Between Fierceness and Serenity

John Croft in Interview with Nicholas Moroz

This season Explore Ensemble soloists Taylor Maclennan (flute) and Deni Teo (cello) perform at Handel & Hendrix in London in November and the JdP Music Building in Oxford in February with a programme focussing on the music of John Croft. Fellow composer and the Explore Ensemble's co-director Nicholas Moroz talks with him about his work with live electronics, the nature of composing itself, as well as his perspective on creativity in relation to the current cultural climate in the UK.

Your pieces often have beautiful French or Italian titles. I’m wondering what’s behind those of the two pieces that Explore Ensemble will perform at Handel & Hendrix this November and again in Oxford in February; your cello and electronics work la terra lagrimosa...una luce vermiglia, and your alto flute and electronics work …ne l'aura che trema.

Yes – old Italian (I suppose modern would be “nell’aria…”). Both are from Dante’s Inferno [see below]. For the cello piece I wanted to suggest the melancholy nature of the slow line that moves between the strings (including the third string tuned down three-quarters of a tone), as well as the more intense flashes of activity contributed by the electronics. The juxtaposition of the lachrymose earth and the flash of vermillion light at the end of Canto III seemed like a poetic way of evoking this. This led me to the idea of taking words from the end of each Canto for all my pieces for solo with live electronics. As luck would have it, the end of Canto IV (as they leave Limbo and start to feel the wind of the second circle) includes the line “into the trembling air”, which suggests the various types of tremulous and breathy effects given to the alto flute solo as well as the vacillating electronic treatments. (Sadly, that’s as far as the plan has got so far.)

The poetics of transitoriness, impermanence, and melancholy seem important for you, both in the subtexts of the works, as you’ve described above, and in the fabric of the music itself, such as in the breath-like waves of sounds, melodic phrases, and gestures that often dissolve into hazy silences. Can you describe your influences here, whether musical, or extramusical (philosophy, literature, arts etc.), and do these preoccupations reflect some kind of worldview? I ask because in your music I find things that are sincere yet gnomic, profound yet modest, sensual and humane, and so I can’t help but think that it’s a very deliberate response to the world and our time.

I think Schopenhauer was right when he wrote (parodying Leibniz), "Musica est exercitium metaphysices occultum nescientis se philosophari animi.” Music is a form of philosophy – not in the sense of a method of logical analysis, but in the sense of an outlook. The philosopher Aaron Ridley puts this well when he discusses depth in music as a response that is “commensurate with the world” – a way of seeing the world that is not a travesty or caricature of it. In my music I often have a sense of things that are always fading, always ending (I get this feeling in Brahms as well), but also of finding in each moment something that can be held on to just long enough to give life to the next event, even if the music has to be coaxed back into existence after a long silence. Everything dies too soon (as so often in our experience) but each moment contains enough richness, enough beauty – sometimes no more than enough – to allow us to continue. 

On that note of music as philosophy, which composers are particularly important to you and why?

I think Nono and Grisey are both very important to me. Nono for what I would call his “afflicted” expressive world. Lydia Goehr refers to the “suspended” and “interrupted” qualities of Nono’s music – what I find profoundly humane about this music is that it embodies a kind of hovering expectation – suffering, but also hope – rather than the (mere) stasis that characterises much recent music. I’m also attracted to the rapid vacillation between fierceness and serenity in his music. From Grisey I adopted (and adapted) various techniques of transforming spectra, but I was also inspired by the warmth of his final piece, in which these transformed spectra forgo any attempt at “fusion” and become almost triadic – in a way that is so much more beautiful and articulate than all the composers who have recently discovered D minor. I think I’m also driven by an aversion to two currents in contemporary music – on the one hand, a kind of positivism (the implementation of an idea or deployment of a system), and on the other, a kind of affected naivety. Grisey is an inspiration because both his fastidious calculations and his insistent elementalism were in the service of an irreducible compositional intelligence.

Could you say a bit more about your use of spectra? Are you talking about the idea of distorting the spectra by compressing or expanding them, as Grisey did in the 90s with works like Vortex Temporum and, as you mention, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil?

Yes, exactly. I became fascinated by the way in which different amounts of stretching or compression of the harmonic spectrum could create degrees of inharmonicity, and thus a new kind of timbral/harmonic tension and relaxation. What Grisey does is to include an exponent – a little larger or smaller than 1 – on the partial number in the formula that gives the relation between the frequency of a partial and the fundamental. This means that all the octaves in the original harmonic series become slightly smaller or slightly larger than an octave (with the other components stretched or compressed accordingly). I have used this approach in a number of ensemble and orchestral pieces.

John Croft,  …ne l'aura che trema  (2009-10), for alto flute and live electronics, excerpt (page 2).

John Croft, …ne l'aura che trema (2009-10), for alto flute and live electronics, excerpt (page 2).

Of course, in the pieces in this programme it is not a matter of notating chords based on these calculations, but of taking this idea of “spectral stretching” (also developed in the electroacoustic domain by Trevor Wishart in the 1980s) into real-time transformation. I could find no existing ways to do this, although William Sethares and others had developed some tools that I could adapt. In …ne l’aura che trema one of the treatments involves spectrally analysing the incoming sound, then performing a mathematical operation on the frequencies, before resynthesising the sound using the strength of the original partial as it changes in time, all so quickly as to be perceived as instantaneous. This kind of real-time spectral treatment has been possible only quite recently, especially if it is one of many treatments happening at the same time. When the piece was written it was at the limits of what most computers could process in real time. This treatment may be used as a kind of real-time timbral transformation, but here I also apply a variation to the amount of stretch, giving a sense that the timbre of the flute is somehow coming apart or melting in certain passages.

Talking of real-time perhaps brings us back to the issue of time itself. In both …ne l’aura che trema and la terra lagrimosa… the way in which the otherworldly and luminous electronic sounds envelope the live musicians and audience seems to create magical spaces; both real and virtual ones. Are there certain kinds of temporalities and spatialities that are particular to live electronics? And perhaps following from that: do you feel more allied to Nono’s approach to live electronics (and his sense of space and time) than say, those associated with IRCAM (even if many of your electronic techniques seem closer to IRCAM than Nono’s and Experimentalstudio Freiburg)?

With live electronics, the sound of the flute, for instance, can be transformed into anything from delicate tendrils of sound to an almighty roar that takes many seconds to decay, and so it is like alternating between chamber music and large orchestra (or cathedral organ) from one moment to the next. So for me, this is the difference: the possibility, not so much of a fundamentally different approach to time and space, but of expanding and contracting the scale of things on the fly, in a way that rarely happens in music without electronics.

With regard to the second question, I would say that’s largely correct – I tend to use IRCAM-like treatments (including some developed at IRCAM), but I don’t have an IRCAM aesthetic sensibility (in so far as such a thing still exists). On the other hand, Nono’s music with electronics or tape has a rawness that I find extremely appealing but which is rare in my own music with electronics. This is partly because the kind of maximally live electronics that I use (no soundfiles, no score following, no buffering, only immediate transformation of instrumental sound) tends towards continuity. The excitement of Nono’s music with electronics or with tape depends on a very active person behind the console – whereas my pieces are designed for operation, in theory at least, with nobody at all behind the console, which requires a kind of “self correcting” design that favours smoother transitions between treatments, although I hope the resulting sense of the instrumentalist “playing” the live electronics, unmediated by anyone else's intervention, creates a different kind of excitement.

How do you view the state of, shall we say, more “progressive” electronic music in the UK today, or, more generally, contemporary music overall?

I think I’ll skip straight to the more general version of your question, as I don’t really have much contact with a distinct world of electronic music – when I use electronics, it’s still essentially instrumental music. So with regard to the general question: of course there are the institutional problems we all know about (not enough money, gender imbalance, not enough airtime, etc.), but I sense that you’re asking about more aesthetic concerns.

I think there are lots of problems with contemporary music (including the idea of “contemporary music”!) But to choose one of them, I think there’s a wrong conception about originality, which situates it in the “idea” of a piece or in the pre-compositional procedure or system. Often this militates against originality in the music itself; it engenders a kind of music which is little more than the realisation of an idea, the output of a compositional system, or the playing-out of various permutations within a preconceived sound world. Music becomes a kind of “stuff” to be generated, and becomes generalised as a result. There’s a lot of music that just makes me think “yes, that’s what contemporary music is supposed to sound like”.

While there are different versions of “what it’s meant to sound like”, I’m struck by how much of what I hear falls into a few house styles associated with certain ensembles and venues, and how they share, in different ways, this problem of generality – of music as a certain amount of “material” – because of these pre-compositional or conceptual safety nets. I’ll stop there – while much of what I do is motivated by a desire to avoid these problems, I think the best critique of it is to be made in music itself!

Are there composers today who are writing contemporary music that doesn’t sound like contemporary music to you, which you still find compelling? And, since you’ve brought the idea up, dare I ask: what is a better conception of originality?

Yes. There are many individual pieces which I’ve found inspiring and original, but one composer who somehow consistently produces pieces that seem to me to get beyond contemporary music clichés to something deeper, more humane, more significant, is the Argentinian composer José Manuel Serrano, whose music should be much more widely known and performed.

A better conception of originality? Hard to pin down, but it has to involve material thought, rather than conceptual or procedural. It has to transcend, somehow, the usual clichés of contemporary music innovation – being “interested in sonority” or “exploring extended techniques” or “breaking down barriers”. There’s no general answer to this question that can be given in words – generality is the problem. It’s a matter of thinking in music until you find something that inspires a kind of wonder – which is always a dialectical relation between the familiar and the strange, rather than the merely strange. We should perhaps write less music, and work harder at the music we do write, and be more mercilessly critical of our output.

John Croft,  la terra lagrimosa...una luce vermiglia  (2006; revised 2010), for cello and live electronics, excerpt (page 4).

John Croft, la terra lagrimosa...una luce vermiglia (2006; revised 2010), for cello and live electronics, excerpt (page 4).

Even though you strongly emphasise the responsibility of the individual creator here, I sense that for you composing is not a purely hermetic act, and that it’s still vital that “new” music exists beyond the individual so that it has a life in society. In that light, what role can institutions play – through funding, commissioning, curating etc. – to help foster the kind of critical creativity you envision? More generally, are you at all concerned about terms like progress, radicalism, or subversion in music and public discourse?

I think everyone needs to find just the right amount of hermeticism. I tend to err on the side of more rather than less, although this is at odds with the fetishisation of collaboration that one finds in many institutional settings. Music making has always been collaborative and always will be, but when it is enforced as the dominant mode of creation (as it is in current funding regimes) I think certain things are lost – collaborations can be very fruitful but can also have a normalising tendency that emerges from too much immediacy of feedback, the need to communicate ideas in real time, and the emergent preference for things that “work”. But of course the circumstances of creation are a different matter to the circumstances of dissemination: the most solitary composer in the world might still care deeply about the role of music in society.

My thoughts on this tend to echo thinkers like Bloch, Adorno and Marcuse: if music can have an effect on society it is through the transformation of individual consciousness away from mass-produced, formulaic experience and towards something that constantly exceeds its concept, and which hints at a kind of life that is impossible in our degraded society. I know that sounds utopian – but what is music if not utopian? It also demands care – and also a certain amount of negative thinking, which often seems off-message when it comes to the positivistic and celebratory impulses of a lot of “contemporary music” initiatives, funding regimes, festivals and so on: as important as these are, I find it difficult to engage wholeheartedly with them.

One problem with many of the institutions that fund, commission and curate is that they can be over-reliant on narratives rather than musical material – it’s a world of aims, artist statements, innovation, and impact. This means that interesting ideas for ways to make music can take precedence over original thought in music. The latter is harder to put into a proposal and more difficult to accommodate within the structures of accountability that organisations need to adhere to. Musical originality is reduced to a jargon of corporate innovation, and we need to find ways to get beyond this. I think this can only happen with more money in general, so that, for example, works in progress could be submitted – and played by the performer or ensemble – instead of verbiage, for opportunities and funding. More diversity on the panels who make the decisions – again, this requires more money – would allow us to transcend quasi-algorithmic decisions based on criteria without reverting to an old boys' network. I’m not optimistic that this can happen in the current climate.

About progress: I don’t think that’s the right word for music. Progress is a word better suited to the sciences, where new discoveries and theories build upon or supersede previous ones. We no longer try to explain anything using the Ptolemaic system, or alchemy, or the four humours, as science has progressed beyond them. But we do still listen to Ockeghem, Bach, Haydn, and Brahms, not as historical curiosities, and not merely as insights into their time, but for the some of the reasons that their music was originally listened to. So I’d prefer to scrap progress as an idea in music. I do think music should take us beyond, in some sense, what has already been done, and should address the time in which it is composed – in particular, it should seek to provide a utopian response to the deficiencies in current structures of society and culture, rather than being merely a reflection of them. But progress is the wrong idea.

As for radicalism – well, I like real radicalism but the concept has been, for now, irredeemably degraded. The same might be said for subversion – everyone is subversive, or claims to be. (One might add “transgression” to the list of attributes of art that have been neutralised or reduced to ‘épater les bourgeois’.) Words about music – including the language of radicalism – are constantly appropriated by those who would tame it.

[October 2017]

From Dante's Inferno
(trans. Courtney Langdon)

Canto III (end)

La terra lagrimosa diede vento, 
che balenò una luce vermiglia
la qual mi vinse ciascun sentimento; 
e caddi come l’uom cui sonno piglia.

The tear-stained ground gave forth a wind,
whence flashed vermilion light
which in me overcame all consciousness;
and down I fell like one whom sleep o’ertakes.

Canto IV (end)

La sesta compagnia in due si scema:
per altra via mi mena il savio duca,
fuor de la queta, ne l'aura che trema.
E vegno in parte ove non è che luca.

The sixfold band now dwindles down to two;
my wise Guide leads me by a different path
out of the calm into the trembling air;
and to a place I come, where naught gives light.