Album du jour: Mary Dullea, “Eric Craven: Piano Sonatas 7 • 8 • 9”


In America, we have our “maverick” composers, such as those profiled by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas in a concert series that also spawned one of the best music programs ever done in public radio.  For the English, the equivalent composers fit in among their prized eccentrics, the dafter and dottier the better.  On either side of the ocean, these maverick eccentric composers are the classical cousins of the oddballs and misfits known in pop-music taxonomy as “outsider” musicians.

Whatever we call them, we love them, or at least some of them, in occasional doses and at arm’s length.  Who among us has not proudly touted our appreciation for some really weird stuff, and felt really good about ourselves for doing so?  I’m sure that’s how the late Frank Zappa felt when he (allegedly) said that the pathetically incompetent “outsider” pop band The Shaggs were “better than the Beatles,” while knowing that (if he really said it) to be absolute nonsense.

So who are these classical classical mavericks/eccentrics/outsiders?  They’re the ones who hand-punch holes in piano rolls to compose music no hands could play.  They invent their own tuning systems and the instruments to play them.  They craft dozens of miniatures rarely exceeding two minutes’ duration, build their own American gamelans,  and turn out symphony after dense, impenetrable symphony,  14 of them after the age of 80 , with scant hope of performance .  Each uniquely, none like the other, they eschew the classical mainstream to create something the world has never heard before, whether the world wants it or not.

To be frank, sometimes the romantic ideal of these maverick composers is more appealing than their music.  One’s favorite maverick can be another’s nutcake, and vice versa.  And you know, there’s something to be said for such boring mainstream values as craft, balance, and knowing what you’re doing.  Am I being an old fuddy-duddy when I notice that these things are sometimes insufficiently present, to its detriment, in the music of the mavericks?

But I have my favorite maverick eccentric outsiders in classical music (Lou Harrison), pop (Kevin Barnes of “of Montreal”), jazz (Thelonious Monk, an outsider who became an insider) and other genres.  I bet you do too.  Here’s a new one for you to discover, as have I just this month.  And though I’m only beginning to get a handle on his music,  and perhaps never will, I’m glad to have made his acquaintance, and hope to hear more.

Eric Craven is a former math teacher in his native Manchester, England who, after surviving cancer, turned to music full-time.  A composer since his teens, he seldom sought or received performances until recent years.  As the brief bio in the notes to this new album puts it, “(Craven’s) preference is to work in isolation without reference to or connection with any other musicians.”  Spoken like a good maverick, or since he’s British, a good eccentric.

And of course, to be a good eccentric composer, you have to have your very own personal composing method.  From Craven’s blog:

I have over the last 15 years or so become increasingly focused on developing an experimental compositional technique which I refer to as Non-Prescriptive.

This, essentially, is a method of writing music which permits the performer to determine some or most of the musical parameters which normally constitute the bricks and mortar of a piece of music. Furthermore, the performer may opt to alter these parameters, the consequences of which result in the particular piece being open to any number of different interpretations. The performer thus becomes involved in the compositional process and, as a consequence, the historical relationship of the composer, the performer and the performance are realigned.

Maverick music fans will recognize Craven’s “non-prescriptive” technique (actually a set of techniques, as the dense album notes point out in exhaustive detail) as a descendant of the indeterminacy of John Cage, Earle Brown, et al., though to judge from what I hear, Craven’s music is usually nowhere near as random as his description makes it sound.  In two out of the three sonatas on the new album, “realized and performed” by Irish pianist Mary Dullea, there’s no missing the small melodic motives and other gestures that bind each work together and give each its own character.  You might describe the sonatas as — and I mean this as a compliment — modernism-lite.  Yes, they’re abstract, angular and dissonant.  But unlike in more severe modernism (e.g., Carter, Boulez), you can actually hear what the hell is going on.  There’s no way to predict what will happen next, but when it happens, you understand why it did.

Of the three sonatas presented on the new album under review, No. 7 is my favorite.  In five related but well-differentiated movements, arranged symmetrically, their moods ranging from jazzy to spectral, it’s a cogent, concise and worthy addition to the latter-day piano sonatas of Prokofiev, Copland, Tippett and Carter.  I could imagine other pianists taking it up, though according to “non-prescriptive” theory,  each would make a different work out of it.  How different?  It would be fun to know.

For reasons of timing, Sonata No. 7 is followed on the first of the album’s two CDs by Sonata No. 9, described in the notes (and plainly audible) as a “clear development of Sonata no.7.”  In three movements, the lyrical first (almost as long as the entire 7th Sonata) and probing, unsettled third movements surrounding a spiky and violent second, No. 9 casts material resembling No. 7’s in a dark, even tragic light.  Though the two composers in no way resemble each other, I got something of the same emotional tug from Craven’s 9th Sonata as I get from Franz Schubert’s final three works in the same genre.

Most problematic for me is Sonata No. 8, which comes in one movement of almost fifty-minutes’ duration.  Here, we have at least one foot (one hand?) in the world of Morton Feldman, the late American composer of pointillistic, half-silent works that  can go on literally for hours.  Isolated ideas pop up, are played with for a while, then disappear.  Perhaps, said I to myself while listening, there is some overall pattern or shape that I’m incapable of apprehending, or which will appear to me after maybe a dozen more hearings.  For now, while I don’t really mind the ride, I have no idea where I am most of the time.

Then by reading the program notes after a few listens, as is my usual procedure, I found that my disorientation was the intended effect, and that the works’s seeming randomness was built into its compositional method.  “Hints of Craven’s other works are always just below the surface,” writes annotator Scott McLaughlin of the 8th Sonata, “blending with Dullea’s inspiration into a Proustian journey that takes the listener everywhere and nowhere.”  Does knowing that make listening a more interesting or aesthetically pleasing experience?  I’m not so sure, but in general, prefer my music to take me not everywhere, not nowhere, but somewhere.

Speaking of pianist Mary Dullea, full marks to her for her advocacy and sympathy for Craven’s unique muse, as well as for complete keyboard mastery.  Would that every composer, mainstream or maverick, had such a friend.

So, if you have a quiet half-hour or so, and are intrigued by the idea of using the same notes and piano keys all the other composers have in a very personal, if not utterly new, way, I recommend you give Eric Craven’s Sonatas a try, starting with No. 7.  The Spotify playlist is below; you can also download the Sonatas, either piecemeal or all three, in high quality sound here.  Happy discovery!


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