heard Richard Stoltzman perform a few years back in UC Berkeley's 770-seat
Hertz Hall. Seated in the first row, I discovered him right before me as he
began to perform. The sound was startling, so full, rounded, and glowing
that I immediately understood why he has gained a reputation as the foremost
American clarinetist of our era.
career that spans 40 years, the glories of Stoltzman's timbre, married to an
impeccable technique and astounding intellect, have inspired composers to
write at least 50 concertos for clarinet and orchestra and perhaps 30 other
smaller scaled works for him.
particular interview, conducted on April 5, 2007, focuses on Fantasma/Cantos,
a 17-minute concerto for clarinet and orchestra composed for Stoltzman by
Japanese genius Tôru Takemitsu (1930-1996).
conversation, which I taped, began with a level test in which Richard began
to extemporize on the glorious nature of Cappuccino . . . .
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I usually try to have some kind of bran to start the day, and I can use a
fairly strong Espresso to get going. I've been able to manage with just hot
water if I'm feeling meditative, but oftentimes I have to get ripped with
Espresso fairly soon. Having been to Italy the past two weeks, I'm addicted
again. I would like to return to no caffeine in another life, but the
problem is, everything gets so gray. I'm not talking about my hair, but
that's also part of it. The ups and down are all sort of leveled out with
When I moved here from New York City in 1972, I went from 6 cups of coffee a
day down to 1/2 cup. It was terrifying. Things stood still. I just didn't
know what to do.
That's it. I guess there are people who can live life that way. I thought I
had disconnected some vital part of my life force. That sounds too dramatic.
But at any rate, I've been having a nice time drinking my daily Cappuccino.
went to Starbucks, so I'm ready to go. Just ask me anything and I'll give
you the most emotional answer I can.
With irony in cheek, let's abruptly segue into the meditative moments of
The whole concept of the piece is of a meditative, go round garden where you
enter the garden at a specific point and then begin to move around in a
circle, seeing the garden from different angles, so that you're ultimately
able to observe the rock, tree, or flower from all angles through a 360
degree circle before returning to the starting point. The concept is that
when you return, theoretically everything is exactly the same, but the
experiences inside of you and the consciousness you've achieved enable you
to see the same thing from a new perspective because you understand it from
understanding is something you can bring to almost every point of your life.
Zen sort of beginner's thing, starting again, but also being conscious of
the fact that as you grow and as you continue revolving around the sun and
begin anew your life each day, you begin to appreciate what you'd normally
see every day with a new feeling and respect and understanding.
instance, the garden consists of a tri-tone. Are you a musician?
I'm a whistler. Didn't I send you a CD after our last chat?
Oh, this is whom I'm talking to! Oh yes. I wouldn't even think of whistling
in your presence, it would be so embarrassing.
starts in a tritone. If you go do-re-mi-fa-so, and lowered the so
half a step, you get the tritone. That's the rock, the tree, the whatever
you want to call it in the garden that begins to be transformed through your
consciousness as you see it through it different angles, and is also
transformed through Takemitsu's genius. The tritone goes up to a normal
fifth and then back down to a trione and then down again to a perfect
all you need to know musically about the piece. It's presaged, as if you
went around a bend and saw a hint of it before you actually encountered it.
You walk along, and then because of the angle or the light of the day, you
start to perceive this tritone theme in all kinds of others colors. It
starts to bounce off the flute or the French horn, or the entire brass
section starts playing and all of a sudden it you think you're hearing a
Duke Ellington piece. Then the clarinet embellishes it in big swirls of
the very attractive things about this piece is that Takemitsu repeats one
section literally, as though you were seeing part of the garden from a
180-degree angle. When you're hearing a piece for the first time, I think an
audience wonders what to listen to. The two things to hang onto, I think,
are that beginning tritone that you can sing and hear all throughout the
orchestra, and that moment at which the sound stops and this section which
in the first time its presented Takemitsu asks be played with "Calm," with a
very, slow tempo marking –slower than your heartbeat, closer to a beat every
two seconds – an eighth note equals 42, "slower than desirable." But in the
same repetition, he marks the same moment "Calm and Ecstatic." There' really
no difference except for one very, very subtle coloration, where a harmonic
in the bass takes the place of a muted French horn note.
When you say "calm and ecstatic," I get a sense of the religious experience,
where your faith is so strong that you can be ecstatic and yet absolutely
calm in the surety of it all.
Yes. I'm glad you said that. Ironically, one of the things I treasure about
having worked with the composer, who passed away unfortunately, is that he
sent me a copy of his original writing of the store where the description
"Calm and Ecstatic" is written. But when I got the printed score for the
first performances, I said to composer, "Toru, what happened to ‘calm and
ecstatic'? It just says ‘calm' both times."
replied, "Yes. My publisher said that I didn't understand the English well
enough. He said it's a contradiction to say calm and ecstatic." They made
him erase it from the published score. And I said, "Oh, those fuckers." They
didn't understand what he was getting at, which is exactly what you're
saying. That moment is the only place in the piece where instead of this
tritone melody [sings the music] there is a very simple, unadorned scale.
It's like a slow movement of a Mozart piece, where you say, ‘My gosh, that's
so simple. Why is that so touching?" That's what happens. The clarinet plays
this simple ascending scale, up and back down, and it's a blissful point for
also a wonderful cadenza for the clarinet that allows the orchestra to
comment on what I'm playing. Then, at the end, it does indeed come back to
the very beginning moment of the piece where it opens up and the clarinet
states the theme exactly as it did in the beginning, which was about 17
minutes ago. It has been transformed. It's a beautiful musical experience.
have to know or understand any of this, of course. But I think the wise
listener who has some little inkling about this will, especially on a first
hearing, be able to transcend the inevitable feeling of ignorance or
overwhelm. At least now they have a chance to know how it's going to turn
out, and what's evolving in the piece, so they can experience it in both a
visceral way and with the mind.
I absolutely wish we were doing a radio show, because I'd play this tape as
an introduction to your performance.
thoughts occur. Did he write the piece in consultation with you, or did he
write it and then present it?
He wrote it and gave it to me.
Do you have the ability to hear the orchestra behind you in your head when
you first look at a score, or does it first come together with you when
you're actually with an orchestra or someone playing a reduction on the
I can't look at a score and hear the verticality of it. I can't hear what
the chords and combination will sound like. I can go through and look at
lines and hum lines; I don't play the piano.
did when I first got the score was to pick places in the piece where I could
literally pick out the notes, hold them, and get a sense of the chords. I'd
massage the chord and play it almost like a drone, just get the chord in my
head, in my head, what does that sound like, what does that feel like, just
let the chord sink in. I did that in a few places in the score.
course, the magic of the score is the orchestration, which is so wonderfully
exotic. It's full of Takemitsu's attention to detail, in these tiny little
places in the harp, the celeste having a duet with the vibraphone, and one
moment in which the cymbal is placed upside down on the head of a timpani
and slowly vibrates. Then the timpanist moves the timpani head so the
vibration starts to produce a dropping in pitch. It's an amazing sound. It's
only there for two seconds, but it's one of Takemitsu's gifts. His
coloration is really more analogous to some marvelous painting you'd come to
again and again. You discover that what you initially thought was red is
actually pink with a streak of purple and a dab of brown. It's that kind of
satisfying aural experience that's so great in Takemitsu.
happy that Michael likes his music. He gives it its proper delicacy and
force, because it requires both. There's one moment in the piece when the
entire orchestra resolves down to a single note – a single C – that starts
as softly as possible and then builds up entire orchestra resounds with the
single note. This is introduced by that singing cymbal that predicts this
same phenomenon that is going to happen.
Have you and Michael done it other places?
Takemitsu wrote it for the BBC. They commissioned him, but he never could
find the time to write the piece. At the same time, I kept asking him to
write a Concerto for me. Of course, I didn't have the money; I was just
saying it abstractly. Finally, he said, I've got this commission for the
BBC, and they said they'd take anything. So I'll write the Concerto for you,
and tell them it's for you, not the first clarinetist of the BBC Orchestra.
the first performance. Then Michael and I played it at the Festival that he
and Christoph Eschenbach started in Japan – I think it's called the Pacific
Music Festival, I think, in Sapporo. Takemitsu came, and it was really
beautiful. We played it four times. It must have been 1992. In 1991 I played
the piece in Vienna. It was my mother's 75th birthday. I brought
her to Vienna, Takemitsu brought his wife, it was televised in Japan, and it
was a tremendous moment. I'd been invited to Vienna to celebrate to the day
the first time the Mozart Clarinet Concerto was played in Vienna on October
16, 1791. The Takemitsu was on the first half, 1991, and then the Mozart in
the second. Two great concertos. [The Brahms Clarinet Concerto of 1881 was
also on the program].
I feel has transcended his era and is going to go on and live in the hearts
of music lovers.
Have you ever spent time in Japanese gardens?
Yes, way before this music came into being, when I didn't have the
sensibility and sophistication to realize what I was experiencing. It was an
enjoyable stroll, but it wasn't transcending like the music is.
If it's any consolation, I was in Japan in 1992, and I failed the garden
test as well.
especially wonderful to talk to you about the piece because I was sent a CD
burn of your out-of-print BMG recording of the work. I can't tell if the
problem is early digital sound or the burn or both, but what I hear from the
burn is so harsh and monochromatic that I couldn't relax into it.
The CD isn't as bad as what you've got, but it can't capture the live
performance. I'm really excited to play it in the ambience of Davies
I remember the first time I heard you, seated in the first row in Davies
Symphony Hall. You begin to play, and I was overwhelmed by the round beauty
of your sound. "Oh my God," I said to myself, "this is why Richard Stoltzman
is so famous. This is just the most amazing sound."
Takemitsu confer with you while composing, so he could be sure what you
could play and couldn't play?
While Takemitsu wrote the piece for me without consulting me, he built on a
20-year relationship that began with very late night drinking parties and
forays into the dark side of Tokyo. I'd even find him well known in the
weirdest transvestite corner of some alley. "Oh Toru, who's your friend?" So
I had a great experience, having hung out with him a bunch. He listened to
my sound a lot when I was playing with the Tashi group and in later
performances. He had also written a piece for me before this called
Waves. I therefore felt he didn't have to ask me anything about the
clarinet because he heard me in many contexts.
got the piece, I felt, "Oh, he's written this for me. This is what I do."
You say in the liner notes for the RCA/BMG release, "The piece is nothing
less than a summation of 20th-century clarinet techniques, yet it
never loses sight of the instrument's eloquence and tonal range." Did you
invent some of those techniques?
No. What Takemitsu did was to find out what the clarinet could do. Some of
those techniques he had asked me about in the past – can you play this soft,
can you make two tones at once, can you trill this way, etc?
also studied shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) a little bit, and he
introduced me to a great friend of his who was a master of the instrument.
We didn't understand each other's language, but we exchanged sounds and
spoke to each other through our instruments. I realized that when Takemitsu
was asking for certain things from the clarinet, he was thinking of the
clarinet in terms of the shakuhachi. What we may think of as a new technique
for the clarinet is probably a technique that has been in existence for
several hundred years and was developed by shakuhachi players in order to
give a note a certain kind of quality.
instance, koro koro is a way of changing fingers very quickly on the same
note so that the note doesn't change pitch but it changes timbre. It's
something that's done on the shakuhachi. Takemitsu asks the clarinet to do
the same technique in one part of the cadenza.
There are so few singers who can do that. It's so hard to do vocally. I know
what the change is like.
pieces have been written for you?
I'd say close to 50 concerti. In terms of unaccompanied pieces or pieces
with string quartet, maybe 25 or 30.
You're in your 60s. How are you doing? I know how my whistling has shifted
with the passage of time, and we know what happens to singers when they pass
50. How are you doing?
In terms of an instrument, I've always said that the voice is the ultimate
instrument. Whenever I give Master Classes, I tell people to emulate the
downside of that is that the voice in inside the body, and the body is never
forever. The good side of playing the clarinet is that while you may try to
make it sound like a voice, it's still external to you, and in a way is
breath is good, and I definitely do exercises. Emotionally, this is a tough
time for me because my wife of over 30 years found some other man and is
divorcing me. I've found the emotional heaviness of that has a profound
affect on me when I play the instrument. I'm trying to look at it as a
necessary and probably positive thing for me. At any rate, the heaviness of
carrying that around makes for a breathing heaviness.
purpose re-recorded my outgoing message on my answering machine because
people were very concerned. They would call and leave messages like, "Are
you alright? Please call." They knew I was being divorced, and they heard a
new darkness in my voice. So I practiced a little bit and making my voice
sound very positive, and saying [imitating the new, overly cheery voice on
his answering machine}: "HELLO. THIS IS RICHARD STOLTZMAN. You've just
reached…. You have to do that with your instrument too. I've chosen the
clarinet. I can easily sit down in the basement and play tones and have a
very melancholic and dark and morose sound. Honestly, some of that is okay
in certain music, and I draw on it.
fine is the short answer.
I have the same experience with my whistling; the sound changes according to
my emotional state. I also know that the voices of two of the singers I
revere the most, Lehmann and Schumann, both of whom married Jewish men and
had to deal with the realities of getting everyone out alive from Nazi
Germany, changed every year depending upon the strain they were under.
It's revealing. It really shows you how we as human beings relate to each
other through tone. Our stories are in our timbres.
Richard. This is so wonderful. I look forward to seeing you after your
Give me a hug when you see me. I'm happy to say hello and shake hands, but
at this moment, my highest priority is hugging.
I'd be delighted. When an artist invites me in the way you have, music
becomes even more vibrant and alive. Thank you so much.
- Jason Victor Serinus -