Culture Magazine

Interview with Composer and Bass Clarinetist Extraordinaire, Jonathan Russell!

By Clarineticus @Clarineticus
Interview with composer and bass clarinetist extraordinaire, Jonathan Russell! Jonathan Russell is a composer, clarinetist, conductor, and educator who is active in a wide variety of music, from classical to experimental to klezmer to church music. His work stretches the boundaries of contemporary classical music, opening it up to the sounds and attitudes of the other musical traditions surrounding it. Especially known for his innovative bass clarinet and clarinet ensemble compositions, his works for bass clarinet duo, bass clarinet quartet, bass clarinet soloists, and clarinet ensembles have been performed around the world and are radically expanding the technical and stylistic possibilities of these genres. More at
KM: Jon, I met you through cyber-space a couple years ago when I was buying some of your bass clarinet compositions online… and then most recently at our common friend Bill’s house when you gave a performance as half of the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk. Mentioned in your bio are clarinet-related things you do– but give us an idea of the sorts of things you’re working on and what groups you work with:
JR:  I am a member of two bass clarinet chamber ensembles: the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet, and the Sqwonk bass clarinet duo (more about them below). I also play freelance klezmer and classical clarinet. As a composer, I am currently working on writing a sonata for bass clarinet and piano, and making a wind ensemble arrangement of my Bass Clarinet Double Concerto, as well as other non-clarinet-related projects. I also co-direct an annual new music marathon concert in San Francisco called the Switchboard Music Festival, and am currently a PhD student in Composition at Princeton University.
KM: Though I now know more about you, when I first heard your name it was because I heard Sqwonk. What was the inspiration behind forming this duo? Did you ever think you would be doing something like this when you first started studying clarinet?
JR: My Sqwonk partner, Jeff Anderle, was a Masters student at San Francisco Conservatory while I was teaching Music Theory there. I was walking down the hall one day and heard him practicing Evan Ziporyn’s solo bass clarinet piece Tsmindao Ghmerto and was quite impressed, so I introduced myself. We decided to do a bass clarinet recital together in May 2005, mostly solo pieces, but we also joined forces in a new duo composed by a friend of ours, and in a “phase” version of the Bach G Major Cello Suite Prelude (Jeff played the whole thing one 16th note behind me). We immediately clicked, both musically and personally. We enjoyed playing together so much that we started arranging other pieces, I wrote some music for us, and we started asking other people to write for us. We officially became “Sqwonk” in September 2005, and have been commissioning, performing, and recording new bass clarinet duo music together ever since.
I never expected I would be doing most of the musical stuff I’m doing now when I started playing clarinet. I was very steeped in classical music (my parents were both classical music lovers, and my mom is a professional pianist and conductor), and I didn’t know very much about music outside of that world. I never imagined I would end up spending so much of my time playing klezmer music, heavy metal bass clarinet quartets, or newly commissioned bass clarinet duets.
Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle with the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestraperforming Jon's Double Bass Clarinet Concerto
KM: How do you decide who will play which part in Sqwonk? Do you guys find that one person or the other is better at altissimo, or do you just split it up with no consideration?
JR:We usually just try a new piece with each of us on each part, and it almost always feels better to both of us in one of the combinations. So there’s no system to it, and I think it ends up being fairly evenly split between who plays first and who plays second.
KM: You often play very high, very low, and circular breathe. How did you train yourself to do these things? Did you have a teacher that helped you, a book that you studied, or did you just horse around until you figured it out for yourself?
JR:Pretty much all horsing around. I’ve learned a lot from comparing notes with my colleagues in Sqwonk and Edmund Welles, but it’s mostly a lot of experimentation and trial and error, especially with the altissimo register. It’s a great instrument for horsing around!
KM: You also perform with the Edmund Wells bass clarinet quartet. How did you become involved with that, and how would you describe the experience of playing in a bass clarinet quartet?
JR:I heard about Edmund Welles from a friend when I was living in San Francisco and went to see them play. I was blown away and I remember thinking very clearly to myself how much I would love to get to be in that group, but how unlikely it was that it would ever happen. I introduced myself to Cornelius after the show, and maybe six months later he called me up to ask if I could sub in for a gig. I subbed a few more times, and then one of their regular players left the group and I was in! Playing in a bass clarinet quartet is incredibly awesome. Especially with the repertoire we do, there is a power, depth, and resonance to the sound which is unbelievable, and unlike anything I’ve experienced in any other ensemble. You literally feel your whole body resonating with the other instruments, it’s a very intense experience.
KM: Where do you get the music for four bass clarinets, (and two bass clarinets)?
JR:The Edmund Welles music is pretty much all arrangements or originals by bandleader Cornelius Boots, though we occasionally do music by other composers. The Sqwonk repertoire includes a few arrangements we’ve made (most notably Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), some of my own compositions, and lots of other pieces we’ve commissioned from numerous other composers. Everything we play is pieces that we have either arranged, composed, or commissioned.
KM: Nerd-alert – What kind of set up do you use, and where do you get those fancy pegs you use to stand while you perform with Sqwonk?
JR:I’m not much of a gearhead at all, so I don’t even know the specs on all my stuff. My instrument is a low C Buffet Prestige (bought in 2000). My mouthpiece is a Clark Fobes, but I don’t know what the specs are (I just know I like it!). I have a BG ligature and I use Vandoren V12 strength 3 reeds. Jeff invented the pegs we use, and he sells them at his website (
KM: Your website shows a long list of compositions (*a ton of great stuff for clarinetists!*). How long have you been composing, and do you find yourself torn between playing clarinet and writing music?
JR:I started composing when I was 14, so that’s  (gulp) 18 years now. It is indeed difficult to keep both the composing and the performing at the level I would like. One solution is that I frequently find ways to combine them, writing pieces for myself and for my groups. It’s a constant balancing act. But I definitely believe that I am a better composer for being an active performer and vice versa, so in the end it doesn’t really feel like a trade-off, more like both activities are mutually enhancing.
KM: What sorts of things inspire you to compose? Are you someone that works to a deadline, or someone who is always working on something? Do you find it easier to write for clarinet than you do for other instruments?
JR:It probably sounds unromantic, but my inspiration is usually pretty concrete: a rhythmic groove, a melody, a chord progression, some sort of sonic material that grabs my imagination. And I’m very practical and routine-based in my approach to composing; I don’t sit and wait for inspiration to hit, but instead get to work at pretty much the same time every day and just plug away. I read a book maybe five or six years ago by the choreographer Twyla Tharp called The Creative Habit, which was all about the importance of routine and ritual in creative work. Creativity, it argues, is not a bolt from the sky but the accumulative effect of steady work habits. That really clicked for me, and I have worked hard since to incorporate that approach into my life. I always have multiple pieces going, and also find deadlines to be extremely helpful. Writing for clarinet or bass clarinet is easier in many ways because I know exactly what’s possible and can imagine very precisely what it will sound like. There’s no guesswork, as there is with instruments you don’t play, no matter how many orchestration books you read or how well you think you understand them.
KM: You are still really young, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
JR:My goal in 10 years would be to have a steady stream of commissions from chamber groups, orchestras, and wind ensembles; to have my own ensemble that I play in and lead in my own compositions (I’m not sure about the make-up of it, but I imagine something woodwind- or bass-clarinet-centric); for Sqwonk to still be going strong; and to have written or be writing an opera. I might be teaching somewhere, or I might be living abroad almost anywhere – my wife’s field is International Development, and she followed me to Princeton for my PhD, so at some point it may be my turn to follow her where she wants to go!
KM: Does anyone ever call you J.R.? I once knew this guy called J.R. that was like 5 times as big as you and played the drum set. It might be a nice nickname if you transition to the wedding band business.
JR:I worked as a Residential Advisor at the Aspen Music Festival one summer, and my roommate there insisted on calling me J.R. I hated it. But that’s the only time I’ve been called that.
KM: What motivates you to be a musician? Do you feel that you are constantly living the life of a musician, or do have hobbies/activities outside of music?
JR: It was actually a difficult choice in some ways to become a musician because I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things. I considered majoring in History or History of Science in college, and I’m still very interested in both of those subjects, but I found that I just kept getting pulled back into music. And I was interested in so many different aspects of music – performing, composing, conducting, analysis – that I finally concluded that I would never get tired of exploring all the different areas that music has to offer. I’m happiest when I have my hands in a lot of different musical pies. I do feel like I am pretty much always living the life of a musician, but I also read a lot, like going hiking and bicycling, and really enjoy (and get surprisingly competitive) playing board games – Risk, Taboo, Scrabble, Bananagrams, etc.
KM: On a typical “work day,” how do you structure your time?
JR:I get up 7am-ish, have breakfast with my wife, and then compose until lunch. After lunch, depending on the day, I’ll go to class (I’m in the PhD composition program at Princeton), practice my instruments, and do e-mail and business until dinner time. Evenings I try to keep free for social activities, concerts, spending time with friends or my wife, etc. I am fortunate to have a very flexible schedule, but it means I have to work hard to structure my time well.
KM: If you could wake up and be any kind of musician in any genre, what would you be?
JR:I would be a percussionist in a Salsa band.
KM: What is your favorite note on the clarinet?
JR: I honestly don’t have one.
KM: What is most memorable musical moment?
JR:Wow, there are so many, I can’t even narrow it down to top ten!

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