On 11th December 2021, Goldfield Ensemble will give the world premiere of ‘At Night’, a new clarinet quintet by Matthew Kaner. Goldfield clarinetist and Stapleford Granary CEO Kate Romano caught up with Matthew to explore his unique storytelling world.
‘I like stories’ says Matthew Kaner. We’ve had two rehearsals of ‘At Night’, his new clarinet quintet and I immediately recognised the curiously captivating storybook world that his music occupies. It's an imaginary place which Matt discovered three years ago whilst composing his large-scale stage work, Hansel & Gretel, for Goldfield Ensemble. It's also evident in the soundscapes and evocative titles of his other works: Snowbells, Fireside Tale, The Kestrel and The Swift... ‘For the clarinet quintet’, he says ‘I spent a lot of time looking for images from children’s books that seemed very fantastical. Like the little creatures you see in Dr Seuss….’
The first movement - ‘The Land of Nod’ - is certainly endearingly mischievous, impish and skittish. ‘There’s something very particular about the way my little boy gets lively and playful just before bedtime;’ explains Matt, reflecting on his experiences as a new father, ‘and I wanted to convey that in the music. The chiming clock you hear evokes the passing of time as bedtime draws near and he finally starts to fall asleep’. The chiming grandfather clock is a delightful moment of musical mimicry. ‘That's hard to do with strings and a clarinet’, he admits. ‘You can’t just mathematically analyse the sound of a clock and translate it into notes; that would give you something ugly. So I had to compromise between what a real grandfather clock sounds like and one that actually belongs in the harmonic world of the piece’.
This feeling of hovering between the real world and a dream world is key to Matthew Kaner’s music. Like a fairy-story, his music can move with exhilarating swiftness from one event to the next, from lightness to darkness, from agility to stasis. The second movement, ‘Searching for the Dimmest Stars’, is inspired by a beautiful poem about dark matter by Rebecca Elson (1960-1999), a distinguished astronomer and poet. ‘I’ve long been fascinated by music which is incredibly still’ says Matt, ‘but it was a big leap to find a way to write music that conveys the sort of stillness and contemplation that stargazing can inspire...music that teeters on the edge of holding on. I wanted to find the mood of the poem - I think she imagines dark matter as something that holds the universe together and keeps it alive’.
That fragility also extends to the final, darkest movement. Here, we are in the realm of ghost stories. ‘Nothing to be afraid of' comes from two sources of inspiration: an unsettling night poem by Margaret Atwood and a story of one of Britain’s most famous hauntings - the Battersea Poltergeist. Matt describes it as being ‘about those moments when you think you can see something in the dark standing at the end of the bed’. The ‘real world’ tropes return in the shape of thumpings and white noise. ‘I wanted to create an eerie, stuffy soundscape…’ Matt explains. ‘There’s a real strangeness to falling asleep - your mind does peculiar things…’
Philip Pullman talks about ‘the sprite within every story’, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale. These sprites are, he says, old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous and completely amoral; willing to serve whoever is telling the tale. There are always two storytellers in music; the composer and the playing musician. Perhaps this is why performing Matt’s music feels like such an exciting and open invitation to keep telling the story in your own voice, and a uniquely engaging way of sharing the experience with an audience.
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Hansel and Gretel: A Nightmare in Eight Scenes
Music by Matthew Kaner, Poetry by Simon Armitage, Directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and produced by Kate Romano for Goldfield Productions. Performed by the Goldfield Ensemble with Adey Grummet (soprano-narrator), Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort (puppeteers).
View the full performance below (recorded live at Milton Court, Barbican Centre in October 2018).
Hansel and Gretel: A Nightmare in Eight Scenes premiered at Cheltenham Music Festival on 7 July 2018, and subsequently toured the UK in 2018. The commission and tour was supported by Arts Council England, PRS Foundation, Foyle Foundation, Radcliffe Trust, RVW Trust, Double O Foundation, Leche Trust, Colwinston Trust and John S Cohen Foundation.