Monday, April 15, 2013

Worst Sounding Clarinet Playing Ever

Long ago, SO long ago that I don't remember when or where it happened, someone told me that the most important thing about getting my music or performances reviewed was not whether the comments were good or bad, but whether my name was spelled correctly.

For twenty years I was a freelance clarinetist around Los Angeles, mostly playing chamber music and creative music gigs (meaning my own recitals and improvisations.)  Contractors in Los Angeles all seemed to agree that I was not the sort of player they wanted in their orchestras or studio sessions.  Their logic was sound.  I was more interested in the creative aspects of my instrument than in the re-creative.  The reviews I did get were usually positive and my name was always spelled properly.

The highpoint of my career as a clarinetist, as many readers of Mixed Meters will know, was playing Frank Zappa's Mo 'n Herb's Vacation with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Early in the 1990s it dawned on me that I wasn't getting much pleasure from the keyed beast any longer and it certainly wasn't contributing to my income.  I decided to give up playing the clarinet.  I've never regretted the decision.

The last time I played the clarinet in public was nineteen years ago today - April 15, 1994. when Xtet, the flexible chamber ensemble which I helped found, performed a South Bay Chamber Music Society concert at Harbor College.  The last piece on the program, hence the last piece I ever performed, was Aaron Copland's Sextet.  (Full program is here, scroll down.)

In spite of nearly two decades of being a "former" clarinetist, it's not uncommon for me to meet people who think I still play.  It's happened twice this month already.  Last fall a well-known musician of my acquaintance reminded me of a concert he had conducted in the early 80s for which I was NOT hired to play the bass clarinet although I apparently had been requested.  He told me that the performance back then would have been better had I been performing.  I scratched my head wondering why anyone would remember a detail like that after half a lifetime.

Anyway, this post is really about Mo 'n Herb's Vacation.  It's not Frank's greatest piece of music by far.  It isn't really a clarinet concerto and has never been advertised as one.  It simply has several sections of blindingly difficult music for the first clarinetist.  And there is also blindingly difficult music for the other three clarinetists - just not quite so much.   Frank was never terribly happy with the LSO recordings and he spent lots of time trying to fix them.  I doubt he improved them much.

Here's a recording which someone posted to YouTube, not of a performance but of a test recording done in Frank's studio before the London concert and recordings.  All four clarinets are me.  The bassoons are performed by John Steinmetz and Chad Wackerman is the drummer.

It was my impression that I was the only clarinetist who had ever performed this music.  But yesterday I learned that there had been another performance in 2005 in Venice Italy.  I'm anxious to hear that recording.

As I perused the web for information about this other Mo 'n Herb, I came across a 2007 discussion of the piece on Sherman Friedland's Clarinet Corner blog.  I had never heard of Sherman Friedland.  Apparently he was a clarinetist and pedagogue and professor at Concordia College in Canada, now retired to a life of blogging.

Sherman starts by saying some negative things about Frank and his music.  But at the end of the post he gets around to me.  Wow!
Of the work for solo clarinet and orchestra, called “MOE [sic] n Herbs Vacation” and played by David Ocker, solo clarinet, I can only say that is is the worst sounding clarinet playing I have ever witnessed, not being able to say “heard”.
So, to the young person who wrote and asked me what I think, I can only reply “very sadly”.
I wonder what an English teacher would think of Sherman's syntax.  How does one "witness" a piece of music without hearing it?  Fuzzy grammar or not, it's clear what he thinks.

This guy has a lifetime of clarinet experience.  For him to say that my playing is "the worst sounding clarinet playing" he ever heard is certainly intended as a major put down.  Since I played Frank's music accurately, we can assume that Sherman's complaints are about something else, my tone or my style or my enthusiasm or about some other subjective issue of how he thinks the clarinet is supposed to sound.

On that level I can take some pride in Sherm's defamation.  At a certain point in my clarinet studies I made the conscious decision that I would not imitate conventional clarinet playing, meaning the standard, omnipresent, wimpy, unadventurous, never-use-vibrato playing style produced by so many classical clarinetists.  Colleges and clarinet teachers, such as Sherman, must still be turning those clones out in exceedingly large numbers.  All of them hoping, no doubt, to score an orchestra job.  Any of them interchangeable with the others.  None of them the slightest bit distinguishable by their sound.

I listened to samples of Sherman's own playing on the web.  He seems to fit the mold himself.  I also found a short New York Times review of his recital at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1986.
Mr. Friedland is a competent player and seemed sincerely in love with his material. Still, one could have wished for a sharper technical edge in the Bernstein and the fulsome tone that might have invested Berg and Reger with more vivid colors.
Sherman would have gotten more notoriety from his performance if the reviewer had said "this is the worst clarinet playing I've ever heard".  People remember when something is described as the "worst ever".  "Competent"?  Could that be another word for tepid?

When I played I tried to make the clarinet something more than mono-timbral, to play with a variety of tone colors and styles and attitudes, the very thing, the fulsome tone, which the New York Times found lacking in Sherman's recital.  I wasn't always successful in my goal of aural variety but always I gave it my best shot.  Sherman, apparently, doesn't think along those lines and disparages those who do.

Sherman's comment makes me wonder if he often blogs his mouth off without thinking, like some sort of online jerk.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  More likely he's just someone with an exceptionally well-defined unchangeable set of musical assumptions which he has trouble stretching to account for the myriad varieties of other music in this world.

All in all, I would rather not have had my playing, even a 30-year old performance, called "the worst sounding clarinet playing I have ever witnessed" by anyone.  But, considering the ivory tower source of the remark, I'm happy to wear this comment proudly.

Plus, I do thank him for spelling my name right.

Here's a picture of Sherman Friedland in March 1965, part of a group performing György Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, when he was a member of Lukas Foss's Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo.   I found this in the book by Renee Levine Parker, This Life of Sounds. Evenings for New Music in Buffalo. (available as a pdf)

Other reading: Two Marks of Good Music Criticism  - a 2007 Mixed Meters article about music critics, including a full review of my New Music America recital by Mark Swed.  Here's a quote:
Ocker, as both a performer and composer, brings to music the kind of personal quality that most professional musicians have had trained out of them.
A number of my historical clarinet performances are available for listening here.

Here's a photo taken in Zappa's studio the same day the overdub recordings were made - plus discussion about whether it's a real photo or not.  (It is.)  I'm the one with both beard and clarinet, on the right.

In the Clarinet Corner blog posting, the "young person who wrote and asked me what I think" named Martin, is this person.

If you click the Xtet flyer picture, it should enlarge enough for you to read the press quotes which the ensemble received.  Xpect Xpuns.

Yeah, I'm living in the past. I can think of worse places to be.

ADDENDUM: I thank everyone for their comments.  More discussion of this topic happened on Facebook.

Worst Ever Tags: . . . . . .


David Ocker said...

My response to a clarinet professor who called my performance of Frank Zappa's Mo 'n Herb's Vacation " the worst sounding clarinet playing I have ever witnessed, not being able to say 'heard'."

Christian Biegai said...

Thanks for this great article!

I haven't played my horns for over two years now, due to an accident.It's inspiring to read about your experience.

Greeting from Berlin!


Anonymous said...

I think that Mo & Herb's Vacation is the best Zappa composition and the LSO Vol 1 vinyl version as he mixed it originally was just magnificent. And I have no expertise or context to judge your clarinet playing nor would I wish to but it just sounds wonderful on the album. All the best! Tim Tam Tomato

Scott said...

I'm proud to say that no critic ever referred to my playing as 'competent', perhaps because none felt I rose to that level. Although I am firmly convinced I often have been the worst sounding guitarist many have heard, that opinion hasn't made it to print yet. All I aspire to when that review does come in is that they spell my name correctly.


Anonymous said...

What an honor to play for/with Frank Zappa. Something tells me Sherman Friedland would not have been chosen to perform that piece. Cool story.

Martin said...

Hey David,

Thanks for mentioning me as the "young person" who asked Friedland about Mo 'n Herb's (even though I'm not so young anymore).

I did mention the 2005 Venice performance in an email I wrote you several years ago, and even offered to send you the recording. After reading your post I'm not sure if you ever got that email (I think you found out later that my messages had been going to your spam box). Anyway, I still have the recording if you want it.


Martin said...

Oh, and by the way, excellent read as usual! I wish I had sent you that link back in 2007 when it was posted. Woulda been a hot reply.

mike said...

Howdy! I've dabbled with the clarinet since 1956, usually in New Orleans or other folk styles. (I double on too many instruments, but in my old age I'm concentrating on the Albert now I have a day gig with benefits.) I've never liked the tone used in classical styles; I've met other classical musicains who have the same problem. I see now in print that you and I are not alone! I will keep the day job, though--I've got a family and a mortgage....