Ned Rothenberg is best known as a composer, though that is only one of his talents; the others include being an accomplished and inventive clarinet player and saxophonist, a shakuhachi flutist, and an arranger. Quintet for Clarinet and Strings brings a number of these talents together in a startling, mature work that embodies many of his career-long traits while bringing others into view for the first time. Rothenberg performs and directs the ensemble, which also includes the MIVOS Quartet, a string group that is devoted to the work of contemporary composers. The work is divided into five movements. Across its nearly 50-minute time frame, Rothenberg and the MIVOS engage in polyphonic and microtonal woodwind techniques, as well as strictly classical conceptions influenced by ideas from Brahms and Mozart, while not following them at all. At 17 minutes, the opening section is the longest and is itself constructed of “mini movements.” The opening is an elegant section where two distinct melodies assert themselves within the quartet, with the clarinet hovering between the second with counterpoint in both rhythm and harmony. Different time signatures are played by separate instruments inside the quartet, while the clarinet follows its own jazz-inspired rhythmic and timbral palette. The second and third movements dovetail, from tonal to timbral glissandi investigations -- some of which dovetail and take each other apart systematically. Here too, polyrhythmic elements are employed to distinguish the various sections of the quartet, giving members a voice, while melodic ideas are unresolved until late in the work. The third movement indulges Rothenberg’s deep fascination of improvisation where no direction of any kind is employed, and the musicians can borrow any ideas from the entire piece -- even if they’ve not been played yet -- and weave them into a sometimes dissonant but always economical and provocative whole. The motif in “Setting Stones” is slow, largely assonant, and utterly lovely. Its harmonic palette is somewhat restrained, where strings and slap tongue on the clarinet complement one another beautifully, creating an almost pastoral feel. The “Finale” is humorous in that it feels like a chase between the players: from violins to the clarinet, from viola to the cello, from the cello to the violins; and then these reverse themselves melodically, assuming different roles where all the players are both the pursuers and the pursued. The sleight-of-hand phrasing by Rothenberg is actually light, pulling bits and pieces from his own melodies from throughout the work and using them in differing contexts until the work is satisfyingly exhausted. This is one of the more important works Rothenberg has issued so far, and after 26 albums, that’s saying plenty.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek
|Quintet for Clarinet & Strings|