Interview with Laurence Crane

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Laurence Crane’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 243–252.  Copyright © 2009

6875897012_642d78f8bdWhen I first encountered Laurence’s music, my interest was in extreme miniaturisation, and his exquisitely constructed, poised compositions made a deep impact on me, both through their own beauty and the way it made me readdress the assumptions I had grown to have about the way music could (should?) be. It has been interesting to see the way in which his music has changed since then: principally the soundworld has expanded in some pieces, often looking away from pitch to define material. The focus and reduction is still apparent though, with a carefully selected palette of sounds distilled from the objects used to make them. Laurence’s material is resolutely abstract, and despite the superficial references to a classical tradition, his harmony has little sense of teleology. Tonal constructions are hinted at, but mutated through a studied use of unbalanced and extended repetitions. His approach to titling is important too: descriptions of the ensemble, as with Feldman, form a large proportion of his catalogue, as do names (which make passing references to the music’s original performers). The Skempton connection can also be heard through his general preference for miniatures and movements. Although more recent work has explored longer spans, much of Crane’s music deals with economy.

The interview was conducted by telephone on 14 June 2007.

For a lot of listeners the first contact they have with your work is through the title of course, and you seem to have a clear approach to titling pieces, whether they draw on practical descriptions of the instrumentation, or names of people and what they do. There often seems to be unstated relationships between the choices, such as the nationality of people or the number of letters in their names (or both). Could you explain how you choose titles, and what role they have for you in relation to the music?

I think the first thing I want to say about this is that all my instrumental pieces are, without exception, completely abstract. For me, there is no such thing as extra-musical ‘inspiration’. With pieces which have titles which state, as it were, the bare facts (for example Four Pieces for Alto and Bass Flutes (1996), Two Movements for Small Harp (2002) and Seven Short Pieces (2004), among others), this abstraction is very clear in the title choice. With pieces which have titles which at first appear to be more descriptive in an extra-musical sense I think my intention is to give the piece some sort of extra identity but the actual music is no less abstract than in the pieces with purely functional titles. The titles that I use often include names, sometimes of the performer for whom the piece is written, sometimes of the dedicatee, or sometimes just a name that I happen to like the sound of. Or they refer to the performer or dedicatee in a more oblique way, for example Raimondas Rumsas is a Lithuanian racing cyclist with a great name. Raimondas Rumsas (2002), my piece for solo cello, is written for Anton Lukoszevieze, who is of Lithuanian descent. I also like using names of places for titles, which again sometimes have some real or imagined relationship with the dedicatee and/or performer.

I’m sometimes asked to provide a title for publicity purposes well in advance of starting the piece. This is actually quite a good discipline. It means that if I decide that I am going to write a set of four short pieces entitled Four Short Pieces then I should endeavour as much as possible to stick to that scheme so as not to contradict the pre-concert publicity! This tends to narrow down the possibilities and therefore concentrates the mind on the task in hand. My choosing of titles is more often than not based on this sort of decision. If a title suggests itself then all well and good. If not, then I will have a purely functional title. The sort of title I would go out of my way to avoid would be overtly poetic ones.  Although I do accept that there is a kind of poetry in people’s names and names of places.

But again, I must emphasize, whatever kind of title I use, I think of the music as a purely abstract creation.

For me this is also apparent in the way your use of tonal materials is undermined by the avoidance of functional tonal harmony. The harmonic pull of tonal music is often absent and, when allied with your use of short repetitive phrases, the music has a tendency to float free of such tensions. To what extent do you feel your musical language reinforces this abstractness?

It’s certainly true that static structures appear to create more of an abstract work than goal-directed or developmental structures, although I realize that in both cases there are exceptions to this. In my case you are right to focus on my preference for avoiding functional tonality and developmental thinking as part of my desire to compose in an abstract way. I can relate this very strongly to the music which has influenced me the most in my work, music by composers in the various American and English experimental ‘schools’ of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I can’t emphasize enough how important this music was to me at a crucial time (the early 1980s, when I was studying at Nottingham University). I made a decision to follow what they were doing and reject the methods, techniques and language of the more mainstream composers of that time. The close relationship of the experimentalists and various groups of abstract, minimalist or systemic painters is well documented and, while I do not have a particularly close working association with any visual artists (although I like to follow what is going on in that world), I do feel a great empathy with the way those worlds relate, and in particular with the sort of parallels drawn between a piece of experimental music and a piece of abstract sculpture or a painting. Although music is a time-based art form, use of static materials and static musical structures definitely can push it towards existing like a piece of visual art. Often in my work, a piece will consist of simply a number of different statements of the same material, sometimes different from each other, sometimes the same but never ever in a state of what would generally be thought of as development. The analogy with viewing an object from a number of different angles has been used many times before when talking about the minimalists/experimentalists and in a way it almost now sounds like a bit of an old cliché, but like most clichés it has a strong element of truth. I like to think of the materials that I work with in my music as objects of some sort or other, familiar objects maybe, but extracted from their previously familiar situations and placed into a different context. I want to present them and view them but I don’t want to develop them or force them into areas to which they don’t necessarily belong. The material that I work with is very carefully chosen. I can spend weeks deciding on what that material should be. In an article written several years ago Howard Skempton points to the very clear difference between experimental and mainstream composers in their approach. He says that experimental composers talk of ‘material’ while mainstream composers talk of their ‘ideas’. I think this is an interesting distinction; I always think of working with material and I completely reject the notion of inspiration.

What for you is material?

The surface of my music is very stark, bald and simple and the basic material reflects this. The material is the essence of the particular piece, normally one or more separate musical objects on which the whole piece is based. If there is more than one of these objects they may or may not be related to each other in some way. When I start a new piece I never feel that I am starting with a completely blank sheet of paper, as there is a pool of almost archetypal material that I’m constantly exploring. When I start a piece I know that there are certain practical things to take into consideration; instrumentation, where it’s going to be played, who’s going to play it and duration being some of these considerations. I’ll also think long and hard about the type of material I will work with and how I will structure the whole in relation to its content. I might also take something from a previous piece, perhaps some very small aspect of it, and decide to explore that particular aspect in a more detailed way, focusing on something that was perhaps quite peripheral in the previous work. For example, in Seven Short Pieces, which I wrote in 2004, there’s a slightly off-beat thing in the piano where there’s a chord on the main beat and then there’s an off-beat triplet crotchet and I took that basic idea as my starting point for writing the second movement of Ullrich 1 and 2, the piece I wrote for Orkest de Volharding in 2005-2006. In some cases I’ll literally explore the same material in a different way, in a different context, as a different way of looking at it, a process I generally regard as very removed from re-arrangement or re-scoring.

To summarise this – and also referring back to part of my answer to the previous question – the best analogy I can make is the one commonly made within experimental music or the sort of music we’re talking about: the similarity with objects, a piece of sculpture or a painting, and looking at the object or objects from different perspectives. The materials I’m working with are objects which I try and place alongside each other and I also try and place them in different contexts to try and view them from different angles.

I feel the type of material you are using has perhaps changed over the last three or four years. Listening to recent pieces it is perhaps fair to say you are moving away from harmonic/melodic/pitch-based material to incorporate more noise-based materials and I wondered perhaps why that is?

It’s absolutely true to say that noise or timbral-based material has started to play a part in my recent work. It starts in two works from 2003; firstly John White in Berlin, written for Apartment House in the spring of that year, then Four Miniatures, written for Noszferatu a couple of months later. And continues in a handful of works since then. In all these there is a usage of unpitched or noise-based timbral resources that was previously absent from my work as a whole, which up to that point had been more or less dominated by vertical harmony. But I can’t remember making a conscious decision about this and I think it’s actually the result of a direct influence of composers around me, some sort of response to fellow composers work. I think really one is always responding to other people’s work. I’m not sure whether my current interest in this new sort of material will prove to be a major element in my work or just a temporary diversion, I’m not in the habit of making plans as to the direction that my work should go, it’s a case of moving from work to work and following what interests me at the time or whatever is appropriate for that particular work.

Do you see any difference between the way you work compositionally with your pitch material and with the more recent noise materials? Has your approach changed for dealing with those in any way?

No, I don’t think it has changed my approach. I would say that the most important change of approach in my music in recent years has been the gravitation to longer pieces, to larger formal structures. The longer pieces that I’ve done so far have all been composed in the last five to ten years. When I was younger I wrote exclusively short pieces, they would be maybe three or four minutes each, and then perhaps a longer work would consist of a collection of those, a series of short pieces. It’s only in the last five to ten years that I’ve started to try to make longer single movement structures. But it doesn’t mean that I’m now developing the material. Again it means that I’m still viewing it from different directions.

When you are starting a new piece, how do you normally begin?

It usually takes me ages to actually get to a point where I can start writing bar by bar. Even with the shortest piece I really am very slow. But my starting point is always all the basic practical considerations; instrumentation, venue, performers, duration. I suppose once I’ve taken all those things into account it’s a question of how many movements, then the character of the piece and then I’ll think for ages about the actual raw material. All that practical information listed above would be the starting point, from which I would derive an idea of the sort of piece I want to write, the sort of material I want to use and how I would employ the resources.

But I’m now trying to think further back to a previous question of yours; how it came about that I started using more noise material in recent works. I think it’s definitely a response to those around me. I don’t know if you can put this in your own book, but you, Markus Trunk, Joanna Bailie, Christopher Fox, Matthew Shlomowitz, Bryn Harrison and Tim Parkinson, among others, have, through their own work, all actually alerted me to some possibilities and I wanted to explore these in my own way. I think that in the case of the Four Miniatures for the ensemble Noszferatu what I aimed to do in those was to base all four pieces on a different drone. I had already decided that they would be one or two minutes each. Each piece would be based on a drone from a different instrument. A percussionist was a member of that particular ensemble and the logical thing was to make a non-pitched drone, which in its most basic form is a bass drum roll, and it sort of went from there I think.

For my first experience of that piece. I didn’t have the programme in front of me and it took a while to recognize it as your piece. But then I realized very quickly once the structure started to make sense that just the material was very different.

In another recent piece Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani part 3 (2007) there was a loose non-abstract programme covering the whole project. It was a commission from Queens’ College Cambridge, who commissioned 12 composers over a 3-year period to write pieces to be performed in the vicinity of Queens’. The brief was that you should loosely or not so loosely base your pieces on this thing called Vigani’s Cabinet, which is this remarkable cabinet of scientific curiosities and objects, all sorts of odd things, collected by John Vigani, who was the first professor of chemistry at Cambridge in the 18th Century and a fellow of Queens’ College. There was a practical consideration to make in that the piece had to be got together very quickly in Cambridge and it had to involve some students and rather than write for them playing conventional instruments I wanted to explore a music for non-instruments; plastic bags and tin cans, beach stones and newspapers; ‘found objects’ really. My idea was to create a collection of my own objects, which might be found in my own cabinet, as it were, and then I extended that to the idea of found objects, the instruments themselves, so then once I’d collected the instruments for their noise producing quality I then worked on the piece. Even though, as you say in reference to the Four Miniatures and your experience of hearing them for the first time, the material is in some way slightly different because of the noise elements, I think it was structured in my characteristic way in this piece too.

You mentioned earlier when we were talking about starting your pieces that there was a period between deciding on the practicalities and starting to write out the bars that took a long time, and what is it in particular that you focus on in that period before you start to write out the piece or deal with the detail of the piece?

Generally it’s the quality or the nature of the material that I’m working with. It’s got to be just right and I try and refine everything so that I’m just working with the most basic elements and it’s just a question of working away at those and making sure that they’re definitely going to stand the test of time.

So say you are working with tonal materials, is that trying the right chords, planning melodies, finding the right structure. Is it that sort of thing, or is it more general than that?

It is that sort of thing, yes absolutely. There is a piece of mine that I wrote for the Ives Ensemble in 2003 – Movement for 10 Musicians – that is fundamentally based on two elements. A sequence of three rising triads, which merge, and then this repeating two chord sequence where only one note changes between the two chords. I just took ages trying to get those elements absolutely as I wanted them. And that’s what takes me ages. Writing the bulk of the piece takes ages too because you’re presented as you go on with a myriad of choices, an array of things one can do and what I’m trying to acheive is to do as little as possible with the material. I’m concentrating on these things in extreme close up and I’m trying to eliminate multiple possibilities. So I have to be absolutely sure that it’s the right material because you don’t want to get three months down the line and then suddenly think “Oh no!”

There’s a famous story about the American composer Carl Ruggles sitting at his piano hammering the same chord out time and time again because he wanted to make sure it sounded as good the 150th time as it did the first time. I can certainly relate to that!

When you are at that stage are you planning structure and working out patternings of bars or repetition schemes?

Yes I am, definitely. I think my procedure is first of all to establish the integrity and quality of the material, as I say that takes a long time. At the same time I’m getting an idea of the overall structure of the whole piece, how many sections relate to each other, what is the overall shape, that sort of thing, but I don’t necessarily adhere to a scheme very strictly. I’ll have a rough idea of what it’s going to be and I will try at each stage of writing to be absolutely sure that I can justify each step but if I do set up any sort of system or structure I’m then quite happy to break the rigour of it if I think it’s going to be more interesting to go off in a certain direction. With the Ives Ensemble piece that I mentioned earlier I think when I got that initial material I probably planned about two thirds of the piece – maybe a bit less – in how the material was going to present itself. But the last main section I wasn’t sure about at all and I only really worked that out properly when I actually got to that section when writing out the score. I couldn’t decide about it and I left it until I had to properly do something about it. Deadlines are very important to me. Given no deadline I would just procrastinate so if I have a deadline I have to think “well by this date I really should start actually working on the score” and then when I’ve started writing the score it means that I will then work out these problems which previously I could not work out in the more abstract way, I have to then just get on with it and write it!

Obviously in your work there is quite a lot of repetition of material, and often unusual numbers of repetitions (it is not balanced in that sense) and I wondered how you deal with repetition and what function you feel it has in your music?

I mentioned very exact repetition earlier but I’m also more and more interested in slightly differing repetition as well. A lot of the music I’ve been interested in throughout my life has employed a lot of repetition; I am thinking most obviously of the American minimalists here, but also rock and pop music. Repetition has an important function in my work because the harmonic rhythm in my music is intentionally extremely slow and the music is very static. Repetition obviously enables that harmonic rhythm to be slowed right down and it helps real stasis to occur. Another function of repetition in my work would be to enable me to focus microscopically on a small fragment of material. I think that repetition enhances the material and it has a sort of ritual to it too, which I find very elegant.

I often feel frustrated with the way some music of our time is always restless, always seemingly trying to get onto the next thing, always on the go. And also the way that some of it seems to try and make big emotional statements. I have to say I find this overbearing and self-importance very irritating. It’s as though this way of ‘being’ is forced upon the listener. Use of repetition is for me one way of creating an antidote to that approach; letting the material sit there for a while and inviting the listener in to experience it.

I think it’s interesting what you said earlier in relation to that pre-compositional period where you’re spending a lot of time getting the material exactly right. So presumably that sets you up for repeating it and using it in those sorts of structures, because you’ve done the work almost?

Yes indeed. I’m working on a brand new piece for the Ives Ensemble at the moment and I’m in that phase of having found the material and refining it and now I’m about to start writing the score. There is going to be a lot of repetition in this new piece. I know I keep referring to my earlier Ives Ensemble work – Movement for 10 Musicians – as I feel it’s one of the pieces I’m most happy with. In that piece the repetitions are very 4-4-4-4, that sort of thing, but here, in the new piece, I’m planning to do more irregular repetition.

How are you planning that? I mean obviously if it’s a regular repeat it’s self-defining perhaps, but in this sort of situation where you are working with irregular repetitions, how are you deciding on how to do that?

Well it’s just a matter of going through it again and again. Sitting there at a keyboard and trying things and seeing how they work against each other, you know, one following the next, how many times to repeat. I’m very aware of the pacing of the piece, balancing textures against each other. In larger works, where there are more instrumental resources on hand, instrumentation and register become very important structural elements. I’ll be thinking very much about how the sections are different in approach.

An important part of the process is imposing various rules upon myself; it’s vital for me to impose restrictions on what I am allowed to do at all sorts of levels in the piece.

You mentioned in the course of that reply trying things out at the piano. Do you tend to work at an instrument, normally a piano, when you are working?

It’s split between piano and desk. My practical resources at home are very limited, which I think in many ways is a good thing. Practical limitations are important in determining some musical restrictions. I’ve got a 20-year-old Yamaha DX7 keyboard from 1988 (now on its last legs!) and I would say my compositional process was probably about 20% spent at a keyboard and 80% at the desk. I have a basic schedule, which I generally follow for most pieces. I will think for a good few weeks about the nature of the piece I am to write, taking all the practical considerations mentioned earlier into account. I do not have an acoustic piano so I actually rent a little practise room for a few sessions when I’m starting the piece in earnest in order to try to focus on the material away from my normal environment, as it were. By that point I have a general idea of the nature of my material and I then almost try and ‘mine’ the material from there, sitting at the keyboard, having an idea of the character of it and trying to find what I’m looking for and then I’ll spend a few sessions trying to refine it. Then I’ll use my keyboard at home, my knackered old DX7, to check things, play things through, perhaps expand on things but once I’ve done that initial phase in the practise studio I will spend much more time at the desk writing from there.

Is the stage of composing of writing out the score an important part of the process for you?

Definitely, yes. I don’t ever envisage myself notating my scores on computer as for me the job of writing out scores by hand is a very important part of the process and it’s where I make a lot of decisions about the detail of the work. But also, the physical process of working at a desk with the full score, actually physically writing the notes on paper is a vital part of it all, definitely. I find that working this way makes you really think hard about each note because deleting stuff on a handwritten score is a pain! I also find that I can do vast amounts of pre-planning in sketches but that I am more likely to make crucial decisions when faced with the reality of the full score.

We’ve talked a little bit about structure already and about the sorts of pieces you tend to write, but I wondered why you perhaps in different pieces err more towards multiple movements or a single movement piece? What is it about those two approaches which attract you?

I think practicalities again come into play. How long does the commissioner want the piece to be, you know, that kind of thing? They usually specify something so you start to think how best to do this. So that’s one factor. As I said earlier, I’ve only become interested in using longer single movement forms in recent years. I think my first one really was Riis in 1996, for clarinet, cello and electric organ, for Apartment House; it’s about 10 minutes long. Previous to that nearly all my pieces were miniatures and I think the nature of my material initially dictated the brevity of these pieces. But in 1996 when writing Riis I wanted to find out how to make a longer span of music using deliberately limited, very static material. I wanted to find out whether it was possible for me to make a longer movement out of this sort of material. I’ve continued to explore that in other pieces such as John White in Berlin (2003), Movement for 10 Musicians (2003), Ullrich 1 and 2 (2006) and West Sussex Folk Material (2006), among others. To make the larger structures work well requires modifying your approach to the material but I definitely don’t want to change my fundamental relationship with it.

One of the other things which interests me about your work, which relates to that, is the idea of a one-idea piece, which is very focused. We’ve talked about focusing material a little bit already but is the one-idea piece, of which a lot of different composers have written a lot of different examples, something which is central to how you work?

Yes, it is.

Something which sets something up and just does it?

Yes, that sort of single-minded approach is absolutely central to my work so far.

Because there are some pieces, I’m thinking of pieces like Ullrich 1 and 2 where there are quite different types of material in it as well, where that’s not so much the case?

I think in Ullrich 1 and 2 it’s different types of material in different movements. I would still think of them very much as single-minded movements. With Movement for 10 Musicians, for the Ives Ensemble, I’ve got those two chordal objects, which are similar; they integrate with each other and I definitely see that piece as a very single-minded sort of work, even with the interludes, which are pitched in a slightly different tonal centre. The interludes – for want of a better word – are really there to offset the main material. This is the same in John White in Berlin. In West Sussex Folk Material, my orchestral piece, there are two sorts of material, one rising and one falling, but really they are cut from the same cloth. I’m really mentioning all my larger structures as it almost goes without saying that the single-idea concept applies more or less throughout my shorter pieces.

A friend who heard one of my recent pieces described it to me as kind of music in extreme close-up, like using a microscope on certain little elements. I do want to pare everything away and try to make it as stripped down as possible. So far in the new Ives Ensemble piece I am working with many repetitions of a single chord, and the opening of the work is fixated with this chord for nearly 3 minutes.

So as a final question, obviously an adjective which is used in relation to your work is simplicity and I was wondering what your feeling towards that was and also perhaps the use of humour and how you feel about those two areas?

When thinking about simplicity in music I always refer back to the impact that Howard Skempton’s work had on me when I was still a teenager and student; it was a revelation. I didn’t know that music like that existed until in the autumn of 1980 I heard a fellow student play some of Howard’s piano pieces from the very early Faber volume of his work and it was really that experience that sent me in the direction I’ve gone I think, and it’s not one I want to leave. I want to keep exploring music of extreme simplicity, there’s still a lot more work to be done!

Of course my aim is to make pieces which are unique in themselves while retaining a connection to my output as a whole, that is to say stylistic identity is extremely important to me. I also want to continue to try to explore different ways of structuring pieces but I want the surface of my music to remain essentially extremely simple, with very basic material at its heart, even if sometimes the textures might become a bit more rich and colourful, as in some recent works. Simplicity is to me essential and fundamental and I am totally and utterly committed to that aesthetic.

I suppose in a different way like with Feldman, it is not simple music, because it is pared down as you say it has its own complexity which results from that.

I think so. Yes I think so, so in a way I think simplicity is maybe the wrong word?

I think clarity is a better one perhaps.

Clarity is a much better word I agree. As regards humour, well, I mean I don’t know what to say about that really. Sometimes what one finds very funny, other people find very painful.

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  1. […] is the interview with Laurence Crane that we recorded in June 2007. Laurence preferred to do a spoken interview, and after struggling to […]

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