A concerto for bass clarinet and string orchestra by by Christos Hatzis
Extreme Unction is the name given to the last rite of the Catholic Church reserved for people who are on the threshold of passing from the material consciousness and state of being to a different one. It was commissioned by Sinfonia Toronto for my good friend (and bass clarinettist extraordinaire) Jeff Reilly with financial assistance from the Ontario Arts Council. It is dedicated to the memory of another good friend and mentor, Gustav Ciamaga, a composer of electroacoustic music who passed away in May 2011. As the title implies, Extreme Unction is a dark piece about dying and the difficult but inevitable transformation from a physical consciousness to a higher one. It depicts the quiet opening of the floodgates of the Spirit, as our connection to the material world weakens and eventually ceases altogether. This process is often not a willing surrender. It alternates between our sense of an approaching light and the peace and joy that accompany it and the often violent efforts of our physical body to cling on to that which we already know and hold dear.
Sample of the Midi version using synth strings and a combination of live and synth bass clarinet
The idea of musically treating the two contradicting emotions that physical death engenders has been with me for quite some time. However, it was not until I first witnessed Jeff Reilly’s amazing ability to quickly navigate between the sonic extremes of darkness and despair on one hand and luminescence and peace on the other that I realized that the musical treatment of this subject was simply waiting all this time for Jeff to come along. Given the fluidity of his playing, impossible to capture with the usual timbral snapshots that one finds in catalogued extended techniques for the instrument, I decided to start with extensive workshops with Jeff before embarking on the actual composition. In November 2009, I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Jeff lives and works, and recorded his bass clarinet sounds in several sessions during the course of a week. Jeff gave me passages of extended techniques (multiphonic sequences, cascading the overtone series, playing in extreme registers and dynamics and singing and playing at the same time) and some improvised playing which was more elegant than anything I could hope to compose for him. Once back in Toronto, I started cataloguing all this material and combined smaller segments of Jeff’s playing with my own MIDI interpolations in order to create a clarinet part that best described my artistic intentions for this work. The orchestration for the strings included semiotically-rich timbres, such as violent gesturing, microtonally tuned overtone spectra, an ever-present heartbeat-like sound in the lower strings and distant echoes of Doppler effects reminiscent of passing ambulances. All these effects notwithstanding, the creative spotlight always remains focused on the bass clarinet and its wide sonic and dramatic pallet. This unorthodox way of working (using pre-recorded and often extensive sound complexes as building blocks for composition) meant that I was constantly hearing Jeff “performing” the piece that I was still in the process of composing. The manipulation of the material, however, was such that novel ways of musical notation had to be invented and further workshops with Jeff were necessary to ensure that the thus manipulated material was still possible on his instrument. Jeff was encouraging: “if I did it once, I should be able to do it again, no matter how much you twist it.”
Half notated, half improvised, Extreme Unction is a composition that allows for an imaginary glimpse of our afterlife and of our instinctive struggle to cling on to the things we know. It is a meditation on dying and on what may lie beyond, as well as a (hopefully) early attempt to come to terms with this important and inevitable milestone in my own life.