The secret of the clarinet sound

What makes the early instruments of New Orleans jazz so distinctive

Every clarinet sounds different. © Furtseff / thinkstock
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Unmistakable sound: Sad, mournful tones are the hallmark of early clarinets that decisively shaped New Orleans jazz at the beginning of the 20th century. Their unique sound can hardly be compared with more modern instruments - and this is mainly due to their construction, as a musician now reports. However, with the right technique, even the newer clarinets can elicit the sounds of old jazz.

The clarinet is one of the typical woodwind instruments. It consists of a cylindrical tube with holes and flaps, which consists of four separate parts, and a mouthpiece with reed. Music can be elicited from the instrument by skillful bubbles. Depending on which flaps the musician presses down, different tones are created.

"The sound of the clarinet depends on many factors - for example, its size, the type of hole drilling, the shape of the mouthpiece, or the player's blower method, " says Michael White of Xavier University, New Orleans. That's why no instrument sounds like the other one.

The sound of old times

The musician was particularly impressed by the early clarinets of the jazz of his homeland: its beautiful, mournful sound is typical of brass bands or the so-called jazz funerals - a musical burial rite originally created in New Orleans. But what makes these old instruments so distinctive?

To find out, White has analyzed the sound of clarinets more closely. According to him, it is above all the design that makes the difference: "Today, modern clarinets are usually built according to the Böhm system, which is technically easier to handle, " he says. The early instruments of New Orleans jazz, on the other hand, were so-called Albert clarinets. They differ from their more recent followers with a slightly different shaped tube and mouthpiece. Moreover, they have no flaps over many sound holes. display

"Singing" clarinets

This makes them more flexible in certain things: For example, by only partially covering the holes tones can change nuances and play glissandi or so-called Blue Notes. It is easier to produce a "singing sound" with these instruments, notes White. As before, Albert clarinets are therefore popular with jazz musicians and continue to be produced. The American film director and musician Woody Allen also plays an Albert clarinet.

But is it possible, with a bit of practice, to elicit an Albert-like sound from a B hm clarinet? "I've been experimenting with it for a long time, trying to make my BOHM sound more like an Albert, " says White. For this he tries out new equipment and attachments and tweaks to the playing technique: "For example, I have found that the position of the tongue has a decisive influence on the airflow and thus the sound."

In the future, the musician wants to gather his results in a textbook and inspire other musicians: "In order for the clarinets to sound more diverse in the future than the rather narrow spectrum that you hear these days, " he concludes. (Acoustical Society of America, 174th Meeting 2017; Abstract: 3aMU1)

(Acoustical Society of America, December 28, 2017 - DAL)