Håkon Stene interviews Laurence Crane

Laurence-CraneBritish composer Laurence Crane´s works where heavily featured on Håkon Stene´s critically acclaimed album “Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal” that was released earlier this year. Together with his ensemble Stene will perform works from this album at a concert at London´s Café Oto on November 21. Here´s an interview with Laurence Crane, conducted by Håkon Stene.
Håkon Stene: Could you give us the story of your way into music? What inspired you initially? And where do you look for inspiration today?
Laurence Crane: I think my interest in music has its origins in 2 main sources. One was my father’s collection of vinyl LP’s of classical repertoire. When I was growing up he was always playing music in our home, his particular enthusiasms were chamber music, mainly by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, and song, particularly German lieder. Also Russian music, particularly Shostakovich. He had very specific taste in music; even today he remains thoroughly unconvinced by organ and choral music. I explored his collection and as a result started to go to chamber music concerts in my hometown of Oxford. My other stimulus at that time was rock and pop. It’s inevitable that composers born since the second world war will have a background and education in both classical and popular genres. In my case, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s rock and pop was still relatively new and still developing rapidly, this was exciting to witness. Where do I look for inspiration today? I’m constantly listening to music so it could come from anywhere. I am particularly interested in what my composer friends and colleagues are doing and I often look at something that one of them has done in a piece and think “I’d like to have a go at doing that” That’s not to say that I want to write a pastiche, it’s always going to come out sounding different and it’s really just a starting point.
HS: We are constantly surrounded by sounds. To what extent do the sound of your surroundings influence your music? And how would you describe the connection (if any) between your life and your music? 
LC: I live in an urban environment and have done so for many years but if I lived in a remote part of the countryside I feel sure that I would write the same music. So in that sense, I think that the sounds of my surroundings have no impact on my music at all. But in other, more subconscious ways, they might do. I do find myself listening a lot to the way that sounds exist and are combined in the environment that I am in and this could well have some bearing on the way I assemble things in my music. But I can’t be exactly sure as to how this might happen, I certainly haven’t analysed it. I think that events and experiences in my everyday life do sometimes give rise to a train of thought that might result in a new piece of work. But the impetus for the building blocks of that piece of work – the material – remains entirely musical.
HS: Have you had encounters with the art works of others that have completely altered your own musical thinking, either in a positive (i.e. creative) way or in a negative way (for instance, leading you into a creative crisis)? 
LC: I always cite my first experience of the early piano music of Howard Skempton – hearing some played in a concert when I was around 20 years old – as having a monumental impact on me. It suggested possibilities that I was previously completely unaware of. This does not mean that it is my favourite music of all time; there is a lot of music that is extremely important to me but Skempton’s early work remains the thing that has had the most seismic effect so far on my way of thinking.
HS: Is there a “message” to be heard from your music, political or otherwise, beyond its (mostly) calming surface? What is its underlying idea and motivation?
LC: No message at all; my motivation is to create music that is completely itself and authentic.
HS: How would you describe your own musical signature in relation to other artists whose work you relate to: what makes it unique, and how do you keep it alive?  Where does self-repetition begin? 
LC: I’m not sure I’m the right person to articulate what might make the music unique; other people more adept than me at this sort of thing – and perhaps at more distance from the music’s inception – would be able to offer a clearer idea of that. There are composers whose work has had an impact on my own; early Skempton – as I have already mentioned – the late works of Morton Feldman, most of the music that John Cage composed in the 1940s, Erik Satie, the Swiss composer Juerg Frey, early American minimalism, James Tenney, Galina Ustvolskaya, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox…I am wary of making too much of a list as something of that nature can never be exhaustive. How do I keep it alive? I think one thing that I do is to be aware and open to the possibility of making tangential diversions from work to work. So, following my nose, I might explore something that seemed quite insignificant in one piece and perhaps start investigating it under a magnifying glass in another piece. It may or may not be a new direction but it will perhaps show different areas of exploration in my work. Where does self-repetition begin? I think there’s good self-repetition and bad self-repetition…the good type involves reinforcing and refining what is strong in ones work, the bad is when you run out of ideas.
HS: Besides perhaps humour and self-irony, am I correct in assuming that the most important factors at play in your music is diatonic harmonic blocks and instrumentation, i.e. timbre? This conception of musical material differs quite strongly from that of continental New Music avant-garde and American experimentalism – traditions I know you somehow associate yourself with, perhaps more so than minimal music and post-modern new simplicity. Could you explain this connection?
LC: Well, I’m not entirely sure that I do properly and completely associate myself with either of the traditions that you mention…for me there’s no point in writing music that merely imitates or sounds exactly like other music. So composers have to find a way of marking out their own territory; making an artistic statement that is entirely their own. This involves being bold and fearless in ones choices and decisions and not worrying at all about what people think about your work because once you do that you will probably allow a degree of compromise which will weaken the authenticity of the music. Of course, when I say that composers should find an approach that is entirely their own I do not mean that there will be absolutely no traces at all of any other music; all music relates to other music in some way or other. My approach to musical material has not been formulated with any sort of philosophical, polemical or theoretical basis, it is something that I have evolved over the years by trial and error and my techniques and methods are held together with bits of string and sticky tape.
HS: Although I know you advocate a high degree of objectivity and autonomy on behalf of the musical material itself, I believe I am not alone in sensing something deeply melancholic behind its clear-cut structures. Are these aspects relevant to you at all, do you have an inclination towards melancholy, an interest in the meditative aspects of sound, or is this all UTTER NONSENSE? 
A fine example could perhaps be the piano piece Blue Blue Blue that I recorded for Lush Laments. When I talked to you about how I interpreted a lot of bluesiness into it, you came up with quite a different story for this title. Could you repeat that for new readers?
LC: No, I won’t repeat the story because it’s fine for people to construct their own interpretations of what the work is. The power of words and their associations; you’ve used two interesting ones here, melancholic and meditative. I would concede that in my work there is an inclination towards melancholy…I am not sure whether I personally have a melancholic disposition but I do accept that certain combinations of notes that I use are inherently melancholic…I’m not sure that I can effectively analyse why this is so. Meditative…I’ve never been entirely certain about this word, it suggests something possibly a bit too ‘new age’. You talk about ‘the meditative aspects of sound’…some people have certainly said that they find my work extremely meditative but does this mean that they are meditating on it or to it? And if they are meditating to it surely that means that they are not properly listening to it?! Or am I completely missing the point here? Probably!
Photo: Ben McMahon / The Wire