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at210 Laurence Crane ‘Natural World’
Juliet Fraser (voice & Casio keyboard)
Mark Knoop (piano & electronics)
Song cycle ifrom 2021 n three parts:
Cover photograph by Laurence Crane
Interview with Laurence Crane
How did Natural World come about?
Juliet Fraser asked me to write a piece for her and Mark Knoop, and she then did a great job raising funding for it. The thing we agreed first was that it would be a lengthy piece – though it’s turned out longer than we’d imagined. The term bandied around originally was ‘song cycle’, and when you think of a song cycle you think of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ or ‘Die schöne Müllerin’, and I was trying to work out what a song cycle could mean nowadays. I suppose that it implies a vocal work in parts which is themed in some way. I very much admired the ‘Andersen Lieder’ Michael Finnissy wrote for Juliet and Mark based on the work of Hans Christian Andersen, and I felt I would have to do something of similar substance that was also themed. So I was looking round for ages for what I wanted to write about, and Juliet pointed me towards the writings of Rachel Carson, the American ecologist who was writing in the middle of the last century, and I decided that yes, I wanted to write something about the natural world. But I didn’t want to do it in a way that was beating people over the head to try and put a message across; it’s more like reflecting on aspects of this thing.
I’ve often approvingly cited your song ‘Tour de France Statistics’, where the text is literally a list of sports statistics, as a good illustration of how meaningless texts are in music. I suppose I’m quite hardline on this; I don’t like mixed media works with videos and so on, and I prefer music that is completely ‘abstract’ and non-programmatic, that doesn’t use texts or make any external references. But when I heard ‘Natural World’ live, everything went completely against that for me because, although you don’t refer explicitly to the climate crisis, it did make me start thinking about – or better – feeling the fragility of the eco-system in crisis, and it actually reduced me to tears. So were you wanting to say something of significance in this piece from the start?
Well, I don’t know. The piece you refer to – ‘Tour de France Statistics 1903 – 2003’, to give it its full title – is another piece where I construct a text based on a list, and I’d already done this in an earlier piece called ‘Events’ which I wrote in the 1990’s, which uses lists of facts from small columns in The Guardian. So yes, this comes from a sense of texts in music being problematic, partly for the reasons you suggest, but also because if you set a piece of poetry, you immediately start to erode what that poem is by imposing your own musical activity on it. I heard Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ read on the radio the other day; it’s a beautiful, sad and powerful poem, but I can’t hear it being read without immediately thinking of Benjamin Britten’s setting of it in The War Requiem. I used to love that as a teenager, but I feel the music has changed the original poetry, whose own rhythms and internal ‘music’ have been obscured, or defaced almost by Britten’s setting. And so I’m very wary of setting poems, and prefer to go to something more neutral, like a list or something that is not so precious as a poem, and so can adapt more easily to the musical activity or vision. Another example would be my piece ‘European Towns’, which also contains lists of things.
‘Natural World’ begins quite playfully with not quite a list, but encyclopaedia-style texts about birds, but then at some point it shifts to a darker and more poetic place – that phrase ‘A strange place of beauty, the edge of the sea’ has been going round my head for ages – but one that also edges into environmental politics. Now in general I think that politics and music don’t mix well, and most attempts to combine the two just don’t work for me, but ‘Natural World’ is an exception in that it genuinely does make me feel things more deeply, or more sharply. Presumably you were intending to move into this kind of political engagement from the start?
I sort of have to say ‘no’ in a way, in that when I’m writing a piece I’m just trying to get from A to B, and when I started writing ‘Natural World’ I didn’t know that it was going to end like that. I didn’t know it was going to be in three sections, and so I obviously didn’t know what the end section was going to be. I knew there was going to be a long piano introduction, because I’d done something similar in ‘European Towns’, where Juliet doesn’t start singing for the first ten minutes, and I liked that sense of scale. And I knew that the piano introduction was going to lead into a setting of a number of texts with facts about birds which I’d compiled, but that was all really. So I had no vision of what the end was, and how it would turn out, right until the last few weeks.
Wow, that really surprises me! What about the use of field recordings? Was that something you’d planned from the start?
It’s difficult to think back to exactly what the thought process was at the time, but Mark Knoop is king of the sampler, and my friend Matthew Schlomowitz has written some great pieces for Mark where he uses the sampler a lot. I didn’t want to use it in exactly the same way, but at some point I just thought, well, if I’m writing about birds, then perhaps they ought to be there. I’ve used tapes in other pieces, but I’ve not used field recordings before, and I thought this was the time to do it. Then I had the idea of the individual bird samples at the end of the first section morphing into the dawn chorus, which underpins the whole of the second movement.
And then the sea sample in the third section – I just thought one day that we’d kind of take a break to listen to the sound of the sea itself. This comes partly from what I think is an amazing section in the Tarkovsky film ‘Solaris’, where there’s a car journey when the astronaut Chris is being driven from his home in the country to the space centre. This lasts four or five minutes in the film, but has no consequence or narrative progression at all. It’s just an accumulation of traffic with Chris just sitting in the car. It could easily have been cut out, but I think it’s a fantastic moment where the film just takes a break. And I wanted to do something similar, so I asked Mark to construct a moment’s pause using samples of the sound of the sea.
Did you make the recordings yourself?
No, they’re from open source websites, and Mark edited them. The instruction in the score is that he takes three or four sea recordings, plays one for about a minute, introduces another one, then another one, and so accumulates an assembly. He’s done it beautifully, and it becomes what I think is a surprising moment in a performance.
I also want to ask about the sense of melancholy at the end of the piece. This also happens in ‘European Towns’, which is like a lament for the ending of the UK’s membership of the European Union. But ‘Natural World’ is dealing with a wider sadness about what we are doing to the planet, and the fragility of the eco-systems that we’re destroying. Music does melancholy and lament very well, but is that something you were aiming at from the start, or did it just evolve as you were composing the piece?
Well, I think there’s a strong vein of melancholy in my music generally….
….it wouldn’t appear on Another Timbre if there wasn’t!
The most melancholic CD label on the planet! But yes, although there are other things going on in my music as well, I think that I am drawn to melancholy and it’s bubbling under the surface in most of my pieces. I suppose it’s something to do with the harmonies of the music, or the speed of it as well, and in this case I think there’s also something melancholic about synthesised sine tones. So melancholy is always there as a possibility, and it will come through at times like this.