On Record: Laurence Crane: Natural World (Another Timbre)

Juliet Fraser (voice and Casio keyboard), Mark Knoop (piano and electronics)

Another Timbre AT210 [55’15”]

Producer Mark Knoop Engineer Newton Armstrong

Recorded 17 December 2022 at City, University of London

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Another Timbre issues a follow-up to its two-volume overview of Laurence Crane Chamber Works 1992-2009 (AT74x2) with Natural World, his longest work to date, performed by the artists who commissioned it and making an essential addition to the composer’s discography.

What’s the music like?

Older readers may recall the children’s TV programme Mr Ben, where the shopkeeper appears from nowhere. Such is the impression made by Crane’s music, which exists as if awaiting the listener’s recognition. From his early pieces – often brief and frequently for piano – his output has gradually expanded to embrace larger concepts and ensembles, resulting in such works as Octet (2008) and the Second Chamber Symphony (2016). Natural World (2021) might seem a throwback in its intimacy and understatement, but its impact conveys a wholly different story.

This might appear a song-cycle for voice and piano, but their deployment is hardly beholden to precedent. Crane has spoken of his aversion to ‘setting’ poems such that their meaning is distorted, and Natural World uses texts whose neutrality ensures an objectivity of response.

Unfolding as an unbroken span, the work falls into three distinct and designated sections. The first of these, Field Guide, draws on various authors (not least Crane himself) along with marine biologist Rachel Carson in terms of her classifications and observations – proceeding from a lengthy introduction for piano to an increasingly intricate and nuanced interplay with the voice Field recordings of individual birds gradually interpose so that the closing phase is dominated by that of the Dawn Chorus, its complexity the more affecting for not being the outcome of any (self-)conscious creativity.

The second section, Chorus, is the shortest and effectively an interlude that continues with the above as context for a sequence of piano chords and a vocalise whose curving, glissando-like phrases engender an expressive response without this ever becoming explicit or emotive. Such a response is intensified in the third section, Seascape, that includes a further field recording of the ocean – the voice emerging with a text on the innate fragility of ecosystems. Underpinning this is a sustained electronic tone comparable to those on electronic keyboard to which Crane has often had recourse. Here, it serves to envelop the aural picture and so intensify the musical content without this becoming a ‘message’ in any cultural or political sense: listeners being left free to determine their responses to this music.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. Crane has long been a master of musical continuity, such that the extent of this piece is imbued with a tension sustained and unfaltering. It helps that the performers are so attuned to his creative wavelength – Juliet Fraser articulating the vocal part with unforced clarity and poise, complemented by Mark Knoop’s adroit handling of piano and electronics. As on that earlier release from Another Timbre, the close but never constricted sound is ideal in terms of the immediacy brought to Crane’s music which seems never less than absorbing.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. As is usual from this source, there are no booklet notes but a revealing interview with the composer can be accessed at AT’s website. Those who are new to Crane should also check out previous collections of his music issued on the Hubro, LAWO, Metier and Nimbus labels.

Listen & Buy

For buying options, and for more information on the album, visit the Another Timbre website. For more information click on the names Laurence Crane, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop

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