Ian Clarke: The Great Train Race


Ian Clarke is known as being a leading figure in the flute world. A composer and performer, Clarke has performed and has had his works performed across the world. His wide-range of published works have established themselves into the core repertoire of flute players, from recital pieces to graded exam works. His works are often quirky, boundary-pushing and dynamic, making his music some of the most exciting in contemporary flute repertoire today.

Clarke trained at the Guildhall School of Music in London with Simon Hunt, Averil Williams and Kate Lukas. He concurrently studied Mathematics at Imperial College, London as he studied music part-time. Clarke is a professor of flute at Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. 

The Music

Composed c.2000, Clarke’s solo flute piece The Great Train Race has been listed on the Trinity and Guildhall Grade 8 syllabus since 2000. It has also now been listed on the Carnegie Hall/Royal Conservatory syllabus. The Great Train Race has also had numerous international performances in venues such as the Barbican and Birmingham Symphony Hall.

As the title suggests, The Great Train Race is a musical depiction of a train. This unique showpiece is subtitled as “The Flute As You Don’t Usually Hear It!” and this is due to the extensive amount of extended techniques employed by Clarke. As part of the write up for this piece Clarke mentions the various techniques which include: residual/breathy fast tonguing, multiphonics, singing & playing, lip bending, explosive harmonics and an optional circular breathing section.

Opening with a quiet chugging from fast tonguing, the piece is atmospheric and instantly recognisable as a train bolstering along a track. This leads into a fast passage full of of fast triple tonguing and flutter tonguing, which creates an unusual texture. The breathy tonguing gives a sense of wind passing by the train. The passage is then repeated with a less breathy tone. 

A cascade of falling scales are then played which leads to a simple ‘oom-pah’ motif. This linking section acts as the calm before the storm as the train seems to be coming to a peaceful stop. This is all changed when the tempo is then picked back up through this always-ascending figure. The dramatic semitone ascension makes for a really accurate portrayal of a train starting to move again. 

The tempo keeps moving until an array of fast tonguing passages brings this section to a close. A train whistle is then heard, which the performer would make by putting their finger in and out of the end of their flute. This comical twist adds a welcome juvenile atmosphere after the previous intense section. 

After the whistle blows twice the flute comes to a complete halt until a burst of breathy fast tonguing which is exhilarating for both the listener and the player! A high trill is heard for some time until the fast bombastic passage returns. The constant change in tempo keeps you on your toes as you’re never quite sure where the music is going! The flute comes to a close with another train whistle at the end of this intense train journey.

Final Thoughts

Clarke’s use of extended techniques in The Great Train Race adds to the excitement of the piece. From start to finish the work is full of twists and turns as we follow this train on its race to its destination. Through various techniques and melodic passages Clarke has been able to perfectly depict what many of us think of when we think of train sounds, which is certainly no feat to create. A wholly exhilarating work that is bursting with colour, imagery and virtuosic passages to whet the appetite for a long time after hearing.

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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