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Monday, 4 May 2015

The Tectonics Premieres

Candleriggs. Ph: flickr, StressedTechie
    Ne’er cast a cloot ‘til May be oot.
(Don’t bother taking off your coat until June.)

Or so they say. Glasgow in early May is not the most likely of places for a ‘refreshing weekend break’. The emphasis should be on ‘refreshing’, maybe. And as if to add more insult to the injurious Glaswegian meterological ‘punch-in-the-face’, weirdly, arriving as I did for this year’s Tectonics festival in time for Adam Bohman and Karen Constance’s excellent set, I’d thought I’d travelled up the country when I could have easily stayed put. Adam, who of course always does the same thing, lives about a mile from where I do in Catford.

But Peter Brotzmann’s set that followed was sure enough consolation though—and like Balkan folk by way of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Brotzmann’s music has become so virtuosic in its reference to other musics it sounds as if it is referencing whole worlds simultaneously.

The festival offered some great musical experiences—especially the concerts of orchestral premieres played with great skill and dedication by the BBC Scottish Symphony and conducted by Ilan Volkov. Volkov and Alasdair Campbell have to be commended for putting together one of the most exciting and encouraging festivals of new music anywhere in Europe, by all reasonable estimations.

Over the weekend the orchestra presented a swathe of premieres, by Joanna Bailie, Paul Newland, Christopher Trapani, John Croft, Cassandra Miller, Peter Ablinger, Enno Poppe (a UK prem.), Christopher Fox/Rhodri Davies, as well as two extra pieces by Daniel Padden and Hild Sophie Tafjord. There was also some highly significant new chamber music from Eliane Radigue. Much, then, to write about. I came away thinking just how wide apart not just approaches but even simple musical thought was among these composers and artists.

I thought I would write brief accounts of most of these pieces (I didn’t see Daniel Padden’s piece).

Ilan Volkov conducts. Ph: BBC 
i. Orchestral pieces:

Joanna Bailie’s piece, To be beside the seaside, which opened the first orchestral concert on Saturday, seemed to me an extremely fine thing. Highly accomplished and sophisticated, it had a good dash of healthy irreverence. Split into three sections, the piece used starting points from Debussy, Beethoven and Strauss respectively. It occurred to me she had split her response to the ‘seaside’ location into three physical strands: water, sky and land. The first movement was a careful exploration of ‘sea harmony’, slowly transforming chords mostly sitting under an inverted pedal. Like other of Bailie’s pieces—notably Harmonising, for singers and field recordings[1]—one has the sense with her harmonic writing that these chords are ‘analysing’ the wider sonority of the world. Indeed careful spectral analysis of Debussy’s La Mer was what generated much of the harmony. But the movement combined the odd rigour of algorithmic expansion with a looseness born of attention to breathing and bodily swells, of ocean and human. The second movement too, located in the sky (with high string harmonics) concerned itself with the scherzo-like dancings of Beethoven 4. Birds and Doppler-shifting planes. At times silly, but buttoned-down somewhat. The final movement was I think an interpretation of Strauss’ Rosenkavalier waltzes, again stretched and bent by a process unseen. But here the orchestra is returned to the land—the schlocky, kitschy vistas of seafront pleasure, of dance-halls and Wurlitzer organs. The aromas of chip-fat and sweaty evenings one associates with, say, Scarborough or Eastbourne. The waltzes highlighted the kitschy core at the heart of the orchestra, it being (as Cassandra Miller had said earlier in the day) essentially an ‘nineteenth-century instrument’. Out of these dances came braying donkeys too—staple of the ‘land’ beside the seaside. This was a fine piece all told—in the end it was a good example of what Chris Petit has called ‘heavy entertainment’.

Paul Newland’s piece, Angus Macphee, was a portrait of the Scottish outsider artist, severely mentally damaged by his experiences in the Second World War. He became almost mute, only talking very occasionally, and began making exquisite weaved art objects out of grass. Newland’s piece was moving, but long, too long probably, and could have benefited from editing. Sections of it, where the orchestra plays in an unsynchronised way and sung too, were especially beautiful, and were reminiscent of the heterophonic congregational singing common in the Western Isles, called ‘snaking the voice’. But alongside this material came a surfeit of aphoristic, and thus rather tautological, chords in silence. A stroke one can only perform so many times, arguably. But an accomplished piece nonetheless.

Weaved objects by Angus Macphee. Ph:
Christopher Trapani’s piece Rust and Stardust somewhat passed me by. Adopting the kind of ‘colourism’ one might come to expect in recent orchestral music, it put predictable focus on percussion, along with gestural ‘rips’ and yelps from the trumpets. Of course many of these timbral things were very striking, but to my mind they aren’t really enough to sustain such a piece on their own. (Given the propensity of so many composers to write pieces like this, many would disagree, apparently.) While there were also interesting rhythmical aspects to the piece’s explorations—particularly in the latter sections, scraping and shuffling and scooching and sliding—the piece might have benefited from redrafting and stripping-down in some way. Occasionally there would be a glimpse of an idea that could have been really pushed, but hadn’t been.

John Croft’s piece too I felt accomplished but too ‘diverse’, prose-ish, to take a grapple-hold of me. Everything that happened, happened only the one time, and by the time you’d registered its happening, something else was going on. There is of course much music like this—music one is inclined to say ‘just hang on a sec’ to. And I’m sure it will benefit from repeated listening. Essentially, a kind of concerto grosso for the horn section (which put up a valiant job whilst being somewhat defeated by the difficulty of the material), the piece …che notturno canta insonne, as the title suggests is a kind of nocturne. Again, like Bailie’s piece, there was a (perhaps unintentional) sea topic at work here. One was reminded of the famous horn-and-cello section from La Mer. For Croft the horns are instruments redolent with microtonal possibility—they did much sliding from natural just harmonics, via hand stopping, to weird new chords. The sonority leaps right out of the orchestral mush, pulled as it were, like a sheet of paper out of a ream. The harmonic structure of the piece expands outward, loosely, from an opening sonority eventually to a wide overtone series. But the process is not especially ‘immediate’, though in some sense audible—as I say, perhaps repeated listens will reveal it more fully.

Peter Ablinger. Ph: Charlotte Oswald 
On the Sunday, the second concert began with a wonderful new work, QUARTZ, of Peter Ablinger’s. It was especially nice to be able to meet him too—shy, but jovial, and particularly careful about saying things. Even speaking to little me, in a second language, there was no sloppiness of expression of any idea. He doesn’t say ‘you know’ or ‘I guess’. I asked him: ‘So is there a kind of machine this time, with this piece?’ He paused and said: ‘Well yes, but then there is always a machine. Tonality is a machine. … But it’s not a single-button machine piece. I have to oil it and adjust it.’ Like others of his pieces, this piece is a kind of instrumental rendering of ready-to-hand sound. This time, it was the sound of a watch—a quartz watch—ticking, but as such mechanisms do, ticking ever so slightly irregularly. Each section of the piece applies a different ‘grid’ to the rendering, meaning Volkov had to conduct, sometimes furiously, at a very different tempo to the rough ‘quarter = 60’ aural result. As such it was extremely distracting watching the musicians—this is music to listen to, first and foremost. The piece made quite fiendish demands on the players who excelled themselves playing material that requires as much conceptual as physical dedication.

Enno Poppe’s piece Altbau, which followed, was a UK premiere, and was a Donaueschingen commission from 2008. A curious piece—completely lost on Jennie Gottschalk who was sitting with me—it seemed at times to playfully and rather gratuitously rip on a number of late-20th century orchestral classics. The opening movement nicked whole bits of Messiaen’s Chronochromie, and later was highly indebted to Bernd Alois Zimmermann in its jazzy eclecticism. The second movement began by nicking Ligeti’s stock middle-period opening harmonic movement, outward from a second, and kept on nicking bits of Clocks and Clouds. And again, Zimmermann seemed a strong influence, absurdist trombones to boot. I’m sure there were other things mixed in here that I missed. It was like being at a dinner party, with all these fellows invited, and Poppe stealing all their best jokes, safe in the knowledge that the old codgers are too past it to remember they came up with them in the first place.

Charles Curtis and Ilan Volkov perform Cassandra Miller. Ph: BBC 
            ii. Concertos

—— spoiler: I describe Cassandra Miller’s piece in some detail, and the unfamiliar reader may want to opt to wait to hear it, so as to be shocked by its shocks, surprised by its surprises ——

On the Sunday, we heard Christopher Fox’s new piece Topophony, written for the orchestra and improvising harp player Rhodri Davies. I was excited and curious to hear this piece, as I love both of these musicians deeply, they’re both extremely gifted. But aesthetically they seemed quite far apart—this, in any case, added to my curiosity. I hesitate to say too much about this piece—after all my opinions, such as they are, can only be subjectively my own—but I don’t think it worked. Fox had written a longish series of rather lush chords for the orchestra; from the sounds of it, most were under fermatas. Davies hadn’t really heard it until the day. Fox’s voice-leading is of course wonderful, but these chords, this style, were so alien to anything I’ve heard Davies do in the past, I was puzzled. It’s not as if including Davies is like including any kind of ‘ordinary’ harpist. Like other musicians from the improvising scene, the harp for Rhodri is a sound-making object; it is quite ‘unphilharmonic’. He isn’t interested, necessarily, in received ideas about how the harp is (to be) played. The electroacoustic improvisation scene around the world is still, for the most part, quite antiromantic. It’s suspicious of outward displays of affectation. For Fox, romanticism is framed by historical distance, historical irony too, and therefore essentially welcome; and in any case, his music is so diverse that almost any kind of expression can be included. Not so for Davies—and what we saw here was a musician, Rhodri, confronted with a kind of orchestral style which required a different sort of harp material than he could really bring himself to give over, honestly. He would listen intently, and add something to the texture—and then often decide against it shortly after having done so. Not that there was much ‘space’ for things to fall into. Fox clearly thought he was giving Davies space—by most accounts he was!—but space under a fermata was in the end no kind of space at all, not the right kind of space. What is required is silence, basically. Davies needed to be able to determine the texture, and the orchestra—Fox—needed to listen to him more. But after each thing Davies did, he would bail, give up, sometimes dejected, sometimes defeated, sometimes hopeful, sometimes baffled. He moved to the larger acoustic harp and spent an age preparing it with pegs (something he could easily have done beforehand), but spent a fraction of the time he spent preparing the strings actually playing them. At one point it felt as if he was going to give up the ghost, and go for broke, playing bisbigliando crescendo swells in the upper register. It was as if the rippling harp that the orchestral music so ‘desired’ was going to come out. But it didn’t come. In the end it was a kind of tragic piece—moving, though for the wrong reasons I dare say. 

Excerpt from Duet for Cello and Orchestra

The highlight of the festival for me (aside from Eliane Radigue’s music, see below) was Cassandra Miller’s Duet for Cello and Orchestra[2], a quite unbelievable piece. It’s difficult to describe this music without lapsing into hyperbole, but those who know her music will know just how fine it is becoming of late, and this is the best thing I’ve heard of hers.[3] It’s that good. Based on a very detailed transcription of an Italian folk song, Maria Carta’s Trallallera, it was a piece which had really only one idea—an idea that was pushed further and further until one felt it was impossible for it to be pushed any more, and then further still it went. The cellist Charles Curtis began by alternating slowly between tonic and dominant, at a kind of breathing pace, accompanied by a bass-drum rumble and a quietly portentous tubular-bell roll. And then this bright, violently Mediterranean song is called out by the ridiculously virtuousic trumpet section of the orchestra. One can hear the tiny inflections of the Carta refracted and quantised and re-rendered by Miller’s meticulous transcription, and each phrase ends with a long—sometimes very long—held note, followed by a rapid slide upward or downward, diminuendo. And back we go to tonic and dominant alternation.

This folksong-derived material was harmonised triadically for each section of the orchestra. It slowly expanded, in canon with itself, from trumpets, to cellos and violas, to winds, to violins, over the course of some ten minutes or more. After each phrase, and each held note, and each slide, we returned to the tonic and dominant material, often for quite a long time. Each time the tonic-dominant alternation returned, it was ‘endeepened’ by adding further bass instruments, again in canon, fifths and fourths away.

Maria Carta's Trallallera

Cassandra had said that the piece was about ‘masks’—and certainly it was. The cellist represented a stoic protagonist, a figure carrying-on-regardless, whilst the great mass ‘behind’ him, in the form of the fanfare-like folk material, is akin to something of the character’s inner psyche, blown up as if by rear projection. Miller’s music often exhibits an ecstatic mood—which this piece certainly did on occasion—but she is not really a romantic composer. She’s an experimentalist; like other Canadians, highly influenced by the estetiku divnosti of Rudolf Komorous, and especially the plentiful weirdnesses of Martin Arnold. But in this ecstatic mood she is closer at times to Ben Johnston—and in this case, it was the tragic ecstasy of the southern Mediterranean, of Sicilian Banda music say, or Sevillian holy-week pageantry, that this piece seemed to reference. It is both about masks and masques.

An example of Italian Banda music: from Banda Ionica's album Passione (1997)

It’s not as if the cellist is a sacrificial lamb though; the cellist isn’t Christ. The piece is more about the experience of our lives more generally, those enormous inner, oceanic feelings we carry about with us inside us, and which there is nothing to do with but carry around. Indeed a more Schopenhauerian piece one could not want. The world of this music is Will (orchestra) and Representation (cello). But ecstasy is so close to tragedy. And at the end of Schopenhauer, we have the inevitable ‘renouncing’, or really, reabsorption into, the Will. The final section of the piece is devastating. After the full orchestral tutti is achieved, slowly the tonic-dominant alternation of the cello is transformed into a chordal alternation in the orchestra. It repeats for a long time, these chords breathing, but slightly too fast for comfort. The kind of relentless heavy breathing one does when fearful or joyful. The cello is tacet for this. Gradually everything is reduced down to two soli orchestral cellos. But still, for ages and ages, the solo cello is silent.

And then—and it is a shock, but one, in retrospect, you have been prepared for all this time—the solo cello plays its final call. In the high harmonics, a melody of plainness and at the same time total intensity. Total renunciation, after all possible finitude. Not forte nor piano, it nonetheless flies out of those strings, out of Charles Curtis’ fingers. It is a melody we have come to expect—after all, the solo cello cannot just sit on dominant and tonic forever—but whence does it come? Where does it fly? To what does it amount? In order to have arrived here, we have had to throw off all the shackles of everything we had come to know beforehand. We have had to engage in such breathless waiting. It is a moment of enlightenment, tragic enlightenment. And its ending too, with its rapid slide upward, is inevitable, from that damn folksong, but still indelibly breathtaking. The tragedy of this piece is that its conclusion is set up right from the fore. But it takes us such an age to get there, to arrive at the reabsorption into Will, for the mask to dissolve away leaving the nothingness that was always never there.

Is it a pessimistic piece? If it’s a self-portrait, then maybe. But like Schopenhauer there is complete, total joy—the purest kind of joy there is of any—in this renunciation of the Will. It is the moment of harikiri, but it is also the moment of Nirvana. Fine music.

            iii. Eliane Radigue

Over the two days of the festival there were opportunities to hear a variety of pieces by Eliane Radigue, for a specially assembled ensemble. This was a group of some of the most sensitive and accomplished players around. Robin Hayward has for years been based in Berlin, and has created a unique practice in tuba playing—with improvisers and with composers as well. Rhodri too has fundamentally reinvented his chosen instrument. There are few players like each of them, really. I’d only encountered Daphne Vicente-Sandoval, a bassoonist, at Huddersfield last year, but she’s amazingly sensitive, and well attuned to the aesthetics of minimal improvisation (in Huddersfield she was playing some very quiet music indeed, with Ferran Fages, Lali Barrière and Angharad Davies, sister of Rhodri). Charles Curtis meanwhile, though not an improviser, is perhaps the foremost cellist associated with experimental music anywhere in the world, for years working with La Monte Young, as well as being a principal cellist to the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg. A good group then.

Curtis had premiered the first composition of Radigue’s for an acoustic instrument, the hour-length Naldjorlak I (2004)[4], and has performed and recorded quite a bit of it since then. All of Radigue’s acoustic music goes unnotated. It is developed in close collaboration with musicians, directly; and as she is nowadays too frail to travel, this happens as it can only, in Paris. It also means that the music is all performed from memory (there’s nothing Radigue has written down, though the musicians might make notes) and perhaps more importantly from the point of view of the audience, it is performed without stands. From this point of view it is an oral tradition, akin to Indian classical music—and in theory these musicians will be able to continue with this tradition themselves, teaching it to further musicians.[5]

The musicians performed nine pieces over the two days (some of the pieces were repetitions, but then the music is never quite the same twice). Radigue’s music is interested in the extension of single tones, of single harmonicities. Certainly one can see the affinity with the Indian tambura. And one can also see parallels between her work and the one-colour paintings of abstract expressionism, of Milton Resnick, Yves Klein, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin. Despite her materials being of a minimal character, she isn’t really a minimalist. Like some of the monochrome artists, she’s a kind of expressionist. For the musicians each piece begins—and, as Robin Hayward said, such a French way to begin—with an image. From there an approach to the tone is found.

In the Radigue pieces, while there certainly is tranquillity, the partials and overtones dance and waver, glimmer, are terrifically busy, restless even. Each piece in the series being performed fell into three sections, not always of equal length. The first would be a fairly ‘plain’ introduction, often with gaps (in the pieces for bassoon and tuba this was the case). This might be quite didactic, quite rough even. Like other composers, part of Radigue’s aesthetic project is to teach you how to listen to the piece during the piece itself. Pieces would start with vegetables, and progress towards dessert. In many of the pieces performed, one would settle down into the tone, think to oneself ‘oh, I see what’s going on here’, whilst the partials danced around a little—only to find about three quarters of the way through that a new section of utmost delicacy and distinction had been arrived at. ‘Oh!’ one would think. Indeed, in the way these concerts were arranged, this was typically the effect of the entire programme—as the pieces progressed, the aural result became ever more impossible, ever more unreal.

There were partials and overtones in these pieces I’ve simply never heard before, and not likely to hear again in a hurry. Curtis would generate a difference (under?)tone a fifth lower than the low C string. Vicente-Sandoval could produce tones from the bassoon that included minor ninths above the fundamental, a surely impossible sonority. Davies would bow the lower strings of the harp and produce sonorities of such richness and distance. And Hayward, sometimes in the same piece, might play a high middle C on the tuba, or might play a C three octaves below. Not just individual sonorities, but the pace—determined by the musicians, naturally—and the subtle gradations in tuning were subjected to fine control. And in addition, the particular pitches and their timbres and their entry points. Towards the end of the last concert, the result of a particular bassoon entry into a texture was enough to elicit a simultaneous gasp from me and Luke Nickel, who was sitting a couple of seats away. The additive properties of these pieces are subtle in the extreme—but you have to give yourself to Radigue. You have to let her teach you how to hear again.

Rhodri Davies. Ph: BBC
We have this word—‘monotonous’—which is used in commonplace parlance to describe the boring, the overbearing, excessively repetitious. But even in these monotone pieces there is nothing monotonous. It is a deep critique of the idea of monotony; more than that, Radigue sets out to destroy our very conception of monotony. We know nothing, we must relearn.

It’s fitting, then, that Radigue has today become something of a guru figure, to whom a few people make pilgrimages. This is music that requires aesthetic devotion on an almost spiritual level. And yet, oddly, or not so oddly, it is terribly fashionable these days too. Everything ‘drone’ is departing from its previously carved out niche and enjoining in a wider party of latter-day soixante-huitards and other Dalston types. But we have to be careful, I feel. Radigue has the old-fashioned didacticism associated with the ‘traditional’ avant-garde. There’s nothing ‘ambient’ about her music, it’s not music to ‘space out’ to. Whether her aesthetic will live on in all its fullness will be down to whether musicians take all this seriously, and perhaps moreover, whether audiences realise this. We won’t know until later, in all probability.

Recordings from the Tectonics Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio Three’s Hear and Now programme, on three consecutive Saturdays from May 16.

Cassandra Miller’s Duet for Cello and Orchestra can be heard again in Bologna at the AngelicA festival later this week, alongside a new work for the Bozzini String Quartet, and some Italian premieres of Laurence Crane by Anton Lukoszevieze and Apartment House.

Thanks to Luke and Jennie and Cassandra and Gregor for being such great company this festival!

[1] This piece was featured in on of Bob Gilmore’s recent podcasts, ‘Field recordings and new music’,
[2] Or was it Cello Concerto as put in the programme? If Cassandra has retitled it ‘Duet’ then I think it’s a shame, as the piece is really a concerto, not a duet. The orchestra is a chorus, not a partner.
[3] James Weeks’ article on Cassandra Miller’s music ‘Along the grain’, in Tempo vol. 68, issue 269 (July 2014) is here:
[4] The three Naldjorlak pieces (2004-9) were recorded and released on SoundOhm last year.,-II,-III/pid/21019/
[5] An interview with Charles Curtis where he discusses working with Radigue can be found on Paris Transatlantic here:

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The music of Laurence Crane

photo: Co Broerse
It’s damn tricky being British. Or at least it can seem so if one is present mainly (or only) in the musical world. To spell it out, our musical culture seems at the moment to be split between, on the one hand ‘heritage’ rock acts, posh young starlets pushing out a neverending stream of indie-tronica (with alarmingly large followings and airplay), and on the other a world of classical music in a perpetual state of nostalgic afraidness. This of course does not include any mention of the British avant-garde—if one can speak of such a thing. Of course, one can, and should—but the weird thing is, given the enormous prominence granted to British experimental visual and installation art since the 1990s, the parallel traditions in music (i.e. those things that occurred with and following the Scratch Orchestra) remain obscure and largely ignored.

What then, do we have? Who, exactly, writes this experimental music? There are, to me at least, two crucial figures, both interlinked. Both are usually forgotten about as their characters are generous, self-effacing, violently modest. Their music does not shout about itself. Their pieces are enigmatic—enigmas even. But they are incredibly important for anybody coming to terms with experimental music in this country and in general. They are John White, and Laurence Crane.[1]

            I’d wanted to consider Laurence Crane’s music for some time, but particularly since Simon Reynell and Apartment House put out the retrospective double CD last year. Laurence’s music represented probably my first personal experience with experimental music as such. As a percussion student I had come across Cage (I played the First Construction in Metal, and the piece Double Music co-composed with Lou Harrison), but of course one has to encounter music for oneself rather then just be led through it in rehearsal. I used sometimes to have bits of piano music sent for perusal from the BMIC (when you could do such things) after spotting it on their website; a batch one time included some Crane pieces. In the event, I couldn’t really believe they were complete. Triads and suspended chords, slowly moving, repeated, sustained. Tiny shifts of voice-leading. Crochets and minims. Little melodies. Was this it? I wasn’t sure who this person was, and more importantly how he proposed to get away with this.

But of course Crane’s music is completely beguiling, and, irritatingly enough to my then teenaged brain—a busy, self-aggrandising brain, not really capable of understanding minimal aesthetics—it stuck with me.

Crane has been at the centre of the embarrassingly tiny world of new music in Britain for some years—though of course, not really the centre. I’m sure there are plenty of people like the teenaged me who feel this sort of thing doesn’t have a place, and some of these people exert influence. It’s too close to ambient music, for starters. And it’s too close to television music, because minimalism is everywhere there too. And not enough happens in it. Is it incompetent? Is it boring? It’s too bare, too direct, too slow, too ‘normal’. But then, I can think of little music less normal than Crane. 

Of course all of these things, seen in the right light, are positive features. And if you can piss people off in this way, and still keep your integrity (Crane is nothing but integrity—who else can hold themselves through it all with such stoicism?), you know you’re doing something right. Crane is in some ways an easy composer to talk about because the material he uses is archetypical—it carries over from one work to the next. In the 1980s, he sets out the kind of idiom within which he will work, and some of the pieces from this period remain in some sense archetypical—this from the Kierkegaards, a piano set of 1986. 

mvt II from Kierkegaards, 1986

What do we see here? Crane’s handwriting is crisp (an important feature of new music aesthetics in Britain, where the musical handwriting can sometimes be as important as the notes it conveys). Its mimeographed title is almost samizdat. The stave lines are hand drawn. The music is prosaic, it just slides into view without much care. But it’s so slow (Michael Finnissy’s recording assiduously emphasises this slowness). And it repeats itself so much. Again and again. What’s going on here? The scene it paints is narrative, but only barely. Is it an absurdist panel? But this is only a single piece, it’s not so unsettling on its own. Is it? Two further examples, from around the same time. From the Derridas set.

Selections from Derridas, 1985-6 
Inexorably we climb to a place of sheer oddness. But it isn’t gratuitous—Crane isn’t Zappa—and actually, unless you pay it attention, it’ll pass you right by. It is this that makes it uncharacteristically great, why my teenaged brain couldn’t cope with it, and why it still unsettles. How can you take the very wallpaper our lives are plastered with and turn it into art without really doing anything? Other than assiduously repeating it, slowing it down—but then, only slightly.

Over the years Crane has written quite a bit, and the pieces have gotten longer and larger. Ensemble pieces are more common after 2000 as he received more significant commissions. And from this date, the material is almost uniformly triadic. In earlier pieces, like the Five Preludes for cello and piano, we have a freer counterpoint of not-always-triadic material. But one gets the sense that Crane has economised his approach. These are not eclectic pieces (as he says, they are ‘one-idea pieces’).

Crane is a bit notorious (or at least was, as I suspect most people have forgotten about this piece) for the early ensemble set Weirdi. Here the triadic material blasts its way fortissimo into the complacently complacent new-music concert hall. Screaming E-flat clarinet on the seventh degree. Shortly to be followed by sheer blank silences. And the second selection of the set, ‘New Music Weirdo’, a gently, vaguely rocking habanera, sets the words:

New Music Weirdo
Blue nylon trousers
New Music Weirdo
A pair of brown glasses

New Music Weirdo
Likes Donatoni
New Music Weirdo
A strange group of cronies

New Music Weirdo
Turns up in Brighton
New Music Weirdo
A tramp makes him frightened

This, as it turns out, is only the beginning – Crane goes onto tell us that, further, ‘This hall is good / It’s made of wood / Everything sounds / Just like it should.’ (La la la la… la la la la…) Later we meet Alexander Balenescu in Safeways, pondering the organic broccoli and Norwegian Jarlsberg (Crane wants to tell him what a ‘wonderful vio / linist he thought he was’), before suggesting that why don’t we ‘Get the funny police.’ Obviously the thirty-year-old Crane knew his targets, and if one has punches to throw they oughtn’t be pulled. But the gossip-monger in me almost wants to say ‘well, really!’

As ever with experimental music the question arises, well, what exactly makes this music so experimental? After all, in Crane there is no indeterminacy; there is only—merely—minimalism. The answer of course lies in the fact that experimental music deigns not just an approach but an affiliation; and affiliations cannot but oppose. Crane has been picked up by the Colin Matthews-NMC cartel (such as it is) because he’s too original to ignore,[2] but the most prominent commissions he’s received have been, perhaps revealingly, from foreign bands. The Ives ensemble, the Maerzmusik Berliner Festspiele, Ensemble Ereprijs, Orkest de Volharding, The Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie, Cikada Ensemble. Recently, he’s been picked up by the Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa and their percussionist Håkon Stene. His most assiduous advocates in the UK have been Apartment House—run by Anton Lukoszevieze, though Lukoszevieze is Lithuanian at heart. Why don’t the Brits seem to give a shit? (We can all speculate as to who owns the Blue Nylon Trousers)

Blue (nylon) sheep
But then experimental music has never fit comfortably within the UK classical music establishment. Ever since the scandal that was Cardew, particularly the embarrassment of his late Maoist phase, and his untimely murder, the whole affair has been something to comfortably avoid. Certain things have abetted this 80s-2000s attitude in recent years. One was the 2008 merging (and decimating) of the funding bodies that in the end formed Sound and Music. Witness the loud squeals as paper-composers had promptly to get into bed with all these improvisers and, worse, sound artists. Around the same time, Café Oto started, merging and recombining as it does so effectively the worlds of free improvisation, both acoustic and electroacoustic varieties, minimal and avant-garde composition, noise, avant-folk and whatever else happens to be flavourful this month. It’s no coincidence that the launch concert for the Crane retrospective CD took place there. By now, there has been a small resurgence of interest in Scratch music—Michael Parsons and Hugh Shrapnel and Chris Hobbs and Michael Chant and John Tilbury are all collaborating with younger musicians. I went to a concert a few months ago that was almost a complete time-machine—several original Scratch members, accompanied by younger people and members of the Vocal Constructivists, performing some of the Nature Study Notes. The whole thing felt uncanny and eerie, as if the 70s had never happened. Let alone the 80s and 90s. What the hell’s going on?

Of course Laurence Crane’s music is one such 80s-90s response to this. And it’s been there all along. Another response was the music of Howard Skempton—an important, nay crucial influence on Crane—as was the music of John White. White’s is perhaps the finest and most original voice to have emerged from that 60s milieu (and it’s too extensive to cover here—that’s for another day); but Skempton is damn fine too, and merits some discussion.

Consider for example some of Skempton’s late 60s-70s piano pieces—according to Crane, important precursors for his writing he encountered whilst a student at Nottingham. Below is the Simple Piano Piece of 1972.

Simple Piano Piece (1972), with analysis, and reduction. Note chromatic voice-leading patterns.
And here are the first few bars of the First Prelude from September 1971.

First Prelude (1971), repeats added for clarity
These pieces obviously had a great effect on Crane, and Skempton’s originality at the time shouldn’t be diminished. Skempton’s first important composition, Humming Song, came at a time in the late 60s when British composers were feeling the first waves of influence from the US, where La Monte Young and the Fluxus movement were influencing a wave of alternative responses to high modernism. (It’s worth remembering that even Stockhausen felt this moment in the late 60s, composing amongst other things Plus-Minus and Stimmung.) Americans on the whole, if they felt their music wasn’t going to be ‘high’, as the Darmstadter-allies expected it to be, felt it should at least be chic. But it took Brits to realise that the new minimal aesthetic could be droll. American minimalism has never been self-effacing; but British minimalism was shot-through with this condition.

One can perhaps sense this in how British and American composers of minimalist music approached their voice leading. The Americans on the whole avoided like the plague remnants of ‘common practice’—perfect cadences and leading tones especially. The music, like French impressionism, is essentially modal, without the ‘tightness’ associated with the raised leading tone. Triadic sonorities were extrapolations of modal collections, and transitions between one triad to another involved common-tone modal shifts. (Witness Adams’ ‘gates’ technique.) In British minimalism—Skempton, Hobbs, Bryars, and later Nyman and Crane—it is the raised leading-tone and chromatic voice-leading that is all important. Dominant and tonic basses are common. The idea of a reinterpreted ‘common practice’, of folk and classical music, is present: think of Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, or Nyman’s music for The Draughtsman’s Contract, both of which re-set, in repetitive ways, pre-existing melodies replete with connotations.   

British minimalism never made such a fetish of the pulse, or the arpeggio (it instead often used more sophisticated heterophonic or layering techniques, whose origins perhaps can be traced to the Scratch Orchestra). It was always looser; maybe even sillier; it was more ironic; it shrugged its shoulders with greater frequency; it did not seek to make itself out to be terribly important. It is for all these reasons that it is usually forgotten. It never became the soundtrack to images of city life in the way that New York (post)minimalism has. If it became anything, it transmogrified into Brian Eno and later Nyman and the Penguin Café Orchestra. Eventually it came full circle and now inhabits the soundtracks for innumerable BBC4 documentaries.[3]

Minimalism, a word that suffers as much through misapplication as it does through those dishonest stylisms themselves, is, as one is loath to point out, better than this.

As the 2000s have progressed, Crane’s pieces have gotten even closer to doing that thing he has railed against—putting the material through development. But Cranian development is not really the same as ‘normal’ development. Rather like viewing objects from multiple angles, Crane’s pieces often return to the same material. But in recent pieces the material comes back looking and sounding the same but nonetheless being different. We’re not sure what to think, as it comes back.

Two recent pieces exemplify this, and also contain curious resonances with one another. The first is a piece for bass flute and piano and objects, Gli Anni Prog (the ‘years of prog’, the title of an Italian book about Genesis. Given that Crane is often wont to use a very 70s-sounding electric organ, and writes all his music on a DX7, one can understand the resonances here.)

Gli Anni Prog performed by Manuel Zurria and Laurence Crane, 2014

With this piece, the material (the sometimes-whole-tone-sometimes-diatonic low flute melody) comes back largely unchanged throughout, but the feeling gets all the more strange as the piece goes on. The piano ebow, the spoken statements. Crane can often be unsettling but it’s rarely so abject. After seeing this piece live, I wondered just what the ‘years of prog’ are, and what the hell the piece meant. If I’m honest (given my state of mind at the time) I felt it amounted to a complaint about the inexorable passing of time. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. It’s one of the most accomplished things I’ve seen of his, and like most of his music it sticks with you.

Hot on the heels of this piece came Pieces About Art, a stellar highlight of the Exaudi ‘exposure’ concert late last year. Like a few recent pieces, this is a long-form one (the Piano Quintet from 2011 exhibits certain structural similarities).

The piece begins with a stark triad and begins the first movement (which to my ears feels like a long prelude to the second movement). Slidy voice leading, slidy triadic shifts. ‘After much consideration [name redacted] has decided to refuse your request.’[4] It all goes along very amiably until around 5mins, when we have a series of movements towards a climax. This isn’t particularly Cranian. (But note the ending of Gli Anni Prog, also a kind of climax, but also a collapse.) It’s also very amusing given the tenor and bass interjections. Shouts of ‘But luck! But luck!’; the composer’s Eureka moment, that falls shortly back to the amiable material of the opening.

The second movement is the heart of the piece. ‘This problem, problem, problem of writing about art.’ Given the situation outlined in the proceeding movement one is inclined to reply ‘indeed!’ As with other vocal pieces of his (notably Some Rock Music for Alan Thomas) Crane’s sense of timing is exquisite—and was well responded-to by the audience. Like Gli Anni Prog, this section of the piece focuses on the odd logic of the whole-tone scale. Fiendishly difficult to sing, it reaches from the bottom of the bass’s register right up to the top of Juliet Fraser’s range. The ‘problem’, such as it is, requires a bottom-to-top run of it to be squeezed out before it can even be stated, let alone tackled!

What follows is a disquisition on the art of John Stezaker, taken from Michael Bracewell’s text accompanying the 2011 retrospective exhibition of his work. Stezaker, in case you’ve forgotten, is the English collagist and conceptual artist who makes works that usually combine one or more photographs. We have a slice, and two images joined together to make a simple more-than-the-sum-of-parts assemblage. They are usually humorous, and sometimes rather worrying in a non-specific way. The artistic tactic of having two things and having a slice, of having one thing and then another thing, is eminently Cranian. Even with Crane’s voice leading patterns, we see tiny essays in this approach.

John Stezaker, from Marriage series

But Bracewell’s prose, as it is set, rings a little ironic. To set the words (about the ‘precisely pitched shifts of image’ etc.) Crane takes the obvious tack and has little two-chord alternation structures. Each chord is an open fifth. Down we shift a third and then back we go again. Everyone gets to sing a little bit. But we’re reminded of artspeak and its complete inanity. Stezaker’s works are exciting and odd and ambiguous—but this prose sure ain’t. And again we get the ‘problem’ material. Is there a problem, or isn’t there? (I can remember cracking up slightly when I heard, sung entirely deadpan, the line about a ‘vertiginous and densely atmospheric new world’. Bracewell evidently has no problem in finding such choice locutions.)

By 12.30mins we arrive at the ‘no problem’ section. Crane seems to have concluded along with us that apparently there’s no problem at all. And the amiable music of the very opening seems to have found its reconciliation. But maybe there still is a problem? But there’s no problem! Or is there? The whole-tone material is still with us.

In the rehearsal for this piece, a very interesting thing happened. (After having workshopped the piece, Exaudi held an open rehearsal, with Crane.) Immediately after the ‘no problem’ patter, we get a little slice of ‘the art of John Stezaker, the art of John Stezaker of John Stezaker’, again sung to open fifths that shift by a third. Crane asked James Weeks if they could sing through the proceeding few minutes as he wanted to check something. After having done this, immediately after arriving at this section, Crane asked the singers if they could repeat the material (from 13.30mins) exactly 3 times. In the audience I was puzzled but intrigued. But they try it out, and lo and behold, the release that follows (at 13:59) was completely devastating.

Excpt from Pieces About Art, II, (transcription), repeated 3 times
It’s through tiny glimpses like this—of Crane ‘weighing’ a section of music and deciding how much it needs, adding or subtracting—that we begin to see his technique. This is composition at its most basic, but compelling. It is about those intangible things, timing, balance, weight, that cannot be calibrated precisely or even fully described; but can be felt very strongly. The amount of repetitions of ‘there is no problem in writing about art’ (14.15mins) is entirely felt, given context. It cannot be justified rationally, it can only be sensed. But it is completely correct.

But is there, damnit, a problem with this art-writing business?[5] On this point I was reminded of the Eddie Izzard routine about whether or not Englebert Humperdinck is dead.

Is Humperdinck dead? Is there a problem with writing about art? Yes. No. Ad infinitum. It is through this yes-no circle that Crane really shows his skill. It is through this manoeuvre that the odd recombination effects of the Stezaker pictures are really represented musically. Not through local patterning, but through overall structure, weight, irony, and, damnit, a certain amount of directedness. A certain amount of development, no less! After all we have to learn the yes, then the no, in succession, in order to finally get the circle. And if to emphasise this circularity, right at the end, back comes the very opening slidy voice-leading material.

Weve all had conversations with children like this

Now I should emphasise that Cranian development doesn’t actually change the material. The development comes merely through its placement, its arrangement in long-term scheme, and other simple things like register, speed, repetition, dynamics and so on. It’s a kind of development without development; and it’s so subtle that, again, like most of his things, if you are looking the other way it’ll go right past you.

I finish with the recording made by Apartment House and recorded by Simon Reynell of Crane’s wonderful 2003 piece, John White in Berlin, one of the finest things he’s written to date. I heavily encourage you to pick up the recording on Another Timbre.

What in the end is Crane’s music all about? I’ve avoided this question because Crane has said (see his interview in the Ashgate Companion to Experimental Music) that his music is abstract. But of course the error—or maybe even secret admission—of experimental music is that sounds are never ‘just sounds’. No matter how hard one tries, they always mean something. Given Crane’s tendency to name pieces after people—philosophers, cyclists, friends, composers, members of the Estonian parliament—one feels that Crane’s music is in some sense personable. What, he asks, is it like, being a person? What do we feel, travelling through gli anni prog?

Crane’s music, then, it seems to me, is about nothing less than the very fact of being alive. Even the abstract pieces are replete with this quality. It is that very being-ness, whether in the supermarket, whether pondering the organic broccoli; or at the massage parlour; or on a walk around Copenhagen. Crane’s music is that most curious of things—that which reflects, most quietly and inexorably, our own peculiar condition.

Laurence Crane’s Trio for Ros and Peter will be performed alongside music by James Weeks, and a selection of younger composers including Alex Nikiporenko, Edward Henderson, Lauren Redhead, Nick Peters, and myself. The concert is March 14, St James Church Islington

[1] There are a few other people too—Chris Newman would be an important example. But he suffers from two unfortunate conditions given the scope of this sketch: 1. living in Germany and 2. me knowing almost nothing about his work.
[2] Though he was conspicuously missing from the NMC songbook, the big, irritating and violently mediocre portrait-of-the-nation box released a few years ago.
[3] Charlie Brooker’s perfect aping of BBC4 docco style with Victoria Coren’s ‘History of Corners’ is a good case in point. Perpetuum mobile spins out almost as a televisual reflex.
[4] (Though if one knows one’s stuff, given he wanted to set a text engraved in 1968 on a metal sculpture, one can deduce who Crane had in mind.)
[5] The line ‘you really can write about art’ reminds me of the Gould, slightly passive-aggressive ‘So you want to write a fugue’.