Clarinetist Ian Mitchell will be a familiar name to those who follow the instrument and to those who enjoy exploring new music. Mitchell has been a prominent and compelling advocate for both for many years. Some may know him as one of the founders in 1984 of the chamber ensemble Gemini, one of the most exciting ensembles working in the world of contemporary music (and most other worlds, too); their recent recording of Ave Moris Stella and other Peter Maxwell Davies chamber works demands to be heard. He has also performed with an impressive array of other ensembles, listed in his bio, from the BBC Symphony, to the Monteverdi Orchestra, to Albanian folk music ensemble Liria, to The Fires of London, and ensembles associated with Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. He is also a writer, compiler, and editor of music and articles on the clarinet. If ever there was an “old man” of new clarinet music, it would be Mitchell. He currently teaches bass clarinet at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London after seven years of heading its Wind, Brass, and Percussion Department.
The point is that this is not some upstart trying to make a name for himself by being edgy or difficult. This is an artist who can play anything and would probably have little trouble finding someone to record yet another Mozart Clarinet Concerto with him. Instead, he chose to record the music offered here. This isn’t even music that truly qualifies as new, though many will imagine it so. The latest of these compositions dates from 1993; most date from the 1980s, more than a quarter-century ago, and the John Cage Sonata was composed in 1933. One presumes that Mitchell has found these throughout his career, and he now wants to make sure we hear them.
All that said, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that coming to terms with many of them was an effort. Cage’s chromatic, semi-serial Sonata needed no primer, as it is a classic of the genre. Neither did Tom Johnson’s objectivist Bedtime Story No. 12 (1985), with its descriptively falling and rising solo line between the phrases of the story. The others required a key, and it came in a quote from poet/composer Barney Childs, in which he described his work as “talking music, not dancing music.” The light came on. William O. Smith’s 1984 Reflection essentially talks its disjoint ruminations over the drone of the voices of the 2013 Clarinet Class of Trinity Laban. (This is the Bill Smith who did arrangements for Dave Brubeck.) Christian Wolff’s aleatoric For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964), recorded in three passes by Mitchell, makes sense as a three-way conversation. Wolff’s Isn’t This a Time (1982) and Dark as a Dungeon (1977) are musical musings on tunes by Lee Hays of The Weavers and County singer Merle Travis. Childs’s distinction opens the door to his 1980 deconstruction and musical extension of Peter Warlock’s song Sleep, and even provides point of view to the dryly witty Smith Epitaphs (1993) for double clarinet (two clarinets-one player), with Ian Mitchell doubling as the narrator of Anyte of Tegea’s words.
Don’t expect appreciation to come immediately. This is not that kind of music. But let it have its time, don’t make assumptions regarding what it should be, and “let the music do what it wants to do,” to quote Tom Johnson quoting Morton Feldman. The investment in time will pay dividends to anyone who appreciates intriguing new paths to explore.