On 22 November, SOLO is heading back to the historic surroundings of Handel & Hendrix in London for an intimate gig with clarinettist Jack McNeill. Ahead of the show, we caught up with him to chat about how he came to play the new music, collaboration, and the tracks he’s currently obsessed with.
First up, could you tell us a bit about how you came to play the clarinet and what was it that drew you to it?
Like a lot of people, I came to the clarinet because it was on offer at school, I had a close friend who let me try theirs out first and I guess I must have liked making a racket! The Cumbria Youth Orchestra and local bands in Carlisle were booming, so there were plenty of opportunities to play and I had a teacher whose background was playing in jazz bands so that was where I started.
I stuck with it because of how versatile it can be. I started out playing loads of classical music and have been lucky enough to work across disciplines with dancers, fine artists and actors. I think that’s why I’m now hooked on trying to approach everything and anything as charged sound, with this noise machine in my hands – it just happens to look like a clarinet.
A lot of your work focusses on contemporary repertoire and new works. What is it about new music that excites you and what do you look for in a piece when seeking out new music to perform?
I think we have a responsibility to be interested in what’s being written now. New music says a lot about us as a society – I’m excited by the blurring of lines and sharing of influences, music can be complicit, tacit or tacet to our emotions. It can ask a question or shed light on what we don’t have the words for, it takes the form we need it to at a given moment, and – while I can – I want to be part of that and experience as many voices as close up as possible. A new piece needs to hold you, to have a kernel that carries all this, a performance is often key to how successful that can be.
You’ve premiered pieces by a number of composers including Karin Rehnqvist, Michael Wolters and Howard Skempton – all of whom feature in your setlist for SOLO 06. What excites you about working directly with composers and what advice would you give to other instrumentalists looking to collaborate in this way?
Working with composers is rarely what I think it will be like. It’s a gift if someone is happy for you to communicate their ideas, it’s also risky to put too much pressure on that – yours is still just one way of doing it that the writer feels speaks something of what they meant. If they write for you in particular, this is different again because there’s an invitation to go with your gut – I enjoy that most. My advice would be to play who you know, or get to know who you want to play.
As well as performing, you’re also composing music in close collaboration with your ensemble, Propellor. How do you find working as both composer and performer in these situations and how do the two roles complement each other?
It’s about trust, and humility I think. I love the way everyone in the ensemble plays for a start, and writing for Propellor is about giving those individual voices space to do what they do best at the same time as being responsible for taking it somewhere meaningful. Everyone in Propellor has a different way in to the music, scores can look pretty different depending on what that player wants or needs to work with.
I based all my writing for Loom on how I enjoy working though, and always try to play at the edge of the sounds in rehearsal. Feeling free enough on the instrument to adapt and create in situ rather than being too precious about what I’ve written is important to the process, and everyone in the band responds in their own unique way to that, sometimes totally blowing my mind and starting that cycle of baffled re-imagining off again.
Finally, which tracks are you listening to at the moment and what’s got you hooked on them?
The Heights Of The Reeds is a collaboration between Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Jan Bang and Jez riley French, written for a walk across the Humber Bridge during Hull’s tenure as the UK City of Culture. I met up with Jez who recorded the bowels of the Humber Bridge for this while I was making some field recordings for Loom and he played me some of the work in progress – so I guess I maybe had an imaginary version of this album in my mind for about a year and a half before I actually heard it! It’s stunning. Is There a Limit for the Internal? would be up there but it’s hard to take this album apart.
All Soundings Are True by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Garth Knox is an album I turn to a lot when I’m by myself. String players are a huge influence on the way I try to make sound as a wind player. I came to Caoimhín’s music through his beautiful Where the One-Eyed Man is King and love his band This Is How We Fly. Garth played a solo gig in Birmingham when I was a student and it blew me away – this album is a very wonderful happening. If I had to choose, I think the track Fluctus would be a fave.
Dawn Chorus by Hidden Orchestra (Joe Acheson) is a great companion. The track Western Isles takes me back to an otherworldly Isle of Skye this summer escaping with my soul mate to that coastline we’ve made a habit of returning to.
Join Jack for music from David Lang, Karin Rehnqvist, Karlheinz Stockhausen & more in Handel’s Music Room on Thursday 22 November – more information & tickets are available at thisissolo.co.uk