James Clarke


It is an almost unreal sound that fills the Basel Cathedral. From every corner there seems to be murmuring and whispering. The sound is made up of a celestial polyphonic glassharmonica-like sound swimming throughout the hall. The sound is everywhere and yet unfathomable.

Six school choirs and eight trombonists - members of the ensemble Trombone Unit Hannover - are creating this sound. Some are almost invisible in the vastness of the building, others sit in the aisles or behind the altar. Each choir has two conductors, whose gestures determine which sound will be played next: the sound of blowing into wine bottles, rubbing or striking wine glasses, clapping, whooping, crying out - or singing. Even mobile phones are brought out now and then: for five seconds each student is to play their favourite song on their phone, sing along with it, and then hold the last note. This leads to a completely new kind of cluster chord, multilayered and unreal at the same time.

As the piece comes to its conclusion the youngsters cheer euphorically. It is the first time even they have heard the piece properly together with the trombones. There have not been many rehearsals: two rehearsals in school, two in the cathedral. "The piece is not complicated", says Petra (17) from Muttenz, "it's got more to do with concentration," she says. "The conductors indicate the points where we are to play or sing. We have to pay attention to that."

Asked if they like the piece, most answer "it's something special". Hannah (17) says: "we're not really used to anything like this, we're more used to singing classical music or to pop music." But Petra interrupts: "Actually it's really cool."

Jenny Berg, Tageswoche, Basel, 10 September 2015

Friday was a great day for British music, not so much on account of the swell of Parry et al billowing under Westminster Abbey's vaults [at a royal wedding], but because of the UK premiere later that day of James Clarke's marvellous piano concerto. Reflecting Clarke's second career as a painter, the concerto is labelled simply Untitled No 2 and, rather in the manner of an abstract painting, explores a limited number of harmonies and the relation between them. Despite this essentially static framework, the piece unfolds a beautifully balanced, dynamic structure.

More surprising is the work's resemblance to traditional concertos in the phases of dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and the contrasting periods of dense activity and moments of calm which bathe the audience like sunlight. Superbly coloured, this is a piece to hear again and again, and also a wonderful one to get lost in – though not for the soloist, Nicolas Hodges, who, as ever, was masterful in his elegant control of some very challenging material."

Guy Dammann, The Guardian, Tuesday 3 May 2011

[T]he night’s most telling, uplifting work, by the British composer James Clarke, eschewed complexities for the resonating power of big, crunching chords gradually fading, or simple fragments blurred and multiplied by repetition at different speeds. The only dull note was struck by his title, 2012-S, for the two quartets combined.

No one else in the line-up shared Clarke’s gift for making us voyagers in a brave new world, penetrating beyond the surface of sound into its womb, its fibre.

Geoff Brown, The Times, 8 May 2013

The other work that showed off the vitality of New Complexity was the James Clarke world premiere from Ensemble Linea. The vividness of this chamber concerto for violin, 2013-V (2013), which, like other Clarke, sees wriggly, explosive material dragged along reluctantly by a formal pattern, was overwhelming. From a richly dark orchestral texture, a bass clarinet emerges and goes rogue; low strings snarl. Keeping his head just above this bubbling mud was Irvine Arditti, his hands leaping about like a madman’s. No composer navigates the border between order and chaos as compellingly as Clarke.

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, The Arts Desk, 2 December 2013

London, Wigmore Hall: James Clarke

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy prevented the New York-based JACK quartet from crossing the Atlantic to join forces with the Arditti Quartet in the UK première of James Clarke’s 2012-S. So the belated first performance within these shores of Clarke’s new piece for two string quartets, which took place at a Wigmore Hall recital on 6 May 2013, had been much anticipated.

A prime constituent of 2012-S is the relationship between two distinct string quartets, whether playing together as one ensemble, echoing one another imitatively, or reacting to and developing each other’s ideas. Cast in a single movement, the material was presented in massive rough-hewn blocks, almost Brucknerian in their stark juxtapositions of disparate ideas. Framing the whole work was a series of chords, inhabiting dynamic extremes and sustained over long durations, enabling the listener to pick out tiny details of the sound, including the slightest modification in bow pressure and tonal quality. These primeval unisons were contrasted with vigorous, faster sections, several incorporating barbarous downward glissandi. Some melodic episodes were introduced by one quartet and then repeated almost inaudibly by the other, like a gentle reverberation. Elsewhere, the two quartets played at slightly different speeds, creating an intricate sequence of multiple tempos. At every stage of the work’s progress, the precisely timed and rigorously demarcated movement of details from one quartet to another was fully exploited.

For all the frequently explosive aggression in the interactions between the two groups, there was a genuine sense of dialogue and exchange of ideas, which seemed entirely in keeping with the string quartet tradition. Indeed, I found 2012-S a very haunting piece, which, though it probed extremes of dynamics and articulation, seemed to be reaching out to conventions of the genre such as unison playing, chordal passages and phrases shared between instruments, whilst making the listener hear these familiar gestures anew. Apart from the opening and closing monolithic, slightly monstrous sustained chords, which invested the slightest nuance with unwonted levels of significance, some of the work’s most effective moments were those where resonances and whispers of echoed material created a feeling of something half-remembered.

Clarke avoided any spatial separation of the quartets, the musicians forming a semicircle in which the second quartet (the JACK) occupied the centre, whilst the first quartet (the Arditti) was positioned nearest the audience. In their gripping, superbly committed reading of the work, the eight musicians gave their all, entirely at the service of the score. Despite the awesome technical virtuosity on display there was no sense of competition between the two sets of players, which would have been antithetical and damaging to the work’s inter-communal spirit. This was a fine and justifiably well-received performance of a considerable and highly effective piece. It is good news that a new string quartet from Clarke is planned for the Arditti’s 40th birthday celebrations at the Barbican next year.

Paul Conway, Tempo, May 2013

James Clarke's Second String Quartet (2009) was thrillingly, almost treasonably, un-British. It began by summoning up a high-pitched, dust-stormy sound as if the Arditti [Quartet] were a crowd of Palestinian zaghareet-ers. Beefy trills, open strings, scrubbed pitches, squirty figures that sounded as if they'd come from tubes of toothpaste, were all heaped on top of each other to create a messy sandwich of ululating noise. An attempt was made to untangle the web of sound. Silence followed failure. And with this the opening caterwauling returned. Again and again the cacophony tried and failed to find a conclusion. It was as if the Ardittis were trying to find their way out of a maze - or a nightmare.

One escape appeared to take place under the cover of night, with a crepuscular development that was fast and strange. Another journey saw the first and second violin (Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan) engage in civil war. Many attempts faltered at a nowhere point. Somewhere along the line a consonance broke out, so profoundly startingly a moment I was convinced it was coming from beyond the hall. At the same time a scrubbing figure - like TV snow - muscled its way into things and attempted to consume the work and our ears. But yet again the din was de-composed.

What a joy it was to see a British composer playing around with visceral and conceptual worlds in the manner of the big boys in Europe. The audience gave Clarke a hero's welcome."

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, The Arts Desk, 4 February 2011

James Clarke’s String Quartet No 2 was forceful, big-boned and unashamed of the sawmill screech; not a work you’d wish to meet alone in a dark alley.

Geoff Brown, The Times, 6 February 2011

A word for another brazen conjunction, that of the Hilliard Ensemble, the male-voice quartet whose repertory stretches from the Middle Ages to tomorrow, and the Arditti Quartet, custodians of the contemporary string quartet. Jointly at Wigmore Hall, they [...] reprised the work James Clarke wrote for them in 2007, an Ovid setting called Untitled No 4. Untitled, but its rich, alive impasto unforgotten.

Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 15 November 2009

Wigmore Hall

James Clarke – String Quartet no.1 (2002-3)

Hurricane Sandy necessitated alterations to the programme of this concert. The New York-based JACK Quartet’s absence entailed postponement of the British premieres of James Clarke’s 2012-S for two string quartets and Mauro Lanza’s Der Kampf zwischen Karneval und Fasten for octet. In their place came Clarke’s first string quartet and Wolfgang Rihm’s thirteenth. Two British premieres, then, rather than four, but all the works were new to me, and Clarke’s work was the outlier in being almost a decade old.

Its arresting opening proved typically uncompromising in its violence. Considerable use is made of glissandi, post-Xenakis buzzing, glassy harmonics: but this is no mere catalogue of effects. Themes, if I may call them that, or motifs are flung between the four parts with visceral abandon – as they were in the Arditti Quartet’s commanding performance. Dogged insistence and something akin to variation were revealed as two sides of the same coin, a ‘duet’ between two violins almost beguiling, likewise its successor for viola and cello. And yes, this ultimately proved conversational in a quartet tradition one might trace back to its founder, Haydn.

Mark Berry, http://boulezian.blogspot.co.uk, 1 November 2012

There is nothing sedate about the standard-repertory chamber music that is the staple of Wigmore Hall. If there were, though, the programme by the Arditti Quartet would certainly have had the audience sitting up sharp. From the brutally dissonant first notes of James Clarke’s String Quartet No 2 right through Brian Ferneyhough’s immensely elaborate, positively Byzantine String Quartet No 6 (both London premieres), the tone was of textural provocation and abstruseness.

Clarke’s gritty and grating musical span rejoices, like so much of his work, in a sort of visceral and painterly abstraction. He invokes the boldest visual artists as inspiration — here, the abstract expressionist Clyfford Still — and many of his pieces follow art in being called “Untitled”. “String Quartet No 2” is still more untitled than that; for deliberately not naming something oozes with intention, while the words “String Quartet No 2” are neutrality itself. And it is perhaps in the gap between Clarke’s self-abnegation, his neomodernist keenness to wipe the expressive slate clean, and an undeclared intention to knock us all for six that his strange, uneasy originality lies.

Clarke (b 1957) appreciates, like Birtwistle and, for all the prissy filigree of his complex notation, Ferneyhough, the power of an unyielding musical surface. It is often the fate of such artists to have their originality revised, as it were, upwards. As Picasso said to Gertrude Stein, “You do something first and then somebody else comes along and does it pretty”, and I’ve heard numerous recensions of Birtwistle that turn his surging, seismic idiom into something far more mannerly. In the second half of the brilliant Ardittis’ concert, one might have felt that “first generation” innovative rawness (admittedly, Clarke is younger than the 68-year old Ferneyhough) was being transformed into much more elegant and, in a sense, appealing music [...]

Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 13 February 2011

The week’s essential new releases

SurPlus, Peter Veale (oboe), Nicolas Hodges (piano), cond James Avery 
CAL 13018 4032824000337

Clarke says he has striven since 18 for a "style which retains the subtlety and complexity of certain post1950s music, but which has a clearer, more direct, more communicative form and structure", and this well describes his achievement here. His use of sourly microtonal tuning, intricate polyrhythm and high-pressured continuity lacks the sadistic congestedness of "complexity" composers. His notes are always precise, his most crowded textures ventilated. The dramatic contrasts of the four-movement Kammersymphonie justify that title, while the appeal of La violenza delle idee is more than intellectual.

Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 11 February 2007

Nicolas HODGES: Redgate / Clarke

Two composers associated with the ‘new complexity’ of the 1980s, Roger Redgate and James Clarke come together on Nicolas Hodges’s disc of their complete piano works (Coviello COV 60809) more as complementary figures than as companions. Redgate’s Pas au-delà of 1989 at the start wrenches us straight into new-complexity territory with its charges of rapid action, spiky-sparky in the right hand and thunderous in the left, all thoroughly directed and illuminated by Hodges’s astonishing pianism, the hands engaged in processes of thought that speak through a steely beauty maintained at bewildering speed. This is the kind of music – and, no doubt, the kind of playing – Redgate relishes, but he also offers an attractive triptych of miniatures denuded to suit amateur competence, écart–arc–trace, and the latest of his pieces here, Monk (2007), has moments more contemplative and humorous, besides bringing forward a jazz feeling discernible behind some of his other pieces.

Clarke, even so, is worlds away – though perhaps not so many worlds as all that, his protracted ruminations being as searching and challenging as Redgate’s drives of intensity. Intelligent programming places the turn from one composer to the other at 1981, in works from the heyday of new complexity: Redgate’s Genoi Hoios Essi and Clarke’s Red Skies. The Redgate piece is explosive, trapped in itself and trying to get out, and Hodges brings it to an end with huge power. The Clarke is content where it is, at a vantage point from which clouds of luminescent notes can drift by, to take up an analogy of the composer’s. At an extreme point, in Untitled No. 3 (2006), the material is reduced to hardly more than a pair of chords, sufficient to sustain an eleven-minute piece.

The alluring strangeness here comes not only from the music’s simplicity but also from its silence as to its derivations and destinations. Nothing is being proved; no historical necessity is being claimed. We are just left with an enigma, which Hodges presents as effectively and attractively as he does Redgate’s storms. He is outstanding, too, in the album’s most haunting track, Clarke’s Island, which starts out like a passacaglia, fiercely ruptured, and moves on to Bali, a repeating broken chord and exquisite resonance effects. An earlier recording by Hodges was included in an all-Clarke collection on the zeitklang label, but this alternative has more shape and nuance.

Paul Griffiths, http://www.disgwylfa.com/new.html, 2007

Arditti Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 5 February 2011

This was a wilfully abrasive concert, as consistently challenging to complacency in its audience as it was hostile to compromise in its programming. You'd expect nothing less from the Ardittis, though, and as such the Wigmore Hall must have known what it was letting itself in for (a concert of wonderful music!).

Amongst a quartet of technically delirious works, it was the first, James Clarke's String Quartet No.2, which was the most emotionally intense. Formally tight even amidst irresistible sonic extravagance, Clarke's quartet married Michel Levinas-style (somewhat-) inharmonic string spectra that balanced, teetered, on a cello drone, to a broad updated expressionism that reached its apogee in the two separate passages of violent but startling tutti scratch tone playing. Most impressive in a vivid performance was the utmost fervency with which the players attacked the emotionally dense score. A distinct technical prowess anchored that fervency.

Stephen Graham, Musical Criticism, 5 February 2011

The Darmstadt Legacy

Above all the Darmstadt courses have played a part in the creation of some great music. From the early days there’s Messiaen’s “Cantéyodjayâ”, a piano piece begun in Darmstadt in 1949 during the composer’s first visit to the city and given its German premiere there during the 1952 courses. James Clarke’s stunning “Oboe Quintet” is perhaps the pick of the Hommel crop, alternating concentrated bursts of instrumental crying and wailing with moments of wounded respite and repose, like a cross between free jazz and eastern Mediterranean folk music heard under the influence of some potent beverage.

[Friedrich Hommel was the institute's director between 1981 and 1994]

AndyG, Open College of the Arts, 30 October 2013

The volume was that of a string quartet on steroids, but the sound was that of eight extraordinary string players each playing slightly different things. James Clarke’s 2012-S, for two string quartets, gave an explosive, subtle start to the Arditti and JACK Quartets’ joint Wigmore Hall recital this Monday. Combining extremes of volume with minute nuances of pitch and expression, 2012-S was a perfect showcase for these two virtuosic quartets, and a whirlwind listen in its own right as well. Like the soundtrack to some invisible, four-dimensional sci-fi movie, the piece pitted aggressive, spacious chords, held for longer than felt quite natural, against shrill, sudden glissandi that seemed to come from nowhere. The plumpness of sound which the two quartets produced together ensured that this studious, precise composition had a visceral, beautiful edge in performance.

Paul Kilbey, www.bachtrack.com, 10 May 2013

A hurricane had prevented the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet from coming together in November to present these two British premieres from James Clarke and Mauro Lanza. The Ardittis had nevertheless presented a programme of four quartets, one of them as shockingly old as to date from 2002-3, again a Clarke work, his first string quartet. Now we heard the postponed premieres [...]

Clarke’s 2012-S is written for two string quartets rather than a string octet, the point being the relationship between the two quartets, who sometimes play together, but at others pass material between each other, transform it, or, in the composer’s term, ‘contradict’ it. The quartets might, for instance, play at slightly different speeds, ‘all ... precisely written and timed’. Effort seems very much part of the sound – and the meaning? There is real violence in the conversation, and yet, even if at some remove, the quartet convention of ‘conversation’ seems to remain – as it did in this fine performance. Polyphony, even cacophony, is part of the extremity, and yet a sense of unity remains, almost akin to older homophony, and not only in the lengthy sustaining chords whose obvious contrast lies with much faster material.

Mark Berry, http://boulezian.blogspot.co.uk, 7 May 2013

The opening work, James Clarke's combative 2012-S for two string quartets, was the most obviously striking. Effects are used almost to saturation point before the music moves to another episode; sometimes the players seem to try to obliterate each other with violently swooping slides, evoking nothing so much as an alien shootout. It starts with a huge, clustered chord that lingers on almost inaudibly, the players daring us to notice the tiny squeaks as the bow catches the string; as a way of demanding attentive listening in the opening seconds of a concert, it certainly worked.

Erica Jeal, The Guardian, 7 May 2013

[I]n Voices Pinter's sparse script is combined with Clarke's radiophonic score. So long has the project been on the boil that Pinter cannot recall the initial spark of inspiration. "We entered into this together some considerable time ago. I don't really remember how it came about, but we certainly found ourselves getting married, as it were. It's been a very, very remarkable, happy marriage," he says.

Clarke claims that he was attracted by the "musicality and precision" of Pinter's plays. Indeed, the composer and playwright seem to be a creative match made in heaven. Clarke is a contemporary composer who argues that "it is not the role of new art gently to massage the ears" - an uncompromising attitude matched only by Pinter's assertion that "it is one's obligation not to give the audience what they want, but insist that they take what we give them".

Voices has been a labour of love and Pinter is evidently delighted with the result. "I believe James and I have created a rich and serious piece of work in Voices, of which I am very proud."

Alice Jones, The Independent, 6 October 2005

Full article:

Pinter's moral detestation of persecution and torture, from whatever source, is, however, at the heart of Voices to be broadcast on Radio 3 on his birthday. Introducing a preview of the work for friends and cast - including Gawn Grainger, Roger Lloyd Pack, Anastasia Hille and Indira Varma - Pinter said it is about "the hell that we all share here and now". Combining extracts from One for the Road, Mountain Language, Party Time, Ashes to Ashes and The New World Order, it is more than a collage of human cruelty: it also expresses a deep-felt yearning for tolerant compassion.

What makes it aurally experimental is the way James Clarke's music vividly embodies the text. Beckett in Words and Music showed how radio could combine the two art forms to offer a metaphor for the creative act. But this is something different: almost a compressed opera in which music enhances meaning. After a phrase, for instance, from Mountain Language - "tell her to speak the language of the capital" - we hear the distant sound of an Azeri singer that echoes the culture and language being actively suppressed. Even silence, as in Webern and Stockhausen, becomes part of the musical texture.

What is rare is to find a composer so in tune with a writer. "I studied Pinter for A-levels," says Clarke, "saw Peggy Ashcroft in Landscape and A Slight Ache and have followed the plays ever since. After seeing Ashes to Ashes in 1996, I wrote to Pinter suggesting a collaboration. We had lots of meetings in which Harold talked about the way violence can be evoked with a few economical strokes. He came up with a text in 2000 and I set to work. But what struck me all through was Harold's warmth and absolute trust."

Michael Billington, The Guardian, 8 October 2005


« Corridors in which time is abolished: notes on Last Year in Marienbad | Main | A seamless tissue of fantasies »

OCTOBER 11, 2005


Watching Last Year in Marienbad last week, I was reminded of Pinter. So much of the dialogue in Marienbad functions as a kind of sorcerous incantation, a command, an attempt to issue what Deleuze-Guattari call 'order words'. There is the sense that the words do not merely describe, or describe at all, but possess an illocutionary force, a capacity to make things happen through their very utterance. As in so many of Pinter's plays, the characters - the male character referred to as 'X' in the script and the female character called 'A' (for 'Autre'?) - are fighting over the past, he by constructing it through words, she by never fully succumbing to the word-world he conjures. When X makes such statements as, 'we kept meeting each other at each turn in the path behind each bush -- at the foot of each statue -- at the rim of every pond' , our suspicion is that he is manufacturing these 'memories' as he speaks, through his speech, but part of what makes the film so haunting is that neither Robbe-Grillet's writing nor Resnais' direction confirm or deny that intuition.

Pinter's plays were always, famously, about territorial struggle, but the territory being contested was as much in time as space. (Lorenz plus Proust?) His first play, The Birthday Party, is a rendition of the relatively conventional theme of unsuccessful re-invention and of failed repression of the Past. But as his plays progress, the Past, the 'Old Times' that lend one of them its title, become more mutable, elusive, contested. The Past is not to be repressed, or hidden, but continually re-invented. It is the site of the struggle in the wintry existential comedy of his masterpiece, the claustrophobic, uncomfortably hilarious, No Man's Land in which two old men who may once have been acquaintances, even friends, or who may never have met before, attempt to cast each other as bit parts in their own continually confabulated Memories. I think - or perhaps I am misremembering - that it is Pat Cadigan who somewhere observes 'that the future is fixed, only the past can be changed.' That could be the slogan for so much of Pinter's work, in which characters stalk each other, waiting, waiting, for the moment in which they will be able to trap their antagonist into their version of the past.

These observations were partly prompted by the broadcast tonight of Pinter's 'new' play, Voices. Strictly speaking, Voices is neither new nor a play so much as a kind of 'unreliable memory' of Pinter's last five dramatic works plays (One for the Road, Mountain Language, The New World Order, Party Time and Ashes to Ashes) in the form of a sonic delirium. Voices is a collaboration with composer James Clarke, but it is much more than a matter of accompanying Pinter's words with music. Drama, in the sense of tension and/ or narrative, is in fact entirely suspended, consumed by the agitated stillness of Clarke's antarctic radiophonic score, every bit as understated and starkly beautiful as Pinter's dialogue. Clarke does not set Pinter's words to music, he draws out their already highly musical rhythms in order to treat de-contextualized phrases from the plays as sonorous components in a minimal sound-mosaic.

Like many, I found the apparent didactism of Pinter's last plays a little lacking in the enigmatic poetry that made the earlier works so compelling. Perhaps that judgement is too peremptory, and the newer plays' apparent break from his earlier methods will appear less decisive as time moves on. As a re-mixing, an auto-sampling of those later plays, Voices may play a significant role in any such re-appraisal. By subtracting context, Voices restores enigma, but in a way heightens the political impact of the words, these words about language that is forbidden, language that is forced...

'Where are you now? Do you think you are in a hospital? ... Have they raped you? How many times?' Pinter's torturer asks an unnamed woman in a section sampled from One for the Road (the last Pinter play I unequivocally enjoyed, if that is the right term for what is a deeply harrowing experience). These are of course not genuine questions, nor even interrogator's enquiries. The torture partly consists in being forced to acknowledge the torture, to bring into the symbolic order that which ought to remain unsymbolizable. She must be made to recognize that she is here, now, in an non-place that is the very opposite of a utopia, a place that is without protection, without hope, beyond the purview of any possible justice, a place where only the Night Law holds sway... What makes this all the more horrifying is the clear implication - which the torturer Nicholas takes great delight in spelling this out to his victims - that this Underworld, this Hell is not some private pervert's lair, some secret, unsanctioned Evil, but the obscene supplement of the Official Law, what it requires in order to function. 'They' know what is happening, but they will not come, as your name, your past, everything you are and everything you have been, are stripped away... For this is Hell, and nothing, nothing is more Real...

There's an interview with Pinter and Clarke in the Independent here, but, even better, if you go here, you will be able to hear Voices. I'm just listening to it for the third consecutive time. It feels like an infernal loop, a Terror I'm compelled to keep repeating...

Posted by mark at October 11, 2005 01:59 AM

HCMF 2013 revisited: James Clarke - 2013-V (World Première)

If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title & the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title & content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation & spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year & a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications.

In my original review of 2013-V, his new work for solo violin (-V) & ensemble premièred at HCMF, i referred to “a clarity […], a conciseness & economy of material” that the music exhibits. Put simply, the piece essentially comprises six blocks of material, each displaying tendencies distinctive to itself while betraying fundamental similarities to its companions. The first features wild writing for the violin, squealing downward swoops accompanied by fairly static brass rasps; the second is more refined: the violin’s glissandi are small & form the basis for melodic(ish) lines, imitated by the ensemble. The third, announced by a pointillistic motif & blasts from the brass is largely occupied by an extended violin solo; this continues into the fourth, in which the violin continues to low grindings from the ensemble. The fifth is characterised by loud, detached brass notes (the brass play a significant role within the work) that evolve into deep (g)rumblings, while the sixth, markedly different from the rest, introduces a prominent bass clarinet in counterpoint with the soloist, instigating a series of rolling tutti swells, growing in fortitude, causing the violin to peter out.

These six sections comprise the first half of the work, whereupon, after a heraldic outburst & a brief echo of the faded violin, the second half commences, in which the sections return in a different order—not as strict repetitions, but bearing unmistakable similarities to their earlier incarnation. Some sections proceed as before, while others are reversed &/or separated far apart (the order appears to be 2-4-3-5-6-1). This restructuring causes one to reappraise assumptions made in the first half both about the relationship between the violin & the ensemble as well as perceptions of narrative development. Put another way, what seem to be examples of cause & effect in the earlier stages of the piece—the soloist evolving from gestures to more considered ideas; the brass steadily progressing from surliness to a kind of inscrutable glowering; the extreme opposites of the first half’s start & end—are fundamentally undermined when the sections are reordered. This, in turn, throws into question the nature of the relationship between the violin & the ensemble. In the second half the brass in particular often come across as downright antagonistic with respect to the soloist, whereas before they appeared to be withdrawing from an attitude of alliance to alienation.

To create such contrasting soundworlds through the canny juxtaposition (& subtle reworking) of a small number of basic elements is very impressive, as is witnessing a composer allowing himself such blatant structural clarity, a quality not always evident—indeed, perhaps rarely desired—in much contemporary music. The two halves of 2013-V imply diffidence & defiance respectively, epithets that could equally be applied to James Clarke’s ostensibly indifferent manner of presenting his music. Dispassionate it may be, but the music certainly isn’t.

The world première of 2013-V was given by Ensemble Linea with Irvine Arditti, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz.

5:4, 31 January 2014

alan munro: Thanks for posting this Simon. 2013 V was one of the highlights of HCMF last year. I have since explored his other works online and have been excited by all of them. Looking forward to his new work for the Arditti’s to be premiered this April at the Barbican

HCMF 2013: Ensemble Linea + Irvine Arditti

James Clarke 2013-V, world première

There’s a clarity to Clarke’s writing, a conciseness & economy of material that makes the music very approachable. Irvine Arditti joined Ensemble Linea & proceeded to become their leader, beginning with a bold presentation of his idée fixe, comprising fast downward glissandi & sharp pizzicato notes. i call Arditti the ‘leader’, yet the relationship both between him & the ensemble, & the members of the ensemble among themselves, was nicely ambiguous. Certainly, the brass & woodwind were an incorrigible influence at the back, setting themselves apart through surly growls & thrusting low notes. Sometimes these seemed to extend into lengthy deep basslines, weird fauxbourdons, & at other times the rest of the ensemble assembled on top of these, combining to sound like blurred chorales from the mouth of Hades. The occasions when the ensemble coalesced into a single sonic entity were exhilarating, twice establishing sequences of queasy roiling surges, coming in waves. All told it was a rather delirious experience that in no way suffered for want of a title.

5:4, 17 November 2013

In James Clarke’s intriguingly inventive Island, superbly played by pianist Philip Thomas, the evening suddenly came alive.

Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2014

To these ears, the most compelling piece was a year-old String Quartet by 47 year-old British composer James Clarke. The music pulsed with fabulous rhythmic and tonal effects that the Ardittis shaped into palpable 3-D soundscapes. Clarke's mastery of dissonance and overtone, aided by the Ardittis' playing, created sound waves that are not usually heard in a quartet program. Interestingly, the musicians produced the sound largely through conventional bowing and pizzicato.

Toronto Star, 3 December 2004

James Clarke's String Quartet was obsessive chiefly in its manner, which was that of someone determined to break through to a new sound, a new feeling, a new zone in the psyche. The piece seething and glittered, bursting from silence with pungent tutti respirations, arraying its speedy surface melodies (whether heard as tune, ornament or symptom) like broken glass. It was rock music by other means, played, like everything else on the program, with the flair and precision for which the Arditti is famous.

Robert Everett-Green, Toronto Globe and Mail, 4 December 2004

James Clarke wrote the work "Untitled No.4" and the premiere was really phenomenal – a quite justified standing ovation for a very good performance of a very remarkable work.

Ilona Schmiel, Artistic Director of the Beethovenfest Bonn, Klassik Heute, 1 October 2007

James Clarke: Ensemble- und Kammermusik. Anders als viele seiner englischen Kollegen hat sich der 1957 geborene James Clarke nie dem postmodernen Mainstream verschrieben. Seine Musik ist sperrig, der gepresste, oft geräuschhaft angereicherte Klang erzeugt harte Reibeflächen und heftige Gesten. Die aus vier verwandten Einzelstücken zusammengesetzte Kammersymphonie steht unter dem Druck aufgestauter Energien, im Oboenquintett kommt es zu wüsten Verschlingungen der fünf Stimmen, während in La violenza delle idee sorfältig ausbalancierte Instrumentalkombinationen vorherrschen. Das Klavierstück Island wiederum taucht in eine nächtlich getönte Klangwelt ein. Mit Nicolas Hodges (Klavier), Peter Veale (Oboe) und dem von James Avery geleiteten Ensemble Surplus sind die Stücke erstklassig besetzt. (Composers’ Art Label/Zeitklang cal 13018)

Max Nyffeler (Dezember 2006)
Max Nyffeler, http://www.beckmesser.de/cd/kurzrez2006-12.html, Dezember 2006

Mit der Wut eines tachistischen Malers und dem Mut zum Unmeisterlichen lässt hingegen James Clarke in seinem einsätzigen Streichquartett Nr.2 die Klänge auf die Hörer los. Tremoli, Triller und heftige Attacken erzeugen zunächst eine Fülle, die später recht ausführlich in ihren einzelnen Elementen analysiert wird.

Martin Wilkening, Berliner Zeitung, 25. März 2010 - Feuilleton Textarchiv