I began playing the clarinet at about 12 years old and until I turned 20, I was playing straight up classical music. Around the time I turned 20, I saw some improvised and experimental music concerts and I had this series of epiphanies that made me rethink my relationship with the instrument and my motivations for wanting to continue playing and creating a career in the industry. One particular experience stands out specifically - I went to see a clarinet player from France named Xavier Charles do a solo improvised set at the Corner Hotel in Richmond and seeing him absolutely blew my mind. Before that performance I had no idea about the instrument’s possibilities. I went up to him after the gig and asked him to give me a lesson while he was in Melbourne. He said to come back to the pub the day after and when I turned up, we packed our instruments, walked around the corner to the park and spent the afternoon playing clarinet together. That was the beginning, I think.
Moving from a purely classical background into a slightly more experimental world was a little bit scary. I was studying at the VCA and playing with orchestras at the time and when I told people about my interest in improvisation and new sound worlds some people were a bit suspicious of me and thought that it wasn’t a serious way of making music. People who knew me as a classical clarinetist thought I was wasting my time and possibly ruining my chances of becoming a “serious” instrumentalist. There was a really broad spectrum of responses and though people were quite discouraging, I had a group of close friends thinking the same things about music making and we all helped each other out. I think things have changed a little bit now, 10 years down the track.
Any kind of playing you do and any work you do affects the other areas of your musical interest: in that sense those people are right, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Many instrumentalists get hung up on perfecting and refining a really small amount of repertoire and the scope for personal expression is so narrow - moving outside of that can be hugely daunting. It’s hard to manage so much freedom when you’re used to so little; suddenly the discussion moves from correcting incorrect notes and technical errors to much broader thoughts on what your music making could mean. Influence comes in one of two ways - with complete rebellion or with inspiration. I think in my early 20s I was feeling pretty disillusioned with the classical world and tried purposefully to create provocations to that world. Now I’ve mellowed a little in my approach to different kinds of music and I’m much happier to blend and work with all influences.
I’m currently doing a doctorate at the University of San Diego and my work for the Bendigo Festival of Exploratory Music explores the idea of working with a really large amount of clarinet players, creating masses of sound that are constantly in motion - both unstable and harmonically rich. The closest I’ve been to hearing what it will sound like is recording everything myself and listening back! I used a process of multi tracking while I was composing, though of course I’m not sure exactly what it will sound like today. It’s huge and exciting and basically the focus right now is on getting in there and making it happen. We’ll have a really broad spectrum of players from different skill levels and the complexity and interest of the work will come out of the interactions between each players. My hope for the piece is that it will introduce a whole bunch of new people into the world of exploratory music in an active way, which I think is a real positive of BIFEM overall: it’s about engagement and community, not just expecting people to come and sit in a dark audience. One of the great advantages of projects like this is the ability to break down barriers. It’s very easy to respond to this new world of sounds with “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know how to listen” and people get psyched out really easily thinking it’s all about prior knowledge and academia. But the real point of exploratory music is that it doesn’t require any of that - you just have to show up and listen.
Catch Samuel Dunscombe's Small Infinities for up to 49 clarinets at 2pm on Saturday 2nd September. More information here.