"Every single change of harmony, every addition of a new pitch, every introduction of a slight new register comes to feel like a monumental change"

Christopher Mayo is Sound and Music's Embedded Composer-in-Residence at Manchester Camerata. Christopher selected Laurence Crane's 'See Our Lake'.

TB: Why have you chosen this piece? What did you find compelling about this music and why should I listen to it?

CM: I know (and love) a lot of Laurence Crane’s music, but this wasn’t a piece I knew, so when I saw it on the list, I was immediately interested in getting acquainted with another work by this fantastic composer. There is so much that I find compelling about this music it’s difficult to know where to start. Laurence’s music is ‘essential’ by which I mean both that it should be required listening for the whole world population and also that exist only on the merest essence of musical material. It is brilliantly reductive. I’m tempted to say that everything is stripped away and only the most vital musical skeleton remains, but in fact even many of these most vital elements are missing. His music sometimes seems like a sort of shadow, a halo of dust that might remain after a piece of music was snatched away from its comfortable resting place. See Our Lake is beautiful, lush, consonant, but it is not music which revels in its own beauty. It’s not (though it so easily could be) sentimental or nostalgic. It’s seems a matter-of-fact coincidence that the music is lush and beautiful only because, in Laurence’s conception of the world, when layer-upon-layer of surface detail are scrubbed away, at its core, music is a consonant and beautiful thing.

TB: As a listener, how does the piece unfold? Are there any surprises along the way?

CM: It’s so interesting to talk about this piece in terms of surprises. In one sense, there is absolutely nothing surprising in this work. No sudden reversals, no unexpected changes, to borrow film terminology, no big reveal. But, it’s a piece that so neatly and narrowly defines its language that, actually, (maybe) everything about it is surprising. Every single change of harmony, every addition of a new pitch, every introduction of a slight new register comes to feel like a monumental change that shakes the very foundations of the work. The programme note says: “Contrast between the two movements is avoided…The quartet of wind and strings is always used as a homogenous single unit; the vibraphone is contrasted against this in the first movement and integrated with it in the second.” It avoids contrast, sure, but in the context of this piece, the vibraphone’s change of rôle from oppositional partner in a dialogue to co-operative member of a monologue reads as a huge dramatic shift. So I guess it depends what you mean by surprise. Or what you find surprising.

TB: As a composer, how does the piece, or any element within the piece, relate to your own output? Are there any ideas here that you’d like to steal for your own work?

CM: I would steal all these ideas, and possibly have tried to already. The knack of being reductive in the right way is something that I really aspire to. In anything, if you’re leaving out 99%, the 1% you have left has to be absolutely the right 1%. I think it’s very easy for composers to look at music like this and feel like this simplicity is possibly an easy—or even lazy—answer. I think that this kind of simplicity is actually the most difficult and most risky answer imaginable. There is nothing to hide behind, no excuses, no virtuosic compositional techniques to prove your worth. I haven’t quite achieved this kind of elemental reductiveness yet in my work—I’m too scared possibly to just present things in the simplest way—but it’s something that I envy and admire about Laurence’s music. Laurence Crane’s See Our Lake features on Volume 1 Can’t.Remember.How.It.Starts. Digital Discoveries is available on NMC Recordings, www.nmcrec.co.uk/digital-discoveries

Digital Discoveries: Thomas Butler interviews Christopher Mayo