The Garden of Forking Paths: material-indeterminacy driving open-form composition for clarinets



Partners and collaborators

Royal Northern College of Music


This project asks how can I compose music where the instrument leads the player, ultimately allowing the instrument to define how the music unfolds in performance.

This project focusses on the clarinet, an inherently unstable instrument which, through years of training, a player learns to control to play traditional ‘musical’ sounds. When we examine what sounds the clarinet ‘wants’ to make, we find a bewildering array of noise-sounds and multiphonic timbres; where instead of one note, there are multiple simultaneously competing notes, all interfering to create a complex and ambiguous soundworld in delicate balance. These kinds of sounds in themselves are now ubiquitous in new-music and experimental music, with composers using them in different ways across a continuum from uncritical "sound effects" through to a careful and nuanced manipulation of the sounds. However, for all this common use of unstable and non-standard sounds, the dominant paradigm is that of control, wherein the composer defines a sound and the performer strives to produce it accurately every time. My project takes the other path to ask what compositional possibilities are opened-up if we replace control with ‘support’? If rather than defining specific sounds, the composer's role is to create a system where the player is always responding to the preferences of the instrument, allowing it lead her through the labyrinth of its sonic complexities.

Through working closely with specialist clarinettists, an acoustician, and graphic designer I will compose multiple pieces for one and two clarinets that outline a variety of strategies and notations. All of which is documented rigorously and continuously online to maximise public engagement. Project partners the Royal Northern College of Music will run a shadow-project with their student composers and performers; taking my research as it happens and forking their own paths from it.


Academic beneficiaries crossover significantly with professional stakeholders since many composers/performers working in this area are also academics or have significant relationships with universities.

As a consequence, the main impacts can be directed towards universities to catch both academic beneficiaries and other stakeholders.

For example, the project's US tour in 2020/21 is primarily to universities, but since they are the centres of new music in their areas, we can impact the whole extended community. Other impact activites include Study Days at Royal Northern College of Music for clarinettists and composers, a workshop at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music (Germany), and other UK performances.

Publications and outputs

The project website will host the ongoing writings, video/recordings, and any open-access articles.

Project website