works presented here one would expect to discern a certain musical consistency, and this is not in question. One might also discern some consistent preoccupations. Unlike many composers, Clarke uses his titles not only to describe the actual or psychological nature of the music which follows them (could Independence or Isolation, for example, be anything other than compositions for a solo player?) but also to suggest the deeper resonances of the music's hinterland, its aesthetic foundations or its gestural ambit. Delirium and Deformierte Texte 1, for example, are to differing extents, concerned with the phenomenon of distortion manifested either as deformations of texture, where a range of playing techniques is imposed directly onto the musical material, or as deformations of text, where literal meaning is transformed both through the translation and amplification of the written original and (significantly) through its being 'set' in a musical context.

Deformierte Texte 1 (commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival with funds from the Arts Council of England) betoken a musical contextualisation of lines taken from Euripides' drama Heracles. However, this is no simple meeting of poetry and music. Clarke uses a translation of the Euripides; a Finnish translation at that - by Pentti Saarikoski. Clarke's own years of study in Finland and his knowledge of its culture and language equip him well for this sort of work, and it is arguable that the sound-world of the piece is more identifiably Finnish than central European or British. Much of this comes from the articulation of the Finnish text itself, with its suffixal grammar and its characteristic vowel sounds, making a perceivable link to the canon of Finnish mythological settings, notably Sibelius' Luonnotar which treats an equally epic and mythical text.

In a way however, Saarikoski's translations provide only the starting point for the aesthetic base of the work. In that they are translations, Saarikoski's Euripidean Finnish represents a primary deformation of the original. Translating this into English (even for the purposes of this article) adds another level of deformation in meaning and content.

Compounding this idea still further, Clarke adds fragments of Saarikoski's own writings and then subjects the resulting texts to a process of filtration, so that sometimes only the consonants are heard and sometimes only the vowels. The work is presented in this way, as a sequence of highly articulate linguistic and elaborately articulated musical gestures which evolve or occasionally collapse into much more primitive, gutteral and visceral utterances. This scheme of things is audibly explicit and the sections are intercut with a cinematic savagery, so that we are plunged from one world into its negative or echoing shadowland.

It is ironic then that in their own way, these episodes of what appear to be much more fundamental attempts at articulation and communication deliver the highest emotional charge - even though in context they belong to some of the barest sections of the composition.

In the very act of composing this work, Clarke is adding a final level of deformation, by realising the possibility of having no voice (and therefore no text) present at all. This represents perhaps a ne plus ultra of the intentions Clarke expresses in his own preface to the work: 'the title might be extended to include unformed, transformed, translated texts; vocal communication without text; attempts at speech, enunciation (perhaps deformed, defective and failed - perhaps forbidden - attempts).

oh god of wine and seven-stringed lyre and libyan flute
I'll not cease my singing and I will ceaselessly praise
on delos the girls
are dancing before the temple
in honour of apollo
my lips are
grey as two gull's feathers
but I'll not cease
my singing

a girl
beautiful as a dandelion
took me by the hand and said
I am the light that leads you into darkness