Hildegard von Bingen

Getting to Know Improbable Beasts

How can one not gravitate to the name of a band called Improbable Beasts?  Improbable Beasts is a Boston-based professional bass clarinet ensemble –15 members strong — dedicated to bringing the deeply expressive power of multiple bass clarinets before a broad audience. Their repertoire ranges from Renaissance choral music to brand-new compositions to klezmer tunes and holiday songs. Their mission is to share the deep resonances, soaring lyricism, and propulsive grooves of bass clarinet ensemble music with as many people as we can.

Improbable Beasts will be teaming up with another Boston-based group, Eudaimonia, to celebrate St. Cecilia’s Day on November 20 at the United Parish in Brookline, MA. Tunefoolery, an organization devoted to independent musicians and mental health recovery, is a partner for this special show. Ticket and information about donations can be found here.

Jonathan Russell, leader of this was kind enough to answer a few questions about Improbable Beasts. Jonathan is pictured above. Others in the band include: Amy Advocat, Hunter Bennett, Nicholas Brown, Celine Ferro, Chuck Furlong, Gary Gorczyca, Diane Heffner, Wolcott Humphrey, Bill Kirkley, Marguerite Levin, Kathy Matasy, Rane Moore, Annie Phillips, Julie Stuckenschneider, and Ryan Yuré.

What prompted you to assemble a bass clarinet group? What is it about the bass clarinet that makes it work?

I’ve played with two other bass clarinet-only groups over the years — the Sqwonk bass clarinet duo and the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet — and have long loved the sound of multiple bass clarinets playing together. In 2012, I had the opportunity to write and play in a piece for NINE bass clarinets for a concert at that year’s annual ClarinetFest (which is basically like Comicon for clarinetists). I loved writing this piece, and it whet my appetite for the possibilities of writing more for a large bass clarinet ensemble.  When I moved to Cambridge in 2019, I decided it was time to finally try to make my dream of a large bass clarinet ensemble a reality, and that’s how Improbable Beasts was born. The bass clarinet has a huge range — 4.5 octaves — and also a huge range of colors and sounds that it can produce. It’s extremely versatile. This makes it very effective as an ensemble instrument, because we can create a lot of different colors and moods, while also being able to blend together in big organ-like resonances.

As someone like myself who is not well versed in the world of classical music, can you give me a brief history of the bass clarinet? Did the instrument evolve from the basic clarinet when composers felt the need for a deeper, richer sound?

The bass clarinet did evolve from the clarinet and first became common in opera orchestras in the mid-19th century as a way of basically extending the clarinet sound an octave lower. It had been around for some time before that in various different designs and configurations, but it wasn’t until Adolphe Sax (the inventor of the saxophone) redesigned it in the mid-19th-century that it really became feasible as an orchestral instrument. It became increasingly common in symphony orchestras in the late 19th / early 20th century in works by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, etc., and its design has continued to improve up to the present day.

How far back do original compositions for bass clarinet ensembles go?

As far as I’m aware, the first significant body of work for bass clarinet ensembles was Cornelius Boots’ compositions for the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet, starting in the 1990s. There may have been some one-off compositions for multiple bass clarinets prior to that, but no regular group creating original material. So, it’s a quite recent phenomenon!

Is the bass clarinet used in contemporary music very often? Do most orchestras highlight or feature them?

The bass clarinet has become increasingly popular with contemporary composers and is used quite frequently nowadays in solo and chamber music composition. Orchestras started commonly including bass clarinet in the late 19th century. I wouldn’t say it is commonly highlighted or featured in orchestral music, but there are occasional important solos starting as early as the operas of Wagner.

In reading your bio, I love the fact that you have done a great deal of research on your passion for the bass clarinet and that you seek out interesting collaborative experiences such as the one you will be participating in with Eudaimonia.  Have you ever worked with Eudaimonia before? If so, what did you work on?

I have not worked with Eudaimonia before. The collaboration came about via clarinetist Diane Heffner, who plays in both groups. She played in our Beasts concert last March, which included two arrangements I had made of works by Purcell (his 8-part choral work “Hear My Prayer, O Lord” and “Dido’s Lament”), and this got her thinking about a possible collaboration with Eudaimonia, a group that plays some similar repertoire but in a very different way. She floated the possibility and put me in touch with Vivian [Vivian Montgomery is the leader of Eudaimonia.]. Vivian and I talked and quickly concluded that it would be a really interesting and unique opportunity for both groups to collaborate.

Here is a video of Improbable Beasts performing “Dido’s Lament” in March 2022.

What can audience members expect to hear from Improbable Beasts at the show on November 20 at United Parish in Brookline?

We’ll be playing some of the “early music” that is already in our repertoire, including arrangements of works by Purcell and a Gregorian Chant by Hildegard von Bingen. We’ll also be joining forces with Eudaimonia in new arrangements of other baroque works. And finally, we’ll be playing one of our “new” pieces that has some elements of a baroque feel to it, “Prometheus” by American composer Marc Mellits.