Laurence Crane at 60

Laurence Crane and Roderick Chadwick meet for an in-depth chat at Barbican lakeside before Laurence’s 60th birthday Festival

Tickets available from the Barbican website. Part of the Festival of Laurence Crane.

RC Many thanks for coming along, Laurence. So we’re here to talk about the Plus Minus concert that’s happening on the 19th October, in which we’re going to play two of your pieces: it’s a great combination because it’s the Octet, which Plus Minus has played several times – unusually, at regular intervals throughout the life of the group…

LC …over thirteen years…

RC …that’s right; and Cobbled Section After Cobbled Section, which is a new arrangement by Mark Knoop of your orchestral piece [of the same name]. First of all I wanted to chat about Octet, because it’s a piece which is close to all of us, and I love playing it; it was one of the last things we did before the lockdown in fact, in Edinburgh.

LC In Edinburgh and Ghent.

RC Indeed, Ghent as well. I’d like to ask you about the inspiration for the piece, because clearly it’s something designed for the group — as you’ve said, you often write pieces for performers you know well — and in particular this is a piece with auxiliary parts in it, for which I guess you had Matthew [Shlomowitz] and Joanna [Bailie] in mind. So the makeup of Plus Minus influenced the scoring, right?

LC* Absolutely. When I’m starting a piece, or even when I’m quite far into a piece, I’m usually trying to juggle disparate elements, a number of different things that will hopefully coalesce to make the piece. And one incredibly important thing with starting this piece was the instrumentation, and how the instrumentation shaped the material in a way. And yes, you’re right to say that the auxiliary instruments were very much part of that. But the first thing that I established was that I wanted to use an instrumentation that gave me this very sostenuto texture — so, for example, I have you playing the electric organ, it’s an instrument I’ve used in many pieces, it appeals to me greatly. And then, of course, I found that Mark also played the accordion (as well as doing various other things), so I could use that… and bass clarinet, clarinet, violin and cello are also sustaining instruments. Then also you have the electric guitar, which you can sustain using electronic bows (EBows). So straight away I’ve got this collection of instruments that can make a particularly rich and sustained texture.

The other elements were that, back in 2008, I wanted to write a piece that involved all the members of Plus Minus — including the founding co-directors Matthew Shlomowitz and Joanna Bailie. And I had these really beautiful drones I’d recorded a few years earlier, and I recorded them with the harpist Rhodri Davies. We used EBows on the low octave of a concert harp — these are the metal strings — and we created recorded drones for use in the piece that I wrote for him with a pre-recorded part. These drones were too good just to leave in one piece, so I was looking for an opportunity to use them again; and this came about as part of the auxiliary instruments (being anything that aren’t, as it were, ‘proper’ instruments). So we have the drones on playback devices of some sort — at the time of the composition they were played back on portable cassette recorders I think, now they’re played back through more sophisticated means. The other thing was creating a sort of unpitched drone with what I call homemade percussion, which comes from the friction of something on a wooden surface.

RC This is a sound I really like: coins on a wooden surface?

LC At one point the auxiliary players use coins, and you place the coin on a small wooden board, and rotate it round the board with your finger, and it makes a continuous scraping noise. The other is akin to something percussionists might do, which is sandpaper, though it’s actually more what I call kitchen paper — anything you might wrap sandwiches in — foil or greaseproof paper, that you again rotate around the board to make a continuous noise layer.

RC A little bit like the sound of that tray that was being moved across the table next to us...although with more friction.

LC Indeed! Although it wasn’t that sustained…but it’s a similar thing, yes. I think I’ve since heard other percussionists call them ‘low friction sounds’ — which I didn’t know at the time.

RC Was it the sounds that came to you first? You talk sometimes about working with materials, with harmonies that are familiar, and putting them in unfamiliar contexts. But with the sounds themselves, do you imagine them and then think ‘how can I reproduce that — ah, I’ll use a chopping board!’ Or is it that you’re fascinated by the objects and want to see what you can get from them?

LC Well a bit of both, but I would say that in this case there’s a thing that I do… things get carried over from work to work, so it’s a sound I’d used in a previous piece, that I discovered accidentally really, by messing around with kitchen objects. I’d imported that from a previous piece — you could say the same for all the auxiliary stuff — and placed them in this very new context. These two sounds underpin the texture of the whole ensemble, with the drones taking on greater importance as the piece progresses.

The other thing about the drones is that I can’t actually remember what pitches I wrote down when I made the drones, and they’re not in the score of Octet - the score just indicates to the players how long they’re meant to sustain the sound (homemade percussion or drone) — but the pitches are not entirely lined up with the harmony of the ensemble, so that makes a nice tension and radiance.

RC You’ve made me think — going off at a bit of a tangent — of the sounds at the beginning of Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here [the album], which you reference in one of your pieces [Riis] where you ask for an organ sound somewhat like the beginning of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part 1’, so I know it’s in your aural imagination. But I didn’t know until recently, watching a documentary on the album, that the squeaking corkscrew noise very near the beginning apparently came from about five years before, when they were looking to make an album out of household objects.

LC I didn’t know that, that’s a fantastic fact.

RC It’s interesting that, although you often write for small forces, you’ve made Plus Minus feel like a larger group than we often do – eight players, and now playing an arrangement of an orchestral piece in this programme. In Octet there’s quite a sense of build-up through the piece, and I wondered whether this is a point in your composing life where you change your attitude towards continuity, accumulation, having a goal in your music?

LC Yes; I feel that in this piece there’s a slight ambiguity as to whether it is actually going anywhere. So at the end of the piece you’ve got this feeling that you have travelled somewhere, but it also feels like you’re still partly in the same place as you were at the start of the piece. It might be different for every listener’s perception. But certainly at that time I was attempting larger-scale structures, and I was trying to work out – having spent a long time writing miniatures and short pieces and them being very much single ideas, very static, not moving anywhere much, maybe lasting just a few minutes... I was trying to work out how I might build bigger structures but using the same kind of static material. That was the thing I was exploring in Octet in 2008, and in a long piano piece called Piano Piece No. 23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ where you get a gradual accumulation, partly through the pulse of the music just going up by very small increments. In Octet there’s a long section at the start which is more or less one chord. The harmonic rhythm then speeds up little by little, and that also gives the idea of some sort of accumulation.

RC Yes, with ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’, I don’t know whether it’s a piece that’s about marathon runners, or track runners, but maybe the idea of going round a track, gaining momentum but ending up in the place where they started…

LC Oh that’s very good.

RC It fits the trajectory of both those pieces somehow.

LC Absolutely, they do the same sort of thing. I think of Octet as if it’s on colour TV, and ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ as being on black and white — as it’s a piano piece. Or perhaps that the piano piece is a kind of pencil drawing, and Octet is a colour painting.

RC It’s interesting, I’d not thought of the two pieces together as being so close — despite having played both in the same concert [Laurence’s 50th birthday concert at King’s Place in February 2011] — but that’s going to be something for me to feed off in the next few days [RC will play No. 23 at the Festival symposium, also on 19 October]. The piano piece certainly feels colourful as it explores plenty of different tonalities, and momentums, if that makes sense.

LC I think so.

RC But the Octet, of course, is fantastically colourful, so I think I can see your point. Now let’s move on to talk about Cobbled Section After Cobbled Section; this is a piece that’s less familiar to me — we haven’t performed it before — and this was originally written for the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow, five years ago for the BBCSSO, wasn’t it?

LC That’s right, so Cobbled Section After Cobbled Section in its original version is my second orchestral piece, and as you say it was commissioned by the BBC and given its first performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov. It’s the same sort of length as Octet, but it’s actually in two movements of more or less equal duration, round about eight or nine minutes each. So Matthew and Mark [Knoop] had the idea of making an arrangement of this piece.

RC Quite a few of your pieces have been redrawn for different forces – Sparling for example, I’ve played as a clarinet and piano piece but it exists in other versions. Is this a similar thing?

LC I don’t think it is really, it’s more like a creative transcription; I look on most of the versions of Sparling as straight arrangements really — I didn’t intend that to happen at first, it just happened that way. But here, I don’t think that Mark in his arrangement is looking to recreate the sound of the orchestra; he’s looking to transcribe it for this particular ensemble, and he’s used lots of clever things to do that, like the drones that he’s used in the sampler part which are made out of all sorts of different things.

RC Yes, as we speak I think he’s working on finding different organ sounds.

LC That’s right , he’s doing that very successfully, and literally as we speak.

RC Is there anything else to say about the title, is this more a kind of agglomeration, a putting-together of things, than your music is normally?

LC* It certainly is, but the title actually comes from a quote from the cyclist Chris Froome, who was being interviewed after a stage of the Tour de France — either 2014 or 2015 — which went over cobbled roads in northern France, roads used in the Paris-Roubaix cycling race every spring, and he was referring to being grateful to a team-mate who’d helped shepherd him over “cobbled section after cobbled section”.

RC OK!

LC I enjoyed that quotation very much, and jotted it down at the time as a possible title.

RC Many people know that you’re a keen cycling fan — so is the team help even more important when you get to rough terrain?

LC It absolutely is!

RC I see — in my mind I saw the cobbles that come in the London Marathon, around the time that the runners ‘hit the wall’ as they say, around the 20 mile mark near the Tower of London, and apparently that is also pretty awkward.

LC Yeah.

RC And also there are different kinds of material [sounding concurrently], would that be right? I’m hearing in recent pieces such as your Piano Quintet, where there are different kinds of harmonic material juxtaposed — is this happening more in your music these days?

LC It definitely is. The idea of actually presenting different materials concurrently is something I started to explore in a piece immediately prior to that, a piece for thirteen players called Chamber Symphony No. 2 'The Australian'. This happens right at the start of Cobbled Section After Cobbled Section. Throughout the first movement, there’s a sequence of chords, and I overlay material based on multiple whole tone scales, put directly on top of the chords. I was curious to see what it would sound like!

RC And at the opening, I love what you’ve written: ‘Very cadential’, for the first few bars.

LC Yes, so there’s a perfect cadence at the start, marked — as you say — ‘very cadential’. Because it is!

RC You could ask the classic question here, which performers tend to ask in symposiums: is the composer just describing what their music sounds like, or are they telling you what to do? I’ve been trying to imagine the rehearsals, and whether you’ll be saying “play it more cadentially!”. But in a way, looking at the score just dissolves that question: that’s what the music is, and that’s what we’ll all be partaking in.

LC I could characterize the materials in the whole piece as being in a constant state of wanting to resolve, but not ever properly doing so; the materials all feel slightly valedictory.

RC Throughout the piece, or that’s something they’re working towards?

LC Throughout the piece. Does that make sense?

RC It does, yes.

LC In the sense that… I mean, the chorale in the winds (and in this version the organ part), the chords are going round, they don’t resolve anywhere, it could go on perpetually.

RC They’re pretty potent in themselves [the chords].

LC They are, absolutely — and the whole tone scales just tail off, they just go down the scale. It’s certainly a different approach from Octet.

RC When you write organ parts are you always imagining they’re classic Hammond sounds, or something similar? Is it a particularly referential instrument for you?

LC Well it is — you mentioned earlier that I referenced Pink Floyd in the score of my trio Riis; I think I referenced four songs including ‘Shine On...’, from the which the organ sounds would be… more than acceptable!

RC I’m not sure which we were closest to in our last performance — I had to deal with an organ which, mid-performance, started to cut the chords off when I put down the sustaining pedal…

LC There’s a quote about show-business isn’t there? “Never work with children or animals”. Perhaps “Never work with electronics” would be our version… although obviously I’ve gone beyond that now…

RC I wanted to ask you a general question as well, because I’ve been reading Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s book Music After the Fall, which is already something of a classic, and you feature in it in several places. He remarks that you’re somebody who listens to tonal material “with an experimentalist’s ear” and don’t think of it in its traditional functional way. I suspect that you agree with him about that, and he’s partly basing it on things you have said; has it always been the case for you?

LC I think probably it has, yes, I think he’s absolutely right. It’s a thing where I would take something familiar, some harmonic sequence that’s familiar from old music, but willfully ignore the function that it was originally performing. I really treat harmonies like things to be moved around on a board.

RC If your audience got a particular kind of message from them — for example I attended the premiere, I think, of your Pieces About Art [at Bishopsgate Institute in 2014], brilliantly performed by EXAUDI. The first piece seems to be a cri de coeur that features some very expressive harmonies, with romantic-era connotations even — is it fair enough for me to hear it that way?

LC It’s fine to hear it that way. I was telling a very sad story, which was the refusal of… oh no, I don’t need to go there!

RC Have we covered everything, do you think? Is there anything else you consider important?

LC Well the other thing about the title is that the first movement is called ‘Cobbled Section’, and the second ‘After Cobbled Section’, and I don’t know whether this is worth saying, but the second movement starts as if it’s carrying on the first movement, and then it just goes off somewhere different.

RC Like the cyclists might do, if they get lost in the old town… well it’s great to hear all these things about the music as we’re tackling it, so thanks for sharing it with us Laurence, and we’re really looking forward to performing your music on the 19th of October.

LC Thank you!

Laurence Crane at 60
Anton Lukoszevieze