Analysis, Cambridge, and why classical concerts need to change
Photos provided by Stephane Crayton
Stephane Crayton is a UK-based composer. Currently writing his PhD under Richard Causton's supervision at Cambridge University, he also supervises undergraduates and teaches at the Royal Academy of Music's junior department. With his composition, Stephane questions the various social dynamics of performance, while his research is aimed at untangling the complex identity of contemporary music.

Crayton grew up in a musical family — his mother was a piano teacher and composer, though he found out about the latter only after he started composing seriously himself. While the composer was interested in York University, he was set on working with Richard Causton, who taught at Cambridge. There, Stephane completed his bachelor's, MPhil, and is now in the middle of his PhD.

Looking back at his education at the university, Stephane highlights that it was here that he found his passion for analysis. Talking about how he got into the field, the musician mentions Nicholas Marston, who taught an analysis class. "He had an incredible way of drawing everything together; he would often wait for the last five minutes to hit you with it", Crayton recounts. That feeling of being able to connect all of these seemingly disparate elements and in a moment unite them in a wonderful explosion was exciting.
Things clicked when, sometime during summer 2016, the composer was playing Messaien's Quatuor and recognized something in the sound. It's a well-known work, but there hasn't been a huge amount written about the quartet, so when Crayton brought it up to Nicholas, his analysis supervisor, the professor encouraged him to write a paper himself. To note, he's still writing about it.

"I was very lucky to be surrounded by wonderful musicians and privileged to have one-on-one contact with them," the composer says. "My interest in analysis stems partly from a compositional perspective: taking music I loved and then asking myself 'why is this so good?'." During the pandemic when performance and composition paused, Stephane turned to analysis — he now enjoys teaching analysis just as much as teaching composition.

With his own music, on the other hand, the composer examines what it is that makes music expressive. Before I say anything, Crayton admits it's a very broad question and says he doesn't intend to answer it — rather, he wants to find out more about conceptions of order, which have a close relationship with expression. "It can be conventions of any kind, basically understanding relationships between things: how one understands these things and then how they are played with," Stephane shares.

This goes hand-in-hand with his research since the relationship between music and order inherently encourages an analytical approach. In a certain sense, he is more interested in disorder.
"What's interesting about disorder is that the only way we can conceive of something as being disordered is by also implicitly understanding ordered convention: something disordered also expresses order."
Discussing music in general, Crayton shares that he views it as, above all, a social phenomenon. At the same time, he thinks it's a troubling philosophy because engaging with this social view of music ultimately forces one to accept that music is antisocial in general.

"I believe it's quite elitist: something that demands a huge amount of knowledge, time, [and] resources to learn; but it seems that new music requires the same amount just to listen to as well, which troubles me," he conveys. "Music is free to everyone and I hate to think that the contemporary culture of music is creating something which is no longer accessible in the same way to other people." Given that, he tries to make his compositions complex but not complicated, something for people to communicate and understand.

As an example, Stephane tells me about Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. Although it's very complex and a lifetime won't be enough to analyze it, there's a simplicity to it that is inviting — the more you go into it, the more there is to find. On the other hand, Beethoven's late quartets are the inverse of that because, as Stephane puts it, they are absolutely "punishing" and are difficult to engage with on a surface level.
"As far as I can see, a lot of this extreme complication in new music tends to be people trying to hide the fact that they haven't got very much to say," the composer says. Stephane ties this back to the conception of music as a social phenomenon.

And the exciting part is that this communication isn't only between the performer and the listener, but also between the performers themselves; the composer is playing with ways to engage with this. When writing a string quartet, Stephane created two kinds of notation, one of which was free and not constrained by typical barlines and time signatures. "Instead of having to have counted sixteen-and-a-half bars rest, imagine blank staves and then a vertical line connecting your next note with a specific point in another part," he says.

That means it's impossible for you to look at the score and count because you don't actually know what to count. Instead, it forces you, and makes it easier, to engage with the other musicians. Stephane juxtaposed this kind of notation with a more traditional notation, staging the social effects in a dialogue.
I ask Stephane about Zoom livestream performances and in-person concerts and he takes a moment to think. We start discussing the overall experience of going to a classical concert: you sit in a seat, surrounded by people in bowties, not being able to move, it's dark, your visual stimulus is restricted, and you're stripped of your physical and vocal agency. "It's quite a restricting, almost imprisoning thing going to a concert hall. There's nothing particularly normal about it," he concludes, describing that, seen through a historical lens it makes sense, but the idea of engaging with music in this way today becomes quite loaded.

The composer believes that music written with a certain function will become popular over the coming years. Let's say there's a great piece written by a new composer. The easiest way of performing it is probably at a concert — not having that relationship to function makes it very adaptable but also quite restricted in terms of how someone engages with it.

In comparison, if you invite that composer to write something for a particular function, like a social event, then of course they would compose something completely different. "Already there are so many things that would inform what you are going to compose: that's the relationship with function," Crayton says. "It could be a way to move away from the restriction of the concert hall — if the social dynamic is more refreshing, perhaps the music will be too."

Whether or not composition will develop in that direction, Stephane hopes that, at the very least, music-making will become less intimidating and demanding for the listener.
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