One of the unique and special elements of the Novacane Quartet is that we have access to a full complement of auxiliary clarinets. Not only are we fully skilled on the regular Bb soprano clarinet but we all have mastery on all instruments within the clarinet family. This includes every type of clarinet from the tiniest Ab-sopranino to the deep Contrabass clarinet in Bb.
Auxiliary clarinets need not be confused with the term “auxiliary” or lessor. The history of the nomenclature originates from these extra clarinets being used as a supplement, specialized, or “extra” in comparison to the normal soprano Bb clarinet that every clarinetist uses as a primary instrument.
The first auxiliary clarinets included all types and all keys due to the technological limitations of early clarinets and chalumeau. In the beginning, a clarinetist was most likely proficient on some type of soprano clarinet, in keys ranging from Eb, D, C, Bb, and A and may have had experience on a “bass” instrument like the basset horn. This dividing or “specialization” paved the way for more specialist in a “special” or unique instrument like the Basset Horn virtuosi of Anton Stadler or Bass Clarinetist Isaac Franco Dacosta. As the clarinet and its family continued to become more advanced, three types of auxiliary “specialist” would develop --- the high Eb/D soloist, the normal Bb/A/C clarinet soloist, and the lower Bass clarinet soloist. Becoming highly forgotten were specialist on the tenor clarinets, Eb Alto Clarinet and F Basset Horn, although had pockets of continued use into the 20th century.
In today’s current pedagogical trend, all clarinetists are urged to become familiar and have a basic competency on the entire clarinet family. After this basic familiarity, some clarinetists continue to be “specialist” on a type of “auxiliary” clarinet. In Novacane, we are all “specialist” on all of the “auxiliary” clarinets. To date, we have access to the entire family and have duplicate instruments in the Eb, Tenor, and Bass clarinets.
So one may ask the big question, why? Why is it important that we are all auxiliary specialists? For one, our repertoire options become as vast as our imaginations. We could theoretically perform any combination in a range that encompasses the full pipe-organ. We could play a quartet for all Bb’s or all Bass Clarinets, or instead of 3 Bb’s and Bass make it 3 Eb’s and Alto. If we wanted to have a high sounding piece with all soprano clarinets and pick up all the low members, we could. This option is reminiscent of the renaissance consorts that could play a multitude of pieces and instruments which would carry different feelings, “affects”, or “aesthetics”.
Secondly, it’s impressive. It’s impressive that we carry a forest of clarinets onto stage. Also because of our individual musicianship, we can equally sound like each other while thus creating the Novacane Quartet sound.
Lastly, it is unique, in both sound quality and aesthetic. A lot of the repertoire for clarinet quartet is mainly for 4 clarinets, 3 Bb’s and Bass, or with some Eb or Alto. Most of the works utilizing a tenor instrument, is highly pedagogical or comes with an optional 3rd Bb clarinet part which doesn’t suit our musical needs as a group. With our instrumentation, we intend to diversify the current repertoire by including the whole family of clarinets in a unique and satisfying way. We aim to encourage other composers and arrangers to write parts that are equally challenging for all voices. This ultimately makes for a better sounding piece with fuller harmonies and timbres. Just as the String Quartet has the viola, the Clarinet Quartet needs a balanced tenor instrument written with its range and sonic qualities in mind. With our group, this aesthetic of resetting the normal instrumentation of Eb, Bb, Tenor, and Bass is utilized to its fullest.
As a clarinet quartet bursting at the seams with a plethora of clarinets at the ready, our exposure as “auxiliary clarinetists” has increased significantly. Each of us is asked more and more often to perform on an “auxiliary clarinet” and composers write or adapt with our instrumentation in mind. One time we were asked as a group (Sammy, Kylie, and I (Keith)) to sub with a local university wind ensemble on Bb Clarinet, Alto Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Contra-Alto Clarinet, and Contra-Bass Clarinet. Our most exemplary compositions written for us, have been Brandon Nelson’s Those Who Decide Fate that featured Eb, Bb, Alto and Basset Horn, and Bass and Contra-Alto Clarinets and Junyi Chow’s Let’s Snap, which we asked for an alternate tenor part and has since become a perennial favorite. At this past year’s Fischoff Competition, we brought on stage 10 clarinets between the four of us. Next time, we hope to increase that number, bursting on stage, full with the whole clarinet family.