Eric Craven’s Set for Piano – not merely performed but ‘realised and performed’, the cover art declares, by Cork-born pianist Mary Dullea – is an essay about the nature and poesis of musical language. Métier’s booklet-notes tell us that Craven was born in Moston (‘in a part of Manchester disadvantaged by the epithet “disadvantaged”’) and that he packed up his day job as a maths and music teacher to concentrate on composition after surviving cancer. Specific dates are notable by their absence, though. We’re not told when Craven was born, nor when his health problems intervened. Nor are any of Set for Piano ‘s 12 sections given a date. Craven clearly prefers to keep himself out of the story.
And it’s anonymity all the way. Set for Piano is a strikingly nameless, neutral title; each individual piece gets identified only by its number in the unfolding sequence. Dullea must ‘realise’ Craven’s intentions because tempo and dynamics are left to the performer’s discretion. ‘Twelve’ is notated with unbarred, vertical line-ups of notes that the pianist is invited to sculpt into meaningful phrases and overarching paragraphs.
But if all this talk of unbarred music and quasi-graphic notation makes you think of Cornelius Cardew, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman et al, you couldn’t be more wrong. Much of Set for Piano is abrasively wantonly tonal – abrasive in the sense that Craven’s tonality is literal and daringly untreated; triads shocking in their nakedness. ‘Two’ and ‘Four’ flirt with Romanticism (albeit filtered via Bill Evans); other pieces are sketched over memories of Baroque lines. But Craven’s aloof distance from his material makes these stylistic reference points fade, refocusing attention on a renewed pool of raw gestures. He cuts across stylistic allegiances, those same old same old allegiances that box so many composers in.
Dates become meaningless. Set for Piano might have been written 50 years ago; could probably be written at any point in the future too. What’s more, I don’t want to know when it was written. I prefer to suspend my disbelief.
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