Bass clarinettist Fie Schouten: ‘We must not control nature but give it room’

Fie Schouten studied with bass clarinettist Harry Sparnaay and follows in his footsteps as an advocate of contemporary music. She organizes the biannual Bass Clarinet Festival and the monthly series Nieuwe Noten Amsterdam. She recently released the CD Nature, with six contemporary compositions.

Already as a child Fie Schouten was attracted to the bass clarinet: ‘At the Amstelveen music school I played the clarinet in a wind ensemble. When I heard an older student playing the bass clarinet I was immediately hooked: I want that too! I love its low sound and wide range, which makes it very versatile: you can take a bass function, but also play the melody; operate in the background, but also take the lead. In this I feel related to musicians who play cello, bassoon or trombone.’

Fie Schouten (c) Annelies van der Vegt

While studying clarinet at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, she heard there was also a bass clarinet teacher, Harry Sparnaay. ‘He specialized in contemporary music, but his class included students with backgrounds in both classical and jazz. He was particularly focused on the musician’s attitude and emphasized that you must always start from what the composer – or a composition – wants to say. As important to him was the question of what you yourself want to convey. After all, you are on stage and must have something to say to your audience. I compare it to reading a story to your children: of course you reproduce someone else’s text, but you put your own accents, in a way you make it your own story.’

With Sparnaay she shares her enthusiasm for contemporary music, following in his footsteps as an ardent advocate. By now over a hundred pieces have been composed for her. How does she decide who to ask? ‘I like variety. Sometimes I ask a Dutch composer, sometimes I feel more like inviting an Englishman, or prefer to have a new piece from a young talent, a contemporary, or an older, established name. As long as I expect them to make something meaningful.’

This may turn out better or worse, which makes it difficult to name favourites: ‘I love the solo Article 7, seven ways to climb a mountain for bass clarinet solo by Rozalie Hirs, but for the last Bass Clarinet Festival Ruud Roelofsen wrote a trio that I think is at least as beautiful. In October I picked up again Jorrit Dijkstra’s duo Veeg (Sweep) with flutist Karina Erhard, part of which calls for improvisation. We’re much better at that now than we were back in 2004 when he composed it, so it was great to play it again!’

She regularly performs in duets, trios and quartets with other musicians and as a substitute with ensembles such as Musikfabrik and Asko|Schönberg. It would make any random person dizzy, but not Schouten. ‘By working with different instrumentalists and singers you appeal to disparate aspects of your personality, which is enriching.’

Schouten occasionally shares the stage with her husband, the reed player and composer Tobias Klein. ‘We met in Harry Sparnaay’s class and have been together for 21 years now; we have two lovely children, aged 11 and 15.’ In 2014 they initiated the first Bass Clarinet Festival, in honour of Harry Sparnaay’s 70th birthday. To celebrate this, Klein composed Too Dark to Read for 7 clarinets and 3 bass clarinets, one of them played by Sparnaay himself.

How did Sparnaay react? Schouten laughs: ‘Actually, the idea came from Harry himself! In 2012 we gave a concert with eight bass clarinets in the Bethaniënklooster in Amsterdam. He then joked: Guys, I’ll be seventy in two years, will you throw me a party? Well, we took up the gauntlet. Harry enjoyed himself intensely and especially enjoyed performing along with his former students

The first Bass Clarinet Festival was remarkably ambitious straightaway, with concerts all over the country, masterclasses, bass clarinet days and more. Since then it has grown into a biennial event. The fourth edition fell largely victim to corona, but precisely on November 3, the night the Government declared a new lockdown, Schouten presented her CD Nature, with six pieces by contemporary composers, two of which were composed for her.

The subject is rather charged today: nitrogen crisis, rising sea levels, insect plagues and a global pandemic threaten life on earth. Should we interpret the CD as a political statement? ‘Not directly,’ says Schouten. ‘The idea arose during a series of lectures on music and nature, at the end of which I always performed a piece live.’

‘My association with nature is mainly that something is not artificial but free, natural. It also means: wonder, concentration, having respect for what others make and for what is already there. In a way, the title is a call to be patient, to listen to the music without judgment. Just like you should respect nature, not try to control it, but give it room.  I am dismayed to see how the few remaining empty spaces are swallowed up by construction projects.’

So the six pieces were not chosen from an activist point of view. In the CD booklet she writes: ‘With each track the gaze goes further up: from the sea to the birds in the sky, to the cirrus clouds, to the moon and finally to the stars.’ The album opens with Calling for bass clarinet solo by Calliope Tsoupaki. ‘Calliope composed it for me in 2015. I have performed it many times and have come to love it very much. It is lyrical, has a beautiful form and yet is very free. It is a personal lamento, in which looking out over the sea and the waves plays an important role.’

Next comes ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, the clarinet solo from Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Schouten does not play this on the regular b-flat clarinet, but on a basset horn. ‘It’s a beautiful and important work for clarinettists in which birds make themselves heard loud and clear. It has been recorded many times, so I chose the basset horn, which conveys the desolate atmosphere even better because of its sonorous yet agile sound.’

Cirrus Light by Jonathan Harvey is very dear to her: ‘He was a special and spiritual person, I met him in 2002. He wrote this solo for clarinet in the last summer of his life, when he was already in a wheelchair, looking at the clouds that drifted by high and slow like wisps. It has not been recorded before, I hope now more clarinettists will pick it up.’

With Oi Kuu for bass clarinet and cello by Kaija Saariaho we travel further to the moon. ‘The Finnish title means something like “for the moon”. I first played it together with Eva van de Poll in 2001, but 20 years later we understand the piece and each other much better, so we decided to record our present interpretation. The flageolets in the cello and the multiphonics of the clarinet create a somewhat dreamy atmosphere, like mists before the moon.’

Following this duo is Façade Trio by French composer Georges Aperghis. ‘It is a theatrical piece for two bass clarinets and percussion that has rarely been performed after its premiere in 1998. The musicians are arranged in a triangle, like the points of a constellation. The percussionist stands in the centre with two kick drums, and is flanked left and right by the two bass clarinettists. Their part moves from the lowest to the very highest regions. Together with the percussion, this creates a wonderful spectrum of sounds, expressive and unpredictable.’

Once Schouten had arrived in the galaxy, she felt the journey was not yet complete. ‘The five pieces form a nice coherent whole, but I felt that something was missing. I decided to add a bonus track and called Michael Finnissy. He had composed a quartet for the 2018 Bass Clarinet Festival in which two bass clarinets engage in a kind of conversation, like two monks chanting to each other.’ ‘

Those recitative-like lines appealed to me, and I asked Michael to create something small on the theme of nature. He wrote the 3-minute Mankind Remix, a contemplative piece that reflects on the previous; it fits perfectly after Aperghis’ exuberant trio – and to my character. I love to be expressive, but then I need reflection. After Mankind Remix I could start all over again at once with the first piece on the CD, it comes full circle.’

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About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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