(duration 14:00)
clarinet,  string quartet, double bass

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Program note –
The title of Rare Sugar, composed in honour of Emeritus Professor Stephen Angyal of the University of New South Wales, is a light-hearted reference to his research into the chemistry of rare sugars. Essentially it is a miniature concertino featuring the clarinet and has been especially composed for the Australia Ensemble’s resident clarinettist, Cathy McCorkill. Like me, Cathy spent many years studying the clarinet with my father Donald and of all the wonderful players who learnt from him over the years, I feel that Cathy is the one who has most accurately captured the essence of his teachings and embraced his philosophy of sound production and phrasing.
The clarinet writing in Rare Sugar is technically very demanding and is coloured by a general tone of cheeky playfulness, almost a jazzy quality, a character that the clarinet inhabits so effortlessly and one so perfectly realised in the tradition of Benny Goodman’s collaborations with such composers as Leonard Bernstein (Prelude, Fugue and Riffs), Aaron Copland (Clarinet Concerto), Morton Gould (Derivations for clarinet and band) and Igor Stravinsky (Ebony Concerto). It is no coincidence then that a vinyl disc of those very pieces was amongst the most commonly played recordings in our household as I was growing up.
In the early stages of collecting my ideas for this work, I was intrigued to read an interview with Professor Angyal in which he made reference to his study of the energy of different molecular shapes. The idea of a shape containing energy seemed to me to have musical application, particularly in relation to the idea of rhythmic cells (or patterns) containing the energy of forward momentum in music. (In fact a great deal of my composition is concerned with this very idea – the use of rhythmic subdivisions to create tension, release and forward impetus).
Thus a fantasy of the research scientist in the lab began to evolve in my imagination. Images of sparkling crystalline elements glinting under the microscope, colliding molecules, fantastic chemical exchanges, the scientist obsessively collating data and the thrill of scientific discovery became a catalyst for the compositional process, informing the work as it evolved.
Even the harmonic language of the piece could be said to contain the perceived ‘sweetness’ of major triads, blues and whole tone scales with a predominance of intervals of thirds and tenths and, as Cathy commented when I first played her some of my ideas for the piece, ‘there is the slightly dizzying feeling of quick harmony changes, as though you are looking at a new discovery from different perspectives.’
In a single movement spanning three parts, the two outer sections are essentially a scherzo characterized by mercurial clarinet passages which are supported by a restless ‘engine’ of agitated, percussive repetition for the piano and strings. The piano part is generally written for the extremities of the instrument, being percussive and dense in character, in a sense the antithesis of Debussy’s ‘piano without hammers’ where the ‘fingers should penetrate the notes’.
The opening rhythmic pattern played by pizzicato strings consists of two sets of five quavers nested within a bar of five crotchet beats. Much of the work is an exploration of the permutations and subdivisions of rhythmic cells based upon these groupings of five.
The contrasting middle section is an interlude of tranquil, slow moving melody and repeated bell-like piano chords.
A clarinet cadenza precedes the final section, which is a further exploration of the rhythmic groupings stated in the first part of the piece. The music at this point takes on an obsessive and persistent quality, as if driven by an agenda, building momentum to a conclusive finish.
I am very grateful to Cathy McCorkill for her feedback and assistance in bringing this new piece to life and also to Mrs Helga Angyal for her unerring support of my work over many years and for providing me with the opportunity to write this work.
Rare Sugar was commissioned by Mrs Helga Angyal and the Australia Ensemble in honour of Emeritus Professor Stephen Angyal.