Laurence Crane‘s music often sounds like a cross between a game and a puzzle, and that’s certainly the case with the next work i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series, his Chamber Symphony No. 2 “The Australian”. That subtitle can be safely ignored; Crane has spoken of enjoying combining abstract and evocative titles, and with works such as Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” and “Italian” symphonies in mind, opted to call his work “The Australian”.
The nature of the game / puzzle in Chamber Symphony No. 2 is to do with both tempo and harmony. From a temporal perspective, Crane subjects his material to a continual back-and-forth between a languid kind of progress, articulating simple, chugging rhythms, and periods of hiatus, where time drops out, and for a while everything drifts. However, this oscillation doesn’t in any way imply friction or the holding up of a process.
Harmonically, the music has a somewhat roaming nature, starting on a Bb drone, with gentle chords glancing against it, which turns out to be a leading note of sorts for the the chords that follow, which revolve around a B natural triad (in second inversion).
Everything that follows is a continual varying of these two fundamental aspects, displaying a nice combination of seriousness and caprice. At one point (4:36) the hiatus becomes greatly extended, leading to those brief glancing chords continuing in a sequence that becomes surprisingly solemn. When the symphony abruptly gets going again (6:27, sounding somewhat Michael Nyman-esque), Crane introduces various interruptions from the piano, little culs-de-sac that eventually (7:25) cause everything to come to a halt. As before, the music continues as though nothing had happened, and this time (8:18) the piano’s asides lead to an amusingly faux-romantic rising arpeggio.
The effortless stop-start nature of the music suggests that these “interruptions” aren’t necessarily anything of the kind, and that the piano isn’t having any long term effect. In fact, during this section the piano has subtly caused the harmony to shift toward Ab, with its big arpeggio serving as a plagal cadence to Eb (reinforced by a stark Ab – Eb – Ab statement by the piano shortly after). The piano is also catalytic where tempo is concerned, seemingly pushing everything on faster, though that effect proves to be short-lived.
The next section (9:50) is a lengthy return to drone, now on Bb (dominant of Eb); the rhythmic chords strike up once but immediately stop, and for the next few minutes we’re caught in a beautiful suspension of time. The drone drops out, and the harmony subtly shifts again, moving towards Ab as the new tonal centre.
The final section starts up like a revivified statement of the rhythmic chords, articulated at varying speeds, giving the impression of getting ready for a big ending. Yet Crane undermines this by, for the first time, making the harmony come off the rails. Oblique chords appear and then everything becomes increasingly dissonant and messy (now sounding like Nyman crossed with Milhaud). A solution is attempted by reducing, simplifying and slowing everything, though eventually only the piano is left, and its chords, harmonically speaking, don’t connect to anything. Instead Crane pulls a deus ex machina, just moving everything straight back to Ab (with an added flattened 7th), continuing in a long coda as soft, rather wan oscillating chords over another deep drone.
If we recall the origin of the word ‘symphony’ and its associations with “sonic agreement” and “sounding together”, this seems to fit most obviously with Crane’s Chamber Symphony No. 2. The game is being played, and / or the puzzle is being worked out, in real-time by all the players, together, and as i mentioned above, none of the shifts in behaviour comes across as a problematic diversion, but all part of the same onward journey, which may or may not be figuring something out along the way.
The world première of Laurence Crane’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 “The Australian” was given by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Garry Walker.