I was not quite sure what to make of this music when I first read - or
tried to read - the liner-notes before listening to the CD. However, after
hearing an insipid and monotonous piano piece by Ludovico Einaudi on Classic
FM, I realised Eric Craven is a composer who has imagination, a principled
compositional technique and last but not least, a sense of continual
development seemingly denied to the Italian. This is a worthy recording that
is not quite as formidable as it may first appear.
Who is Eric Craven? Alas, neither the liner notes nor the Internet tell us
much about his life, work and achievement. He has declared that this
hermetic state is deliberate: he desires 'to work in isolation without
reference to, or connection with, any other musicians.' On the other hand he
clearly needs the present pianist and recording engineers to realise his
music. He admits to having taught maths and music in his home town of
Manchester. Craven has composed music since his teen years. He is cagey
about revealing his date of birth and he doesn't. Finally, it was only
recently that his first album of piano music was released on Metier MSV28525
present disc is his second.
Fortunately, Eric Craven has a blog
where he gives some account of his musical procedures. He has developed what
he calls Non-Prescriptive Compositional and Performance Technique. It has
been established over the past fifteen years or so. On first examination, it
would appear that he is using an 'aleatory' procedure where the performer
has greater or lesser control over the progress of the work, altering a
number of parameters which will result in different interpretations of the
music each time it is performed. This is not new. His take on this form has
given rise to three levels of Non-Prescription. The 'Lower Order of
Non-Prescription' sees pitch, rhythm and duration committed to the
manuscript paper. The performer is free to decide on tempo, dynamics,
phrasing, pedalling and the articulation of the notes. Then there is the
'Higher Order of Non-Prescription' where only the pitch is given.
Interestingly this is effectively a 'pitch set' where the notes can be
played at any octave above or below the notation. Additionally, these 'sets'
can be grouped together 'vertically to form chords or clusters'. Formally,
the music can begin or end at any point in the score. Consequently different
performers will extract longer or shorter durations when this is used.
To confuse the issue slightly, there is also a 'Middle Order
Non-Prescription' where 'short musical fragments with pitches and rhythms
are left disconnected and free-floating on the page with no implied
The downside to all this is that it is unlikely that lots of recordings of
these Sonatas will ever be made, and therefore highly improbable that
listeners will venture to compare them in detail to see how they have been
individually 'realised'. Additionally, it is possible that various
performers may overlay their preferred musical style on the written notes -
classical, romantic or impressionistic. Who is to say that they are right or
wrong? Certainly not the composer.
What does this music sound like? I note the composer's wish to be
'isolated' from musical tradition, but Kaikhosru Sorabji was a name that
sprang to mind. I hope that Mr Craven takes that as a compliment, as I see
composer as bordering on genius, if a little flawed.
I do not intend to try to tease out the progress of these three sonatas -
or what 'technique' each one utilises - save to say that my ear tended to
hear much that sounded similar. Clearly first and second subjects and
classical recapitulation are not obvious elements of these works. The
overall effect is like perpetual development with little to help listeners
to get their bearings. Yet, I enjoyed listening to these three sonatas. They
are full of interest and certainly do not sound forbidding. Another reviewer
has suggested that this music is 'tuneful enough' and it is fair to say that
at one level these three works are simply a long unfolding of melody. These
are timeless works that could have been composed any time over the past
I cannot fault the sound quality of the recording: it is clear, balanced
and dynamic. Whether one enjoys this music or not, this CD presents
detailed, nuanced playing/realisation from Mary Dullea who explores a wide
range of dynamics, invention and pianistic technique.
The presentation of this disc does raise a few issues. I was less than
impressed with the liner-notes. Firstly, I find the small, fussy font
overprinted on the cover design replicated on each page difficult to read.
It would have been good if Metier had provided a link to a .pdf file of this
information. Secondly, as noted above the biographical details of the
composer are virtually non-existent. It is hard to put him in context within
musical history; however this is his stated intention. Thirdly, there is way
too much verbosity in the discussion about each of these three sonatas
written by the writer Scott McLaughlin: more of an esoteric dissertation
than a programme note. This will be studied only by enthusiasts and I
imagine that most listeners will give up after a few lines. All one needs to
understand and 'enjoy' these Sonatas is the knowledge that the performer is
more or less responsible for their realisation. Oh, and the dates of
composition and recording would have been of interest too.