Clarinettist and experimentalist, Heather Roche has one other gig on her curriculum vitae: blogging. Her website is its own triumph, a relentlessly prolific trail of instructions on extended techniques, abstract sound-making and other ideas for those playing clarinet and its sibling instruments. For these insightful posts, Roche has enjoyed such descriptions as ‘the Queen of clarinet multiphonics’ – the kind of praise you get when you exist on only the most niche corner of the internet. With categories and sub-categories of radical musical afterthought, Roche is single-handedly bringing up a next generation of contemporary explorers.
Roche’s encyclopaedia of knowledge is tried and tested. It is proof of a long history of personal dabbling, and of her immense versatility as a performer. Her adaptability is perhaps best heard on composer Christopher Fox’s recent release Headlong. A collection of extreme aesthetic deviations, Fox’s new pieces double up as exercises in quick-footed shapeshifting for the performer; they contain shards of melody, swung jazz, electronic supplements, overdubs, radical octave leaps and microtonal experiments. Amazingly, Roche is the CD’s sole performer, showcasing an understanding of her instrument that’s beyond lateral.
Roche’s repertoire for clarinet and electronics is staggering, a dropdown list of curiosities that includes the complex work of Enno Poppe, the sparse delicacy of Salvatore Sciarrino and the conceptual composition of Rebecca Saunders. The topic sentence of her PhD was ‘performer-composer relationships’, proving a commitment to delivering trustworthy interpretations of her counterpart’s material. Implicit in her practice is that the dialogue that goes into finessing a composition is its own extended technique. A recent musical friendship developed with electro-acoustic composer Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay, who wrote a piece for Roche’s upcoming hcmf// performance with accordionist Eva Zöllner. ‘There was a lot of back-and-forth between him and Eva, and he really seemed to get her instrument by the end. As a result of our dialogue, I think this piece is more or less a masterclass in how to write for clarinet and accordion’.
Roche’s duo with accordionist Eva Zöllner is a prime example not only of the musical possibilities, but also the unexpected freedom, that comes from working with another player. An active partnership since 2016, their collaboration is a canny solution to knowing the unknowable – simply by sharing the stage, they make discoveries. They met when Roche was living in Cologne; temporary compatriots, they first performed together for Kölner Philharmonie’s Tripclubbing, a series of events hosting contemporary music under the neon glow of a modern club setting. ‘We discovered that we really loved being on stage together’, she notes, providing a simple answer to the lofty questions of how and why collaborations come about.
The duo instantly recognised a shared love of experiment and opportunity; the realisation was a resounding source of comfort, and even encouragement, for their work, bringing about radical performances they’d perhaps never have otherwise landed on. ‘There’s a great sense of trust and playfulness in our combined music-making, which makes it easier to take risks when trying new things on our instruments’. Tackling pieces like William Kuo’s Tubular Living, for makeshift ‘auxiliary’ instruments, is a lot easier when you have someone to take a leap of faith with.
Collaboration is not just a tool for Roche, but also an example of music’s potential to be more communal – a truly open source artform. Alongside her blog, Roche has been constructing her own ‘Wikipedia edit-athon’, championing women composers and addressing the issue of underrepresentation. Whether through online presence or at the concert hall, Roche is trying her best to do as much for the person as the piece – to bring artists up with the art.
See Heather Roche + Eva Zöllner perform at hcmf// 2018 on Monday 19 November, 10.30pm at Bates Mill Photographic Studio. Roche will also appear with Mimitabu in their concert on Friday 23 November, 12:00pm at Phipps Hall.