by Maggie Molloy
Of all common woodwind instruments, the clarinet has the largest pitch range. And with over a dozen types of clarinets in its instrument family—with most clarinets ranging around four octaves—the musical possibilities are endless.
Composer Gerald Cohen is exploring that vast ocean of possibilities in his new album for clarinet and chamber ensemble, Sea of Reeds.
“The album is a continuation of my exploration of the clarinet,” Cohen said. “Clarinet has always been an instrument that I love, though I’ve never played a wind instrument. Because it’s so varied in its timbre, range and dynamics, it’s just a wonderful instrument whenever you have a small ensemble, because it gives a lot of varied character and different kinds of sounds to the ensemble.”
The compositions explore the clarinet’s colorful palette of sounds by combining elements of classical, Jewish, and jazz music. A singer and pianist himself, Cohen’s music is heavily influenced by vocal music and lyrical melodies.
“My style is generally within the modern classical realm,” Cohen said. “It tends to be very lyrical and dramatic.”
Cohen’s music is also inspired by his work as a synagogue cantor at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, N.Y., and as a teacher of cantors at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College.
“All those three roles—of composer, cantor, and teacher—all nourish and enrich each other,” Cohen noted. “I love the idea of taking materials of Jewish music and Jewish text and writing them in my music in a way that is making it part of concert music; seeing those two worlds come together in very fruitful and interesting ways, and in artful ways as well.”
In fact, the album’s title track, “Sea of Reeds” is a set of instrumental arrangements of five of Cohen’s songs on sacred texts. The piece is performed by the Grneta Ensemble, which is made up of clarinetists Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski and pianist Alexandra Joan. The piece maintains the melodic expressiveness of the original songs while exploring new timbral and textural possibilities, showcasing both clarinetists’ virtuosity as they gracefully dance through swelling melodies and delicately intertwining musical motifs.
The Grneta Ensemble is also featured in Cohen’s “Grneta Variations.” In fact, Cohen wrote both “Sea of Reeds” and “Grneta Variations” with the ensemble in mind. Having worked closely with the trio over the past five years, Cohen was inspired by their virtuosic playing in both classical and folk music realms.
“To have developed the musical and personal relationship with [the Grneta Ensemble] and for them to have performed these pieces many times and to really have taken them into their musical hearts and souls very fully, that has been very meaningful,” Cohen said. “For me, writing music for wonderful performers who enjoy playing the music is one of the key motivating elements for me as a composer. I love working with great performers and writing music that they’ll love playing.”
“Grneta Variations” is written in the character of a Jewish folk melody, with vivid lyricism and rich rhythmic diversity. The lively melodies and spirited performances from all members of the trio highlight the folk elements of the composition while also showcasing each performer’s virtuosity and individual musical personality.
Another set of variations which appears on the album is “Variously Blue,” which features a sprightly theme using the 12-bar blues progression. The piece, composed for the Verdehr Trio, combines elements of jazz with concert music while exploring the unique timbral possibilities of clarinet, violin, and piano. Cohen’s trademark lyricism shines through the expertly interwoven clarinet and violin melodies dancing above sparkling piano backdrops.
“What I love about sets of variations is I take a musical idea and then just improvise and play with it a lot,” Cohen said. “And then the variations are almost like putting a puzzle together and seeing how the different, widely varying ideas or themes can come together and make a single piece.”
The final piece on the album, “Yedid Nefesh,” is based on a simple, sweet Sephardic setting of a mystical Jewish poem. Cohen wrote the piece for his friend, violist Maria Lambros, who performs on the recording along with clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and pianist Alexandra Joan of the Grneta Ensemble. Together, the three bring to life the piece’s rich tone and vibrant colors, highlighting both the vivacious and the meditative aspects of the delicate melody.
Though each piece on “Sea of Reeds” has its own distinct character and style, Cohen’s gorgeous lyricism flows sweetly through each of them, tying together his exploration of the clarinet’s many diverse colors and dynamics.
“I’d say that every composition that I do—and I think this is true for many composers—is a new exploration, taking your particular voice and finding new ways of expressing yourself within that voice,” Cohen said. “Each piece on ‘Sea of Reeds’ is different.”