This is the second CD on this label devoted to the piano music of the somewhat reclusive English composer Eric Craven. As the booklet reveals, Craven has left little biographical footprint, though I believe he is around 50 years old, and he studied and taught music in Manchester, England. Craven has composed since youth, but has only recently begun making his pieces available in a truly public way, beginning with a previous release of his Set for Piano. In the works recorded so far, Craven explores what he calls “non-prescriptive” notation: a type of open form writing that allows the performer to participate in the creation of the final musical product. Craven notes that he uses several different levels of non-prescription, ranging from “low order” (in which there are fully notated pitches and rhythms, but no phrasing or dynamics) to “high order” (in which there are just a stream of notes and chords with no other information), and some points in between. As with the past recording, Craven’s collaborator for these first-rate performances is pianist Mary Dullea, a member of the Fidelio Trio and a very active pianist in the UK new music world. The resulting music is thus often a kind of directed improvisation, where Craven’s materials (which he calls “data”) lead the performer towards a “realization” of the music that also brings her own creativity into the picture.
Craven’s interest and background in open form writing comes not from the John Cage aesthetic, but rather through the freedom found in improvisational styles (such as jazz). Thus, the resulting music is not nearly as “avant-garde” as the description of its construction might lead one to believe. Scott McLaughlin’s extensive booklet notes provide a detailed trip through the pieces and their similarities and differences. Though the forms have free elements, the sonatas are clearly structured differently: the Seventh Sonata has five movements, the Eighth Sonata only one, and the Ninth three. The Seventh and Ninth sonatas employ a combination of high and low order prescriptive technique, whereas the Eighth Sonata consists entirely of middle order elements: small events (with only pitches and rhythm) spread out over many pages. The performer creates a realization from this material — in the case of Dullea’s performance an expansive one of nearly 50 minutes. The overall result of all three sonatas is an engaging listening experience that repays revisiting. There is nothing at all off-putting about Craven’s material, and while at times the forms are elusive on a first hearing of such large-scale music, subsequent listens begin to reveal further connections. Significantly more so than in most recordings of contemporary music, the performer’s creative contribution to the result is enormous; Mary Dullea inhabits and conveys Craven’s musical landscape with both sensitivity and virtuosity.