New Colours: Encounters with Stephen Fox’s Alto Clarinet

April 13, 2017

By Michael Purves-Smith

Few of us expect to run into revelatory new sounds from the realm of acoustic instruments in the classical western tradition, especially not from a lesser known player like the E-flat alto clarinet. I have wide experience with wind ensemble literature where the instrument is a regular, if somewhat begrudged outlier, in most scores. There it spends virtually all its time hidden, doubling other instruments confined to its mid-range, which lies exactly in the middle of the ensemble’s overall tessitura. Young players don’t want to take the alto up, and if they do, they bend the keys, perhaps out of spite. Their colleagues, and especially their private clarinet teachers, actively campaign against it and use it principally as a butt of offensive jokes. “What is the best definition of a nerd? Someone who owns her own alto clarinet.” In the past, I have accepted its reputation and never paid much attention to what the instrument has to offer.

All that changed suddenly for me when I heard a colleague, Allison Nelson, warming up on an alto clarinet that she had commissioned. The sound was as ravishing as it was unexpected. Yes, it was identifiably that of an alto clarinet, but what a sound! Any composer, still writing symphonic music that relies on orchestral colour for a part of its impact, would be delighted to give that utterance a prominent place.

Images of the Stephen Fox clarinet.

This short article will lean towards superlatives, but it is fair to apply them not only to this instrument but also to its maker, Canadian Stephen Fox. He is not only a distinguished clarinetist and historian of the instrument, but a world-class clarinet builder. His instruments, covering an astonishing gamut from historical copies to modern experimental instruments such as clarinets built on the Bohlen-Pierce scale, are used by the likes of Joaquin Valdepeñas, principal clarinet TSO. It is hard to think of another individual, over the entire course of western music, who has so catholically embraced all aspects of his chosen instrument as has Stephen Fox.

His first degree was in plasma physics, and he applies those skills to deciphering the physics of all the instruments that he builds. Sure, many of the alto clarinets that I have met over the years deserved their bad rap, but in Steven’s hands the alto turns out to be perhaps the best in its family. Its tone and dynamics are flexible throughout its range of four octaves and the throat tones are more resonant than on other clarinets. If you are fond of the warmth and richness of the chalumeau register of the bass clarinet, a properly constructed and professionally played alto will extend that colour much higher. Remarkably, the alto clarinet seems able to continue it past “the break.” Due to its exceptional tonal variability, it can be a useful stand-in for an alto saxophone, and the upper register tone quality of the bass clarinet is also achievable through most of the range of the alto. Since its tessitura extends from the F at the bottom of the bass clef to an f” above the treble clef, it can play a role from soprano down to bass. Therein lies perhaps the chief reason for its lukewarm welcome in the past: ledger lines. Nowadays it is written in the treble clef transposing up a major sixth. This makes it difficult to co-ordinate what the eye sees with what the ear hears. Composing for it using the alto clef is perhaps the best solution, but even so, one is confronted with a plethora of ledger lines above and especially below the staff.

This painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder of the Tower of Babel represents pride, one of the deadly sins.

Full disclosure: I have written a concerto for alto clarinet and wind ensemble. When Stephen’s instrument was met with such enthusiasm, he suggested performing a concerto on it with the Wellington Wind Symphony. Since there is apparently no such concerto, I was asked to write one. Such a wonderful instrument deserves a significant solo voice. Seeking help in finding a possible narrative solution, I asked my wife, Shannon, for a suggestion. Possibly influenced by the common prejudices against the instrument, she immediately responded, “Why not call it the Seven Deadly Sins”? I am very fond of Weill’s beautiful ballet of the same name, and the title offered a wealth of possibilities, so I set to work.

You can hear Stephen Fox and the Wellington Wind Symphony perform the Seven Deadly Sins under the direction of Dan Warren at 3:00 pm on Sunday, April 30th at Grand River Baptist Church in Kitchener or at 3:00 pm on Sunday, May 7 at Knox Presbyterian Church in Waterloo. Full details are available here!

Alto Clarinet soloist, Stephen Fox, conductor Dan Warren, The Wellington Wind Symphony, and composer Michael Purves-Smith’s Seven Deadly Sins.