Richard Craig – Performer or Composer?

April 2, 2020 in awards 2020 blog, featured by mwhiteside

Performer or Composer?

Although I have been nominated as a performer of contemporary music, this post is an opportunity to talk a little about my own compositions, and how performing works of other composers feeds into this.

I have composed and improvised for the past ten years, and what I make often follows on from phases of intense study on works I have been playing. This first started in 2009 with Amp/Al (an acronym for the instrumentation of Amplifier and Alto flute) after a Creative Scotland residency at the Clashnettie Arts Centre, Aberdeenshire. Fast-forward to 2015, and I started developing a series of works for flute/s and fixed media called Hortulus Animae.

Performer

Looking back over the past five years, I have performed music by Ann Cleare, Jürg Frey, Frank Denyer and Morton Feldman. Also, the music and thought of John Croft has been important to me, and more locally, the Glasgow-based composer Fabrice Fitch too. The experience of recording and performing their music, and my conversations with them has left a particular impression on my identity as a performer. It has also informed protean ideas as to how I might approach composition. In this way, composing and performing have become inextricably linked; composing has become a practical way of thinking about or responding to other repertoire I have performed in my concerts.

Composer: Gardener or Architect?

The process of composing my own music has also led me to think more about the roles of the composer and performer. The artist Brian Eno and his thoughts about making Art in a more general way – that composers/artists today are in fact more akin to ‘gardeners’ rather than ‘architects’– has a relevance to both aspects of my work. Performance and Composition, as I see them, look to the work as our focus of attention to the work, not who is making it.

An architect, at least in the traditional sense, is somebody who has an in-detail concept of the final result in their head…In the same way as one imagines an architect working.  You know, designing the building, in all its details, and then having that constructed.

Changing the idea of the composer from somebody who stood at the top of a process and dictated precisely how it was carried out, to somebody who stood at the bottom of a process who carefully planted some rather well-selected seeds, hopefully, and watched them turn into something

Composers as Gardeners – Brian Eno

This idea in itself – to place an emphasis on arranging materials and allowing connections to appear, as well as ‘trying to remind ourselves that the controlling talent that we have must be balanced by the surrendering talent that we also have’- was somehow reassuring to me as a performer approaching composition. It dispels the notion of the composer being on a pedestal and propose that we ‘accept the role… (or ethos)… of gardener as being equal in dignity to the role of architect’ when it comes to making music, or Art.

The music

Hortulus Animae (which translates as Little Garden of the Soul) is an ongoing project for flute/s and fixed media (tape). The title comes from a prayer book dating from the 16th century that was intended for individual use, and so the proposal of planning and making a series of short works for flute and fixed media that are in some way autodidactic, or a become a personal project or training, provided me with a basis to begin composing again.

So far, there are three pieces completed, and one other in progress:

Hortulus Animae (i) (2015 – 2018)

Blodeuwedd  (2019)

Hortulus Animae (ii) ‘Siambr’ (2019-20)

‘mentis pharmaca sacrae’ (in progress)

My surroundings of North Wales, where I lived from 2015-19, also became part of these works. Living on Anglesey with its Neolithic burial chambers such as Bryn Celli Ddu (referred to here as siambr which is Welsh for chamber) and its rich folklore (Blodeuwedd is a mythical being from the Mabinogion) became a backdrop for the music. Looking past this idea of a sense of place as a geographical aspect, and thinking about where I wanted the music to be heard offered another insight – it became clear that the compositions (so far) are not intended for the concert hall, and perhaps not even for a concert audience (!), but rather they seem to be destined to be type of installation or quasi-theatrical performance. This is perhaps more tangible when we consider the dynamic range of the music, and also in my outward stance: I perform the pieces kneeling; almost ‘eyes averted’, and I have physically demarcated a smaller, more intimate space within the room in the way I organise my instruments and the speakers around me.

Neolithic Burial Chamber, Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey, Wales. Photograph – R.Craig

Going further…?

Writing for myself has always been the aim of these works, and when I consider how I might compose for others after this point it poses an obstacle. This is principally to do with my ethos to composing and the content of the pieces: my way of playing the flute has specific techniques that I have developed and that as yet, are un-notated. And, in a more basic way, all of the other materials on the tape part are of me – I use pre-recorded extracts of my own singing, whistling, and of myself playing found objects. It then seems disingenuous to me that such a personalised content and way of composing could involve another performer, at least at the moment. This might well change, of course…

Video of a live performance of Hortulus Animae at the inaugural concert of SCRATCH experimental music series, organised by the Dukes of Scuba.

Performances:

Hortulus Animae (i) Listen to the Voice of Fire, Aberystwyth, Wales, July 2018

Blodeuwedd  Bangor New Music Festival, Wales, February 2019

Hortulus Animae (i), Blodeuwedd, Unerhörte Musik, Berlin, September 2019
Hortulus Animae (i), Blodeuwedd, Hortulus Animae (ii) ‘siambr’, SUMMIT, Manchester, September 2019

Hortulus Animae (i), Blodeuwedd, Hortulus Animae (ii) ‘siambr’, SCRATCH, Bangor, November 2019

Hortulus Animae (i), Blodeuwedd, Hortulus Animae (ii) ‘siambr’, AMOK, York, November 2019
Hortulus Animae (i), Blodeuwedd, Hortulus Animae (ii) ‘siambr’ and ‘mentis pharmaca sacrae’ Glasgow Experimental Concert Series 2020

The Scottish Awards for New Music will be announced at 8pm, 14th April. Tune in to watch the live stream at www.newmusicscotland.co.uk/awards2020