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Laurence Crane: Natural World

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Laurence Crane: Natural World
Natural World is Laurence Crane's welcome and long-overdue addition to Another Timbre's catalogue of curiously beautiful music. Not only does this album sound fresh, but it also retains that essence of what makes the composer's music sound like it does: always on the edge of elegantly tripping up, but still managing to maintain its balance. This work, written specifically for and commissioned by soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop, is part of Fraser's ongoing two-year project 'The Carson Commissions,' which reflects her personal interest in environmentalism and offers composers the opportunity to respond creatively to the work of American mid-century marine biologist Rachel Carson.

The release of Natural World is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is only the second appearance of Crane on the label since his previous album Chamber Works was published back in 2014, an album which expanded the appeal of his music to new audiences. While it showcased small works from 1992 to 2009—something the composer is particularly known for as the master of miniatures—since 2007 Crane has been writing longer pieces, exploring the potentials of form and contrast, and even dipping his toes into politicised music-making. Secondly, this piece won the Small Chamber Ivor Novello Award in 2022, which, much like any award, institutionalised and "validated" the composer and his craft. Thirdly, it is by far the longest piece for the concert hall ever written by the composer, clocking up at circa 50 minutes. Its premiere was given at Musica Sacra Maastricht in September 2021, followed by three more performances in the UK the same season: at the Oxford Lieder Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Festival and Music We'd Like To Hear concert series in London. But, perhaps more interestingly, it is the composer's first work to actively resort to field recordings.

"Natural World" is a single-movement piece consisting of three distinct sections: Field Guide, Chorus, and Seascape, each focusing on its own theme and musical ideas. The piece starts with a descending octave melody in the piano which lands onto a resolute major chord followed by a presentation and repetition of descending rhythmic and melodic motives mildly competing for dominance. It is typically Cranian: the dynamics do not change much, the music is modest, even restrained, but there is always an unexpected repetition, which might throw you off, leaving you not quite sure where it is going to take you next. Perhaps the most thrilling moment is Fraser's unexpected vocal entry after roughly seven minutes of solo piano music, which yet again tricks you into forgetting the piece was written for a singer too. The soprano's singing is pure, elegant and beautiful. Unlike the piano, which provides a simple chordal accompaniment, the voice gently ascends a tranquil pentatonic scale, occasionally wandering off in the moments of tension.

Much like Crane's other vocal pieces, this one too incorporates factual information into a performance bringing out its poetic qualities: we learn about various bird species, where they prefer to live, what their nests are made of, what their songs are like, how many eggs they lay and so on. Another unexpected "disturbance" is the entry of bird audio clips triggered by Knoop's sampler keyboard around the ten-minute mark, though they hardly sound like a disturbance: these "natural" samples do not sound forced and fit organically into the ambience. There is enough variety with such simple means.

At the end of the section, these samples facilitate an effective transition to the second part where we are greeted with a non-stop field recording of the dawn chorus. The music is more instrumental and there is no text as such. Repetitive melodies and chords in the piano part serve as the background to Fraser's gentle vocal slides, octave jumps and vocalisations of rudimentary syllables, mimicking the candour of the birdsong. She also now adds more texture with chords on her Casio keyboard, which just before the end of the section turns to the organ sound—a direct sonority not unusual to the composer's output.

The last section of the piece takes a complete turn and shifts its focus to the marine world. Knoop's sustained sinewave drones, lacking any individuality, create a soundscape that evokes the depth and immensity of the ocean. The juxtaposition of the soprano's singing with spoken word adds a nice touch of almost comical self-awareness to the performers. The same applies to a folk song that keeps coming back from time to time. It is difficult to say if it is full of sincerity or whether it is full of irony. Does it even matter? The final surprise is the inclusion of a recording of sea waves crashing into the shore, after which the piece gradually fades away.

This album is rejuvenating, like taking a swim in the ocean or listening to the sounds of birds chirping; it is something so ordinary, so natural that its pleasure simply cannot be denied. It takes one on a surprising musical journey, always tricking the listener's expectations. It is a convincing work that addresses ecological concerns in a personal and honest way without resorting to cheap moralism.

Track Listing

Natural World (Field Guide); Natural World (Chorus); Natural World (Seashore).

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Juliet Fraser: Casio keyboard; Mark Knoop: electronics

Album information

Title: Natural World | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Another Timbre

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