Strange Humors – for clarinet quartet

I got a new camera on Friday: the Canon 5D Mark 3.  I’ve only been able to play with it a tiny bit so far – not enough to justify a full blog post – so I’ll intersperse a few pictures from the camera throughout this post, which has nothing to do with cameras or photography or flowers, but everything to do with “Strange Humors” and clarinets.

Back is 2009, a clarinet grad student at Middle Tennessee State University emailed me to ask if I would considering adapting “Strange Humors” – my piece originally written for string quartet and djembe, then arranged for concert band, and then sax quartet and djembe – into yet another version, this one for clarinet quartet and djembe.  Could that work?  I wasn’t sure. My favorite version is still the original for string quartet, because nothing has that same “bite” that you can accomplish with the hard downbow of a single string instrument.  Wouldn’t clarinets end up having to soften every attack, making the piece sound… mushy?  Could clarinets get any sort of edge to their sound, and accomplish it throughout the ensemble?  (Just ask Loki, shot at ISO 8000, and with zero out-of-camera noise reduction applied.)

My response to the grad student – Jessica Harrie (currently a DMA student in the awesome clarinet studio at Michigan State): sure, if I can just transpose the sax quartet parts for you.  Jessica agreed, I made her a set of very ugly parts (that were still labeled “soprano sax,” “alto sax,” etc.), and I completely forgot about the little side project.

In January of this year – a full three years after I’d sent those parts to MTSU – I received an email from somebody with the following text:

Hello… I’m wondering where I can purchase a copy of Strange Humors for clarinet quartet… thanks.

I didn’t even remember making parts for clarinet, so I ignored the email.

Then, two minutes later, another email, from a different person:

Hello! Just heard Strange Humors by John Mackey for clarinet quartet and djembe and I’m wondering where I can purchase this! Thanks.

What the… At first, I thought somebody had arranged it without my permission (that would be: bad) and performed it somewhere, and these two people heard it and liked it (that would be: good). So I replied to one of these emails, asking where they heard it (i.e., whom did I need to sue?). Moments later, a reply with a link to the YouTube recording of the piece. I clicked, saw Jessica’s name, and the whole thing came back to me. Oh right! Nobody would be sued after all (that would be: I guess good?). But how did this sound? Hot damn. It sounded awesome. Check it out:

Damn, that’s a great ensemble! Thanks to their performance, the whole thing works so much better than I expected. Thank you to Jessica Harrie, Clay Hensley, and Cordaro Hudson on Bb soprano clarinets, and Gordon Inman on bass clarinet. Whereas the original version of the piece, with all of the string glissandi, sounded almost Arabic, the clarinets transformed that sound – pretty far culturally – to the world of klezmer.

Hearing that the piece not only works well with clarinets, but becomes a very different piece, I decided to make an official, edited version, which I am releasing today. (The printed version is in a different key than the recording above. I lowered it a full step to match the original string quartet version – and to take advantage of the low concert C of the bass clarinet, one of the coolest notes on any instrument.)  You can view the perusal score on the new page for Strange Humors: version for clarinet quartet and djembe.


Nathan C says

Hell yeah clarinets can play with bite. I heard a recording of Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint arranged for saxes, and they tried too hard to sound "pretty" like a clarinet "should" and it ruined the performance for me. Much better with Evan Ziporyn rocking all the parts. And then there's Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet.

Ryan S says

This is awesome! I played this piece in an honor band in high school and loved it. But now, for my senior recital in a performance degree, I'm definitely going to try and get this put together with some friends.

Jenny says

The piece is really beautiful!

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