The idea for a work for clarinet and bassoon came from a conversation in 2014 with Tahnee van Herk, principal bassoon of the TSO. I had just completed a little work for chamber orchestra called Tarraleah which was commissioned for the TSO by Hydro Tasmania. Tahnee asked if I would be interested in writing a piece for her to play with Andrew Seymour, principal clarinet in the orchestra, and I jumped at the opportunity. Gradually the idea for the piece evolved into a ‘double concerto’ which could be a companion piece for the Duett-Concertino for solo clarinet, bassoon and string orchestra by Richard Strauss. One of his final compositions and written in 1947, the Duett-Concertino is one of only about four works that I could discover for anything similar to the instrumentation, so it was exciting and a little intimidating to be writing for this rare combination. The Strauss work is a beautifully lyrical and amiable composition, flowing with melodies and reminiscent of the oboe concerto which I know and love. Both the clarinet and bassoon are capable of long smooth melodies as well as agile rhythmic playing. While searching for some musical inspiration to begin writing the work, I came across some early “slave songs” in a book that I had acquired on a visit to a plantation in New Orleans some years ago. Initially I wanted to combine several of the spiritual tunes in a type of rhythmic counterpoint, but the composition process took another direction and left only residual elements of the tunes: the syncopated rhythms and leaping melodic lines - hence the title Spirals, depicting the swooping and swirling nature of the melodies. In my view, the piece is not really long enough to be called a “concerto”, but it is exciting to think of it as a showpiece for the wonderful players for whom it is written. The form of the piece is a type of truncated sonata form - an opening fast section, a short developmental passage in which the opening ideas are developed, then giving way to a slow passage in triple meter that coalesces to a cadenza for the clarinet and bassoon, ending with some fast flourishing spirals. The work’s orchestration is deliberately light and somewhat soloistic in places, with single winds, horn, trumpet, percussion, harp and strings.
Spirals was commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for premiere performance on 25 June 2017, conducted by James Feddeck with soloists Andrew Seymour (clarinet) and Tahnee van Herk (bassoon).