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’.