Thirteen Strings: Jeff Reilly is passionate about building music for the bass clarinet

Jeff Reilly is a missionary for the bass clarinet. Photo: Geoffrey Creighton

Jeff Reilly seems to live a pretty ideal life for a musician.

Not only is he in demand as a bass clarinet player, he’s also the senior music producer for the CBC in Atlantic Canada.

“I’m responsible for all CBC music recordings coming out of the Atlantic provinces,” he says. And when he’s not recording other people playing music Reilly is performing himself.

He’ll be playing in Ottawa with Thirteen Strings on June 16 in a concert that features works by Mozart and Mendelssohn and four contemporary Canadian composers including Ottawa’s Andrew Ager, Patrick Armstrong, Peter-Anthony Togni and Christos Hatzis. The works by the latter two composers were commissioned by Reilly, proving he’s much more than a pretty face.

But the bass clarinet? Therein lies a tale.

“When I was young,” he said over the phone from Halifax, “I took piano lessons as long as I could remember. But I wanted to play a wind instrument. I didn’t feel like I could sing but somehow I wanted to play something that gave me an immediate connection to something akin to the human voice.

“I wanted to play French horn because I loved the sound. But before we picked the instrument my mother took me to a guy who analyzed the body” and picked an instrument based on physical makeup. This was in Waterloo, Ontario.

“He was a band director and he was good at his job. He said I shouldn’t play French horn because I didn’t have embouchure for it. He said play clarinet, we need clarinets. I didn’t really take to it,” Reilly said. “I liked it but it didn’t quite fit.”

Despite his ambivalence to the clarinet, Reilly stuck with it. He studied in high school and went to the University of Toronto where he worked on a music degree. But between his first and second year, he took a break.

“I played in a bunch of bands. I got involved in jazz and I lived hand to mouth in Toronto.

“While I was there I wanted to play jazz and get good at improvising.” He worked with a well-known saxophonist named Steve Lederer.

“He turned me on to Eric Dolphy who played bass clarinet with John Coltrane (and had his own ensemble). I didn’t know it was possible to do those kinds of things. At same time, other musicians turned me on to Paul McCandless who played reed instruments including bass clarinet with Paul Winter and the band Oregon.”

Reilly went to Boulder, Colorado and studied with McCandless in the 1970s. He showed “me all these things he could do on the bass clarinet.”

As he studied and played Reilly realized that the bass clarinet was not just a big clarinet.

“You can approach it as its own instrument. The fingerings my be the same as a clarinet but it has extra keys and it can go lower but it can also go very high. The length of the tube allows you to get extended techniques, harmonics and overtones. It has this capacity to go from very sweet classical music sounds to really expressionistic, Jackson-Pollack-throw-s**t-against-the-wall” music.

“It has allowed me to go in many directions.”

One of those directions was to Holland and another teacher. This time he took guidance for three to four years from Harry Sparnaay focussing on controlling extended techniques.

“They treat the bass clarinet as it deserves to be treated in Europe. They even have entire academies teaching the instrument.”

From Sparnaay he learned more technique. And Reilly caught a wave in interest in his instrument.

“Bass clarinet has only recently had this renaissance. Until about 30 years ago, they couldn’t make them properly. You couldn’t get them to play in tune because they didn’t seal properly.”

Computer technology has enabled manufacturers to get the accuracy needed for good playing, he says.

Reilly’s bass clarinet is made of ebony and silver plated nickel. There are versions made of resin that resonates like ebony. It is a more sustainable material as ebony is a rare wood. The bass clarinet has a lot of wood in it as it is about four feet tall.

Reilly loves moving between jazz and classical as do many contemporary musicians. “It’s heartening to see because it used to be so divided into separate camps. There are a lot of great classical musicians who are pretty good jazz players today. They are good improvisers.”

And there are a lot of modern “classical”pieces with improvisation. Both of the pieces he is playing with Thirteen Strings have improvisation in them.

One piece is Illuminations written by Peter-Anthony Togni who was born in Pembroke and lives in Halifax these days.

“He’s written three major works for me and working right now on a fourth. Illuminations is a free movement concerto for bass clarinet and string orchestra. I am playing the first movement of that. It is a stunning piece of music and very satisfying to play.”

Reilly has been busy commissioning music because he wants to build the repertoire for his instrument. He gathers up funds from the various arts councils to get the work written.

“I love to expand it.” Is he a missionary for the bass clarinet. Well … “maybe I’m not that altruistic. I want great music that I can play.”

The second piece Reilly will play in Ottawa is by Christos Hatzsis. It is a concerto called Extreme Unction.

“It’s all good for me, except this Hatzsis piece is hard. I’m doing it because I’m paying the orchestra to record it. They are paying me to be a soloist and I want a recording of the piece on a CD I’m releasing in the fall.

“This piece is the musical version of the final struggle against death. Hatzsis takes full advantage of the squawking, screeching intense side of the bass clarinet. The beginning is hard to listen to. It’s really hard, really high and really intense. It’s going to be a real challenge. Christos says: ‘It’s the most out there piece I written in my entire life’.”

Thirteen Strings

Soloist: Jeff Reilly (Bass clarinet)

When: June 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.