Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.
– Auden, from “Heavy Date”
As an album title, “Drones, Scales and Objects” resonates on several levels. It immediately calls our attention to salient aspects of Laurence Crane’s music, which is indeed full of the objects so obligingly itemized. In that way, the seemingly utilitarian list actually serves an important critical function, attuning us to particular musical qualities at the expense of others: guiding our listening. Of course, all titles double as heuristic devices; however, there is a peculiar subtlety to the ways in which Cikada Ensemble’s new album relates to its name.
Most obviously, it alludes to Crane’s own tendency to wield words with Satie-like eccentricity. The titles of his pieces often harbor an unresolved tension between detached objectivity, half-veiled personal reference, and programmatic suggestiveness. Sparling (1992), the album’s second track, is simply named after clarinetist Andrew Sparling. The individual movements of Estonia (2001) also bear proper names—conspicuously including that of Arvo Pärt. Crane elaborates in the CD booklet:
My titling of these 3 movements, using names of famous Estonians, was based on my very unscientific observation that a lot of Estonians seem to have a family name and a given name both consisting of 4 characters. I was asked about this in a radio interview… The interviewer proposed that this observation had also led to both the instrumentation and the tendency towards 4-part harmony in the work overall. I disagreed with the interviewer’s observation. But maybe I should have agreed?
Notice how Crane distances himself from his names. The movements were not “named after” individuals; rather, it was a matter of “using names” selected according to the rather abstract property of number. Yet if we look to the magic number four as some kind of unifying principle we find that it has already been undermined by Crane’s assertion that it was chosen merely on the basis of an “unscientific observation.” On the issue of whether there are musical qualities that correspond to the number, Crane is equally elusive. In the end, Crane’s detached attitude towards naming is also directed towards his own music. I did not invoke the notion of distance lightly: by flaunting the arbitrariness of his titles, Crane is distancing himself from his own works, and doing so by using a veil of words behind which he can comfortably lay aside traditional notions of musical expressivity. Yet these notions will not be so easily laid aside, and herein lies one of the most productive tensions inherent in Crane’s work.
Consider Sparling. The clarinet reiterates an upward stepwise gesture, framed by rising piano chords. At a certain level of descriptive abstraction—the level of texture—that is all that happens. The piece may therefore reasonably be described as sparse. And yet for all its laconic qualities, Sparling strikes the ear with undeniable expressivity; however apparent its ambient leanings, this music refuses to fade into background. Part of the logic behind its strong appeal to our attention is its peculiar use of tonality.
It is a standard trope, in writings about Crane, to point out that he uses tonality in order to subvert listener expectations. Indeed, there is something precocious about the way Crane handles tonal material (as awkward as the adjective might appear affixed to a composer who has been active for more than three decades). Sparling evidences what is perhaps Crane’s most characteristic device: the reiterated gesture that also functions as a cadence. In traditional tonal practice, cadences establish an expectation of repose, which may be affirmed or denied depending on the desired effect. Repose is typically understood in harmonic terms, as a careful (or at least standard) resolution of dissonance, but it is complicated in Crane’s case by a minimalist’s penchant for reiteration and subtle voice leading.
The way Sparling develops is a case in point. The slow succession of three ascending chords in the piano sets up an expectation that the clarinet line will be resolved. A resolution arrives almost immediately, on the final chord of the piano’s initial iteration. Nevertheless, its finality is attenuated by means of voicing (adepts of music analysis might recognize this as an instance of an imperfect authentic cadence). The next time around, however, the (now expected) resolution is thwarted. Although each iteration of the rising gesture doubles as a cadence, and thus in a sense stands alone, Crane establishes formal continuity by placing the cadences within a hierarchical framework, wherein some are more final than others. This is not so different from the technique of any canonical tonal composer. In Crane’s music, however, rather than serving to reinforce structurally significant points within a predetermined form, cadences prefer to follow a formal logic of their own. In Sparling, the most decidedly final cadence is positioned not at the end of the work but rather near the beginning, just before the solo piano section; as a result, the piece feels simultaneously open-ended and tightly controlled.
All in Pieces
The juxtaposition may be accounted for, in part, by the fact that Crane’s compositional practice is informed by an experimental tradition which conceives of form neither as a particular shape nor as a narrative arc, but rather as a process whose goal-directedness—though active, perhaps, at the local level of gesture and phrase—tends to be attenuated at the broadest level. In this way, the style encourages fragmentation, the sense of wholeness in parts. Each particular gesture is carefully rendered, while the work as a whole is left without a strong sense of finality.
Philip Thomas has provided a thorough précis of Crane’s compositional influences in a recent Tempo article: Cage and the New York School on one side of the pond, and the English Experimentalists associated with Cornelius Cardew on the other. During his student days at the University of Nottingham in the 1980s, Crane developed a particular affinity for the music of Morton Feldman—eventually organizing concerts of his works—as well as the piano pieces of the former Cardew associate Howard Skempton. Yet behind the Anglo-American connection, there lies an even older Continental influence: that of Erik Satie. Apart from the already-noted similarity in their eccentric use of text, Crane is enamored of the French composer’s characteristically naïve lilt.
The album is bookended by pieces that strongly bear Satie’s stylistic imprint. Simon 10 Holt 50 (2011) is anchored by a two-chord obbligato that invokes the eponymous composer (Simeon ten Holt) in all but name. At the other end, the last movement of the above-mentioned Estonia, named “Arvo Pärt,” is similarly committed to Satie’s model, though it maps his characteristically pianistic texture onto winds and strings. Certainly, the preponderance of oblique motion—in which one voice moves while another stands still—overlaps with aspects of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique, yet the gesture is unmistakably Satie’s. In fact, Satie’s penchant for the oblique—like Crane’s I believe—transcends musical bounds to suggest an attitude towards life, one modeled after the bemused detachment of a cosmopolitan artist.
Informed by the mid-20th century experimental tradition writ large, Crane’s process-oriented approach to composition is ultimately wedded to a particular notion of performance. It is at the embodied level of performance, in fact, that the relative values of detachment and expressivity find their site of contestation. The notion of physical effort as a kind of disinterested intuition is present at both ends of the process. At one end, that of composition, Crane develops his sonic objects at the keyboard. Therefore, the basic elements of his compositional language—all those drones, scales, and objects—are developed by means of a tactile approach. At the other end of the process, performers are charged with the task of submitting as fully as possible to the characteristic sparsity of his scores.
Crane has made it a habit to work closely with ensembles, a practice which assures him a high degree of control over performance style. For a number of years, he was affiliated with the English ensemble Apartment House, with whom he released an album of chamber works in 2013, on Another Timbre. For this latest recording project, however, Crane collaborated with the Oslo-based ensemble Cikada, whose performative self-abnegation is perhaps even more pronounced (or maybe I should say less pronounced) than the already exquisite reticence of Apartment House.
The Four Miniatures (2003) are illustrative. The opening movement, “Extremely Quiet” barely suggests its own presence. Low rumbling hovers at the edge of audibility, punctuated only by a slight note on the piano and breathy flute tones. “Soft” perks up with a rising flute gesture. The third movement, “Light,” feels almost exuberant in comparison not only to the other movements but also to the album as a whole. Yet it still comes across as an automated exuberance, like that of a music box: a delightful unwinding of high ringing and rhythmic plucking. The last movement, also titled “Soft,” features a bright-toned, ascending gesture on the violin, cradled by a subtly layered drone. Throughout, the members of Cikada perform with a degree of precision that might be vaunted of in many contexts but is simply a prerequisite for Crane.
The same observation applies to the next track on the album, Come Back to the Old Specimen Cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 (2007). As in Sparling, clarinetist Rolf Borch confines himself to a straight tone that is crystalline in its precision and consistently rich in resonance. The percussion shuffles unassumingly in Bjørn Rabben’s hands. “Erki Nool” (from Estonia) is, if anything, even more restrained. Kenneth Karlsson articulates the piano chords with a marvelously restrained clarity, while Anna Karine Hauge whispers bright intensities on the flute.
Crane’s insistence on a performance style that flattens personal interpretation is telling. At issue is a particular notion of the musical work. Crane wants to objectify his works as much as possible, in order that agency may be deflected from either the composer or the performer, and be attributed instead to the work itself, or rather to particular gestures within the work. For what is even more important to Crane than the perceived autonomy of any individual work is the presence of a limited, though variable set of sounding objects that appear across different pieces. They are the real objects of his affection, peopling his works like a cast of familiar characters. Crane attests to as much in the liner notes:
When I am composing music, I think that there is a pool of characteristic material that I am regularly exploring and re-working. A suitable analogy might be a large box containing a number of objects… I keep opening this box, maybe taking out something that I have used previously and wondering how it might behave in a different context.
Thus, Crane’s approach is experimental in the strictest sense: particular phenomena (the sounding objects) are isolated as much as possible from variable factors (such as the performer’s expressivity) in order that their individual properties might be ascertained. It might sound like a dry working method, but it implies its own rhetorical efficacy, a kind of gravitas that comes with stylistic restraint. It lends Crane’s works an air of quiet musing.
Riis (1996), for example, floats on the hazy ambience of electric organ, beautifully rendered by Christian Eggen. The clarinet reinforces pointillistic arpeggiations in the upper register. Nothing is too forward, or too doggedly asserted. The boundary between foreground and background is tenuously porous. Riis is nevertheless a sounding object that, like almost every Crane work I have encountered, compels one to listen closely. In thrall to these sonorous presences, we become implicated in what the late anthropologist of art Alfred Gell would have termed an agent-patient relationship. Gell did not consider agency to be a categorical value but rather a relational one: people and works of art may alternately assume either the role of agent or patient, depending on the circumstances. Successful works of art are those which manage to act on us, even to exercise power over us. In that way, they become people and we, in turn, objects—for the time being. By developing a musical style that so consistently seals itself off from interpretation—whether that of performers or (more surreptitiously) listeners—Crane has not, in fact, created objects that compel our affection. Rather, he has compelled us to become objects of their affection.
Damjan Rakonjac is a composer, critic, and musicologist. He writes criticism for the LA Times and the Artificialist blog, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at UCLA.