Congleton is a town and civil parish that lies on the banks of the River Dane in Cheshire, 20 miles south of Manchester.   It boasts around 20 pubs and has a population of 26,000  –  a ratio of l:1300.

It also has its own Congleton Chronicle.   Established in 1893, it is one of a very few independent newspapers remaining in England.   Although the C.D. is still pre-general release, Jeremy Condliffe requested and received a copy from Divine Art and has written the following review:

“We’ve not heard of Craven, but apparently he was a teacher who taught music and mathematics in secondary schools in Manchester. He has composed music since his teens, but rarely performed or published until recently. Encouraged by Mary Dullea and Divine Art/Metier Records, the first album of his music SET for piano, performed by Dullea, came  out to good reviews. (Dullea has an impressive CV and is director of performance at the University of Sheffield and is also on the teaching staff of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama).

 We can’t play the piano but CD2 of this, Sonata 8, is a 48-minute single movement and requires “phenomenal skill” to conquer, so pianoheads might  appreciate it. Musically, it’s obviously just Dullea and piano. Craven designs his music to incorporate chance (aleatorism is the posh word), optional phrasing, improvisation and open interpretation. We have no idea how he wrote compared with what’s on CD; presumably on another day, another pianist would play it slightly differently. The sleeve notes liken it to a raindrop running down a window; it’s not random, because gravity and other predictable forces apply, but it’s route is not prescribed either.

His low order non-prescription music has pitches and rhythm written out but no tempo or phrasing;  the higher order non-prescription music is only a stream of notes and chords (there are extensive sleeve notes about this). While the music is experimental, this game between composer and performer gives it a very human quality, which makes it more approachable than all this sounds.

It’s tuneful enough that people who like more conventional music will appreciate it, while its changes in time and discordance mean that it should appeal to lovers of the more avant garde, too.   We like interesting music, so it’s gone down well.”

Jeremy Condliffe

msv 28544 cd imageERIC CRAVEN: PIANO SONATAS 7, 8 & 9


msv 28544 (2CD for price of 1)

Sample track and CD purchase available from Divine Art.

“...Craven deserves to be feted as one of the most individual and creative composers of the day and this recording should go at least some way to achieving that goal.”

An irresistibly attractive offer! Two for the price of one. Could have also offered 50% off retail price for senior citizens – Wednesdays only, of course.

Presented here, still pre-general release, is an image of the C.D. adorned with the fractal-sourced art-work by Peter Vodden. I am fascinated and somewhat amused by the hyperbole, the heightened rhetoric employed by the retailers in their attempts to catch the eye – and the ear – of potential customers. If you care to visit my website, eric craven composer, you will see what I mean. Other retailers use epithets such as “pioneer”, Mary is now elevated to the rarefied status of “firm/enthusiastic advocate” of my Non-Prescriptive techniques. Vapidity has no place in this fiercely competitive commercial forum.

And now, for the first time, an aside. Last year I had the honour to chauffeur Stephen Sutton, CEO of Divine Art, from Manchester Airport to the Anthony Burgess Foundation Centre in Manchester. The occasion was to mark the release of a C.D. of that composer by Divine Art. Manchester’s music glitterati were gathered. I was a stranger in their midst. A stranger who spent the afternoon rifling through a comprehensive library of the books of this remarkable author. I purchased several. I discovered Burgess, like me, was born in Harpurhey. I had found fame by association.

My first piano was purchased from a second-hand shop, and there were many, always to be found on a corner of a street, in Harpurhey. It came with its own distinctive memorable odour. Many of the springs were missing, hammers did not function, were broken, panels frequently fell from the instrument with alarming loud suddenness. I fashioned springs from copper wiring, replaced missing felt with material from my Mother’s dress-making cache. Crude joinery saw that the pedal mechanism worked after a fashion. On the whole it was better not to pedal. Tuning was never a consideration. To enliven my studies I placed paper, materials, drawing pins into the action and discovered a new world of sonic colour. No longer were scales, exercises and waltzes dull. At the age of 10 I was, unwittingly, a “firm/enthusiastic advocate” of Cage and his experimentation with unprepared pianos.

The reviews I have had and the comments I have received via my blog have, to date, been unbelievably generous. These mean so much. They lend me belief and motivation which carry me through those dark unproductive days – and there are many of them – as I struggle at the Music Factory. Some write to tell me of their delight in the progress of my nascent, inchoate life as a composer now appearing in the public domain. It is both a long journey and a short one. Short because it is only a few years ago that I was “discovered” by Divine Art – see the first of my blog. Long because I have been writing, performing and conducting music of many quite different genres most of my life. Conducting pantomime pit orchestras whilst a student at the RNCM. Conducting and arranging for an exceedingly loud 35- piece swing band for ten years. Playing keyboards at many of Manchester’s social clubs. Choral director. Teacher, exhausted.

The coming months will may bring some reviews as did the “Set”. My music has, to date, somehow managed to avoid receiving any excoriating criticism. Will this winning streak hold? I will let you know, good or bad.

It feels as though I have been waiting to script this entry to my blog for a very long time. It isn’t as though nothing has been happening during the seemingly endless, chill, wet winter. Scott McLaughlin has been steadily progressing his sleeve and programme notes and emailing me with queries and updates. Towards the beginning of the month I received a “nearly ready” draft which was almost immediately followed by a final draft. Yes!

Scott’s task has been demanding and complex. My Non-Prescriptive techniques are not widely known and need to be clearly and convincingly explained in order that my music can be listened to with a greater degree of understanding. That is why Scott’s input is so necessary and crucial. I have always believed that he would deliver something quite exceptional and he has. The finished text is masterful and scholarly, his insight to my ideas pellucid and profound. He commences with a wonderful, apt, extended metaphor and his constant interpositions of quotations always lend additional layers of insight. The level and delivery of prose is delightful and, I am certain, will instantly attract and maintain the interest of the reader.

After many readings and only a few minor adjustments the mouse clicked and the draft sped across the Atlantic and, as I anticipated, was enthusiastically welcomed by Stephen Sutton. The remarkable, indefatigable Stephen Sutton. The thought has occurred to me that if the UK was ever to experience the forecasted energy deficit then there is a solution which does not involve nuclear power, fracking or wind turbines. No. Just connect Stephen Sutton to the national power grid.

Within three days this human, organic fission reactor had produced the CD booklet, a complex coalescence of artwork, design, layout planning and all the necessary technical details involved in the production of a disc. An accomplishment all the more remarkable as, at the same time, he was compiling a file on the recently deceased Antony Hopkins for the BBC.

The spectral, other worldly fractal image by Peter Vodden which appears on the front of the cover is echoed on every page and on each page appears a photograph taken during the recording sessions by AVI who, whilst not recording, managed to shoot stealth photos of the goings-on. They convey a most intimate visual narrative of the recording sessions. There are, amongst the many, two that I personally cherish. The first is of a beaming, radiant Mary-yes, despite all the stress and pressures of making a recording-this was just so. The second, an image of Mary seated at the piano in a state of peaceful repose, hands still, after a most successful take.

Now another long period of expectancy awaits me.The CD, now advertised on the Divine Art website together with a short extract of the opening movement of Piano Sonata No. 7, will be released in October. Not only a very long winter but a very long summer. At least now the days are longer and the Manchester rain is warmer. Please visit my blog occasionally for if there is any news I will inform you.

Meanwhile, work on another C.D, is in progress . . .

Forward Slowly

Three days after the recording of Piano Sonata No. 8, I received a first edit from an enthusiastic sounding Sound Engineer. Alex could not wait to hear what he had harvested at Wyastone. Mary then proceeded to edit the three Sonatas and Lo! the 24th December brought gifts of the masters of Sonatas 7, 8 & 9. My very own gold, frankincense and myrrh moment.

Shortly after, in January, Divine Art Records trailered and advertised the forthcoming disc. In its Future Releases section it predicted that the C.D. was to “make a splash”!

And now to the sleeve notes. I have known Dr. Scott McLaughlin for many years. Many are the evenings I have enjoyed his company as he has spoken so authoritively, comprehensively and beguilingly about matters musical. I very soon realised that I was insufficiently bright enough to not understand a great deal of what he said so it was most obvious that he should ideally be placed with the task of explaining Non Prescription and introducing the three Sonatas to the world. Despite being incredibly occupied with the demands of being lecturer in Composition and Music Technology, inter alia, at Leeds and Huddersfield Universities and being a most active and productive composer, he readily agreed to undertake this task. We met one afternoon in the gloom and chill of Huddersfield at the Music Department of the University. I was interrogated, my semi- articulate responses recorded, scores were handed over, hands were shaken. Scott fifteen minutes late for his next appointment.

Last week I received a first partial draft of his work in progress. A kaleidoscope of original thinking, references and insights. The script bursts with pregnant promise. I hope that Scott with his commitments of teaching, concerts and composition can maintain momentum and complete in the next few weeks so that Divine Art can then commence the assembly of the final product.

And Peter Vodden, the previously mentioned Data Analyst, makes yet another appearance, contributes to the narrative again. For several years Peter has produced digital art work based on fractal sources and patterns. He displays examples on his website petervodden.wordpress.com. I just knew I wanted this kind of art for the cover of the C.D. case. I asked. Within hours I was sent a most wonderful, gently-hued, nuanced , understated, minimalist, contemporary, cool image. No hesitation here. I immediately sent it on to Divine Art and Stephen Sutton approved.

My friend’s artwork on the cover, Scott’s comprehensive,authoritative sleeve notes and some wonderful photos of Mary recording at Wyastone taken by Alex to be included in the booklet. All contributing in their various different ways to Mary’s wonderful performances and realisations.

I am fortunate to be amongst such gifted, able, wonderful people.

Wyastone Revisited

Once again we converge upon Wyastone for the recording of Piano Sonata No. 8. It is a Saturday afternoon on a quiet M50 towards Monmouth. It is late autumn. The sky is a continuous thick low lying grey cloud which merges with the mist which blankets the surrounding countryside. The fields are supersaturated. Everywhere there are fallen leaves coalescing to make a heavy and lumpen carpet. The last vestiges of the autumn colours show. The world is grey.

In the cold and deep darkness of a rural night, Alex arrives, off loads and sets up his recording equipment ready for the following day. Mary arrives much later from London via Abergavenny and promptly soaks up a huge cup of warming tea. The troops are mustered, plans are laid.

The following morning we make an early, determined start. There is much to be done. The warmth and brightness of the auditorium make a welcome relief to the ever present pervading cloud and chilling mist. As always there are no problems. Wyastone is ready and waiting for us thanks to the efficiency of Paula and Amy who, throughout the last months, have offered limitless quantities of care and support. This, together with their ever prompt replies to my countless questions and queries has helped to make Wyastone a most pleasant experience for us.

Alex finalises his preparations. The mikes are placed in precisely the same position in relation to the Steinway as they were in September. Mary is limbering up at the keyboard. The stage lights form bright scintillations as they are reflected in the polished black wood of the piano. The auditorium becomes energised. Alex fiddles and twiddles, adjusts, taps keyboards, goes through his sound checks. “Ready?” from Alex over the intercom. A nod from a poised and distant figure dwarfed against the proximity of a huge Steinway.

Immediately there is a familiar tension as the recording begins. In the control room Alex crouches over the score and meticulously makes the first of hundreds of notes. Take after take. We slowly progress towards the best possible outcome. Hours creeping by until we take our first break to allow the piano whisperer, the ever reliable and dedicated Phil, access to the piano for the second tuning of the day.

In the afternoon work proceeds in our giant insulated brick bubble. We are self-contained and self-sufficient. The outside world a million miles away, forgotten. Mary working with consummate skill never faltering, ever enthusiastic in the search for near perfection. Alex listening with his incredible acute forensic senses. Me walking the length of the auditorium after each take to discuss and share with Mary ideas and possible alternative approaches. Complex webs of annotation spread across the 8 or 9 sheets of music attached to a huge cardboard music stand before her.

The last section proves elusive. Mary is almost running on empty but after a further discussion, a shuffle of the pages, a re-ordering, we find a solution. There is one last effort, one last take, another wonderful performance and we are finished. We have completed almost one hour of recording in just one day.

Peter Vodden was studying the score to TWELVE – however he was not perceiving it as music. He was recognising it as a stream of data superimposed on a grid or matrix. There was a long studied silence, and then, “I think that I would like to try something with this” and off he went to his favourite place, his shed, his digital greenhouse.

Great expectations had I none. As creative as Peter is (to discover how creative visit his website petervodden.wordpress.com) one cannot expect a person who has “little in the way of traditional music knowledge or training” – Peter is given to understatement – to produce, at a first attempt, a mature piece, a piece which exhibits high levels of musical integrity and artistic value, a piece which has a beguiling sense of flow and continuity.

Well, that is just what he did. After only two or three weeks I was listening to Peter’s electro-acoustic debut. I liked it immediately and, after many repeated listenings, I still do. It does not pall.

I am most pleased to include his realisation of TWELVE on my Performances page.

On Peter’s website you can find a more technical explanation of how the piece was constructed. Since then I have given Peter, at his request, several High Order Non-Prescriptive scores and he has successfully composed realisations of each.

Wyastone Concert Hall is an imposing, austere, monolithic structure.  High walled, red bricks and windowless, its purpose, its functionality is obvious at first glance.   Inside it has a spacious auditorium, a generous balcony.  The walls are adorned with large-scale colourful modern abstract art works.  Taking centre stage is an imposing recent Steinway which speaks with a bright sounding upper range and a sonorous rich lower.  Mary liked the instrument from the moment she commenced her warming up, her keyboard callisthenics.  Alex van Ingen began setting up his vast array of equipment both on stage and in the control room.

Two hours later the recording of Piano Sonata No. 7 commenced.  Take after take.   Mary and Alex working slowly to a perfection, an ideal, myself interjecting with some small advice, offering optional approaches to the ways the music could be played.  A short break for lunch whilst the piano was tuned again and then on into the late afternoon.  The meticulous, painstaking professionalism of performer and sound engineer never faltering.  Alex’s forensic ear always ensuring the best possible sonic qualities in the recording, whilst at the same time exhorting and encouraging Mary to yet higher levels of performance.  Hour after hour of unbroken focused attention to detail.  At the end of the day a quiet satisfaction with what we had accomplished.

Much the same the following day with the recording of Piano Sonata No. 9.  For the first few playthroughs Mary dallied with the lyricism and sonorities in the music.  Alex and I managed to reduce the duration of the first movement from 18 to 12 minutes although I sensed a certain reluctance in Mary to play at such an increased tempo.

The High-order movements were, at the same time, again a vindication of my Non-Prescriptive ideas and a platform for Mary’s incredible skills.  As we had planned some days previously when I visited her in London, Movements 2 and 4 in Sonata No. 7 saw her employing her extended techniques to amazing effect.  The Second Movement of No. 9 provoked several scintillating realisations, performance fireworks, a veritable tour de force.  It is a loss that the world will never hear these amazing performances, as only one can be selected for the C.D.

The editing I leave entirely to Mary and Alex as I do not wish to be further involved in determining the outcome, which of the countless takes are to be selected and included on the master.


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