“I’m not setting text, I’m not trying to manipulate it or dilute its impact; I’m trying to present it, as I feel like it deserves to be presented, and using that as a stimulus for my own creativity.” -Robert Crehan
Robert Crehan (b. 1991) is a British composer hailing from Luton, Bedfordshire. Robert’s work explores abrupt cuts and interruptions evocative of visual art and literature. Initially self-taught as a composer, Robert subsequently studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Hollie Harding and Paul Newland; Robert’s work has been performed across the UK and Netherlands by ensembles such as orkest de ereprijs, Plus Minus Ensemble, EXAUDI, and Quatuor Bozzini, among others. Robert spoke to PRXLUDES about his upbringing as a self-taught composer, his experiences at institutions, his relationship with setting text, and his use of cinema and visual art processes in his compositions.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Robert! Thanks so much for joining me today. Let’s talk a bit about your musical background — I understand that you’re a self-taught composer?
Robert Crehan: Initially, yeah. When I first started… I started around the age of 14, it was in school. I was interested in it because I liked the classes. I took it for GCSE, and it was during that year I felt [like] I was good at it, I really enjoyed it. As part of the GCSE thing, there is a composition module [where] you have to write something and submit it — and I think that’s when I first realised you could actually write music. Before that… I don’t even know what I thought. It didn’t even occur to me that people write music, and people play it. It blew my mind, it just didn’t compute.
That feels like such a common thread — I know so many people who didn’t know you could compose until they were older.
When I was younger, I really wanted to be a writer. So I feel like I merged this newfound interest of music with my interest in writing. There was this physical act of writing, merged with music. I think that’s what really drew me in.
I think I was about 16 when I dropped out of school prematurely. At that point, I realised I didn’t wanna do anything other than music. I felt like I was good at it, I enjoyed it, and wanted to try and do something with it. I got a job in retail for about five or six years. In hindsight, that decision to drop out of school and just focus purely on composition was probably the best choice I made. I mean, my mum wasn’t happy about it… -laughs- But I think that’s where I rebelled a bit, and decided “this is what I wanna do with myself”. I spent the next five or six years — while working — teaching myself how to write music, [and] teaching myself how to play music… I never had a piano, I had this shitty, plastic keyboard thing.
Kind of like, figuring things out with whatever you had.
I remember one of the first things that I realised was the difference between major and minor chords. In school, you’re like “oh, this is a major triad, this is a minor triad” — but when I figured out what the difference was, I started to play and experiment with things and see what they did. At the time, a lot of things I was doing was looking at musical textbooks, harmony, theory, [and] going through the exercises. Initially I didn’t have a teacher, so I was just following these books, coming to the conclusions that they (hopefully) wanted me to. I guess my knowledge of music, at the time, was very narrow — [as] it was only the examples in the books that I understood.
When, eventually, I’d written enough music to compile a portfolio, I started to apply to conservatoires. I didn’t have [any] A-levels, so I couldn’t apply to university — so conservatoire was my only option, but it was the one I wanted to do, because it’s more practice-based rather than academic.
Did anything in particular stand out to you when you first came to Birmingham after being self-taught?
For me, when I arrived at Birmingham [Conservatoire]… Maybe the reason why I remember all the off-the-wall, crazy experimental shit is because that was the first time I really encountered that kind of thing. For me, it was very striking, unusual, and sometimes challenging. Does Night of the Unexpected still happen?
No! That was way before my time, I think.
Oh my god! So, one time, Patrick Ellis was on the floor, dead, as Morrissey, for about an hour and a half — and me, Roché Van Tiddens, [and] Dani Blanco took pictures with him on the floor. And I put candles on him. That was in O’Neill’s on Broad Street… -laughs-
Hang on — this happened at an O’Neill’s? -laughs-
O’Neill’s… -laughs- Upstairs, they had a private function room, and Patrick hired it out for Night of the Unexpected. So [he] was involved as Morrissey, and at the end of the piece he died, and then just remained on the stage; motionless. If I recall, that night Ed Bennett did something electronic with Sean Clancy, Dan Cippico did a piece that involved scraping the eczema on his arm with something metal into a blue bucket, which had a Facebook like [symbol] on it. That was lovely. I remember the barmaid asking me “why is he doing that”… And every time someone walked in, Patrick and Dani would follow them around with trumpet fanfares. -laughs- Night of the Unexpected was just mental. It was off-the-wall, experimental shit. Some of it was hilarious, some of it quite serious, but [at the end of the day] it was just stuff. NOTU gigs were some of the most memorable events of my undergrad [in Birmingham].
It’s fascinating that that stood out to you — especially coming from a background that isn’t traditionally academic.
I’ve never been academic. I feel like there’s a lot of academia in music at the moment — which I understand, but I slightly disagree with. I feel like music should be less academic and more intuitive, more impulsive… spontaneous. If you start from the point of analysis, and try and compose from that point — in the creative process, they do have a function, they [can] help you boil down ideas, figure things out — but if you’re coming at it from a point of musicology, and then making a piece from that point, while that may be interesting, it might not produce inspiring, or sincere music.
I feel like that’s a lot of peoples’ criticisms on process music.
That’s not to say that you can’t make a great piece that is a process in itself. There are some pieces that benefit from being an exposed process. But it depends who’s doing it, or what their aims are, or how they execute it… things like that. There’s space for all types of music, and different approaches and ideas — but it’s about the resulting thing [for me]. From my experience in conservatoires and institutions, there’s a lot of academicism that seems to have a stranglehold on creative music-making. I’ve had this conversation with a few other composers and they seem to agree with me — obviously, there’s people that probably disagree with me — but I feel like there is this musicological stranglehold on the creative process. There’s a lot of pressure on composers to intellectualise their work more than they probably want to; they feel like they have to justify certain things, or things have to be in a certain style, or certain techniques need to be employed. I feel there’s a lot of pressure in certain areas that [doesn’t] really need to be there.
Do you feel like you’re able to notice more of that predominantly because of how you were self-taught?
Completely. I think training myself, teaching myself initially, I started to understand how I learned things [and] how I made sense of things. But then coming to an institution where there are people that seem very academic, and [whose] music might seem very academic as well… there is a lot of pressure I’ve felt to uphold that standard of intellectualism in my work. In undergrad, because I was self-taught, there [were] a lot of gaps in my knowledge about what new music was, what it should be, and what it can be. Over the course of those four years, I was figuring that out, seeing lots of things, hearing different composers’ names and pieces I’d not heard before… being exposed to all kinds of things. It is very exciting — you’re uncovering a whole world of stuff you haven’t heard before — but it also comes with a lot of pressure. You feel like you need to conform to one style of thinking, or one area of thought, rather than figuring out your own. But that’s the role of the student, isn’t it? To figure these things out…
It depends on the institution, right?
I was thinking about this on the train here, actually. I feel like every institution has its own little cultural bubble — that’s not a criticism, that’s an observation. And that bubble represents the values of the people within that culture, in that institution. But that bubble is only as diverse as the people in it.
So if you’ve got a musical institution, and everyone that’s studying there is from the same background, with the same musical interests and ideas, the ideas are gonna be very narrow — they’re gonna fit into one, probably very small, box. Whereas if you have another institution with students from a wide range of different backgrounds, [with] different interests and styles, the musical output is gonna reflect that. And within that, there’s gonna be a cross-pollination of different ideas and styles. People take from what they hear, or experience. It’s about the music those students are exposed to within that institution, as well. If they’re given a broad range of styles and practices to listen to, then likewise, they’re gonna find things within that range to take from and develop in their own way, from their own perspective. Whereas if they’re only given a select type, or style, they’re gonna [only] regurtitate those things, as well. I think more broader diversity within institutions creates a much more productive, and creative, environment.
How do you feel your practice has been influenced by both your upbringing, and your experiences at Birmingham and Guildhall?
So going back to where I was living — [I was] in Luton, where I’m originally from. Historially an industrial, predominantly working class town, I think in 2016 it was unofficially awarded the “worst town in the UK” title. -laughs- Then I moved to Birmingham, which is a massive industrial city. The thing I think is really interesting about Birmingham [conservatoire] and Guildhall — that particular pairing, and from my experience — is that they both very clearly have a really broad, diverse range of students that go there. There’s a lot of different types of music being made. If you were to go to a composers’ platform in Birmingham, and hear the composers’ music, they would all sound very different. That’s the kind of micro — but looking at the macro, there are differences between Guildhall and Birmingham. Having gone to both institutions, I feel like I’ve naturally accumulated certain characteristics from Birmingham and from Guildhall. I feel like my work exhibits those things in different ways.
I guess from my upbringing — and having worked, and initially taught myself — there’s always been a sort of industriousness, and the need to keep working at something. There’s also being more resilient too. Composing can be quite an isolating activity and it can be easy to lose motivation and feel bad about everything. I find that even when things don’t seem to be going well, if you keep at it you will eventually find an exciting new direction to explore, or something will change and give you some clarity.
From Guildhall, I feel that I’d started to put things together that I’d picked up and experienced from Birmingham and tried to find a fluency in my work. I felt like I’d finally managed to catch up with the lost years between dropping out of school and starting my undergrad and tried to tie it all together. I feel like I managed to do this thanks to Paul Newland and Hollie Harding. And again, experiencing a new conservatoire bubble and meeting new composers with different perspectives really helped broaden my way of thinking about my own work.
From Birmingham I feel like I’ve absorbed some of the dynamism of freedom — I don’t even know if that makes sense -laughs- — case and point is Andy Ingamells’ work. A lot of his work is to do with active reading. If that performance is based on active reading, there’s room for different interpretations per performance, and a whole dimension of variety from one performance to the next. That’s one thing that I feel has gradually worked its way into my pieces; there is an aspect where things don’t always happen the same way through performances, or the idea that it’s not intended that each performance should be a carbon-copy every time, but is unique.
What’s an example of that in your own work?
So ‘HUNTER S. THOMPSON’S DAILY ROUTINE’… the narration of that [piece] can vary between performances. It’s based on the narrator — what their natural speaking voice is, what their voice type is, their accent, or how fast or slow they speak. Likewise, there’s also a percussion part, which throughout the whole piece is improvised. Depending on that percussionist’s experience, and the choices that they make during the performance, that can produce a completely different experience from one performance to the next. It’s only had one performance [so far], and that was by orkest de ereprijs in 2021.
Did the text serve as the inspiration for that piece — and how did it inform your compositional process?
The starting point for me was the text. The text was taken from a biography of the American journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson by E. Jean Carroll, and the book opens with that list of his daily activities. It did the rounds on Facebook years and years ago, and I remember reading it and being like “holy fuck, that’s wild.” -laughs- It slipped into the back of my mind. But when I was writing for Ereprijs, there were restrictions for the duration of the piece: it had to be a maximum of two minutes long, and I could use between one and five different vocalists.
What’s important for me is: when I initially approach different projects, I think about the information that is given to me [first] — the ensemble lineup, the duration, the context of the performance. For me, duration is important, because I always work to that duration. That characterises the piece itself. If someone said “write a one-minute long piece”, my entire thinking and creative process is drawn towards making a self-contained piece, giving it a purpose to be one minute — not making it so it wants to last fifteen minutes, although that could be an interesting thing to explore too. It becomes a constraint that I then use as inspiration, making each piece bespoke for the event or project it’s written for.
How did you approach the task of fully realising something in such a short space of time?
The two minute thing did throw a spanner in the works — that’s a short space of time for something to speak, develop, and conclude. It was a challenge. I spent a few weeks mulling over different ideas. Initially, the piece was gonna be very loud, very heavy, like the piece I did with Plus Minus — ‘September 6th, 1951’ — but after a while, I thought “what’s the vocalist doing?” Everything I was thinking up to then was just instrumental, and I neglected thinking about the vocalist and what voice types I wanted. Every day, I’d go for a walk in the park near my house — and on that walk, the Hunter S. Thompson thing kind of popped into my head, and I was like: I wonder how long it would take for me to read that text? So I timed myself reading it — just that one page — and it came to one minute, forty-five seconds. Perfect!
What’s your relationship to spoken text, as opposed to sung text?
If you decide something is sung, it’s naturally gonna take longer. As this piece was only meant to be two minutes long, I decided to have it presented as spoken text. There were a number of other reasons for that. Up until that point, I’d used spoken text in two pieces as a main feature: one of the pieces was ‘Lecture on Sexist Narratives in the Science of Reproductive Biology’, and that involves spoken text gradually transitioning to sung text as a metaphor for the content of the text, which is about reproductive cells assimilating one another. A piece after that — ‘September 6’ — [also] uses spoken text. The content of the text is about William Burroughs — the American author — and an incident where he shot his common-law wife. I used the technique he pioneered — the cut-up technique — and applied it to the text which recounts the story that he gave to police the night of him shooting his wife. It [was] a weird integration between his ideas and my own: presenting him as a subject, using his own technique, combined with my musical ideas.
Those were the two times I’ve used spoken text. Both solved a few problems [for me] in terms of what to do with a vocalist when they’re not singing — what does their normal voice sound like — and the clarity of the idea, as well. More direct communication. So when it came to ‘HUNTER S. THOMPSON’S DAILY ROUTINE’, I was so in love with this little chunk of text. For me, it had so much. Structurally, it was very striking, because it was a timeline of things [that] were very short and punctuated… but also, there were a fucking shit-ton of drugs involved as well. -laughs- It was just incredible.
How did you involve the instrumentalists with the narration?
So I thought “okay, how can I use this fantastic structure, and highlight the sheer amount of drugs he consumed?” I decided to have the singer narrate, and I would have the ensemble punctuate — in different ways for different substances — every time a certain drug was mentioned. I did a number count of the different substances: there was Chivas Regal whiskey, cocaine, Dunhill cigarettes, acid, weed, a few other things. The most frequently referenced things were cocaine and Dunhill cigarettes. Every time the word “cocaine” or “Dunhill cigarettes” were mentioned, there would be a sharp, loud attack — so it was audibly detectable. [It] also had an influence on the structure of the piece, and it was also a metaphor: as the drugs would stimulate him, these spoken words would stimulate the ensemble. The words became the substances he was [taking]. In my mind, at least. I wanted to keep things fixed, have that play out, and hear what happens.
Was there anything that struck you about that process, following the first performance of the piece?
The vocalist [became] a conductor in themselves: they’re the ones determining, depending on how fast or slow they’re reading, when [the] events occur. So almost everyone’s following the narrator. It’s redirecting the focus of the music toward what they’re saying and the actual content of the text.
I find that method of text-setting fascinating — it’s almost like a reverse of the traditional art-song “setting text to music” mentality.
One thing that bothers me is the idea of “setting” a text. When you set a text, you’re imposing yourself on it — you’re deciding what stays, what goes, where the focus is. Whereas with me, if I’m interested in a text, I want to present that text because I find it interesting. I don’t wanna do anything to it because I find it’s already interesting enough. Unless it’s [something like] a libretto, which accounts for musical involvement, the text doesn’t need anything from me. For me, it’s what I can do to elevate it in some way, rather than fiddling with it and making it a musical thing. [The text] is a thing that exists on its own, and I’m coming to it after the fact. I’m not setting it, I’m not trying to manipulate it or dilute its impact; I’m trying to present it, as I feel like it deserves to be presented, and using that as a stimulus for my own creativity.
It’s almost like you’re treating the text as a collaborator in and of itself…
Yes, exactly. When you set a text, you’re imposing what you think it should be, whereas I’m quite happy for it to exist as it is, and see what I can do around it, or with it.
You’ve mentioned a lot of your work also takes influence from visual art, as well — I remember you had a piece workshopped by LSO musicians?
Yeah! I can’t post it online, sadly. I put blood, sweat, and tears into that thing, as well; it’s probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. For me, I think it paid off. It did the things I wanted it to do, and the workshop was so good — Jack Sheen conducting, and it was led by LSO musicians.
I’m quite a visual person. The way that I learn, and the things that I absorb, are usually visual things. Particularly in that piece POINT.LINE.PLANE. — that was directly inspired by [a] book called ‘Point and Line to Plane’ by Wassily Kandinsky. It’s explaining his technique, and how things work [for him]. He basically boils visual art down to three things: the point, so, like, an instant note; the line, which is an elongation of the point; and the plane, the space in which they exist. In this book, he’s got lots of draft diagrams and sketches, where he tries to demonstrate these ideas in action — different variations and permutations of these ideas on the plane. I thought they were very striking. There’s a weird kind of break between what an artist produces formally, and the things that they make as little doodles or sketches: like, where does one stop and one start? [There] was a really raw, visceral feeling — a sort of roughness to these little diagrams. So what I decided to do was come up with points, and lines, and planes in terms of music.
How did you initially come across Kandinsky as a source of inspiration?
It’s an interesting connection. I was introduced to it by Hollie Harding, who was my tutor at the time; she told me about a dance piece which she saw which was based on this kind of thing, as well. I [then] tried to see: what does a line sound like — what’s its function, its purpose; what does a dot sound like, how am I representing a [single] dot; and what is the plane? The conclusion I came to is [that] time is the plane.
Essentially, the structure of the piece is the canvas.
Yeah, exactly. And not thinking in two dimensions — time as start-and-then-stop — but also in terms of depth, as well. Dynamics, and loudness, and quietness, as being front and back. I tried to get that sense of depth; things can be in the foreground while there’s something else in the background, and trading over [each other]. So I set to work on coming up with different ideas about how to represent these things.
Also, within Kandinsky’s own work, there’s a very limited palette of colour. He only uses primary colours, and colours resulting [from] them mixing. I tried to represent this in the music by dividing up the orchestra into different groups. I did it in a very basic way: woodwinds are all one group, brass are one group, strings are one group. But then you’ve got piano, percussion, and harp that are one group, as well. So there’s four groups, each representing a sonic primary colour. That gives me the opportunity to mix them in certain ways — so I can have the string material repeating within the piano [group], which then gives it a certain colour.
That’s a very striking musical interpretation of Kandinsky — boiling everything down to its most basic components. How have you explored elements of visual art in some of your other work?
There’s also things like ‘September 6th’. The way it moves, as more [in] relation to filmography… If you imagine a conversation between two people on a TV show, the camera might be focused on the speaker — so it would be on you — and then I’d start talking and the camera’s on me. You get this alternation, [but] the camera is still in the room…
I can definitely see-
-but if we’re both talking over each other, we might both be in the frame. And that’s how I was thinking of it transitioning in ‘September 6’ — it goes from one thing to the next, alternating, for different lengths of time. The focus is on different elements within the same event.
Because the context of the piece is happening within a very specific, short amount of time. It’s like a moment of madness — or whatever it was — when he shoots his wife; I’m focusing on that, backwards and forwards, by alternating. There’s no sense of trajectory through the music until the text comes in. But as you go through the text, it reveals more and more about the story. There is this backwards-forwards-alternating thing between the really high violin material, and the really low, loud, death-metal-esque sound. For me, it was a sonic representation of a camera being on one person, then another person, in the same conversation.
Like hyperfocusing on the moment from different perspectives…
Within a short amount of time. Going back, revisiting, shuffling between different places.
Does your interest in visual art also correlate to how you view the score, in regards to your work?
I guess so. When it comes to writing down ideas and things, I feel like I see a partial fragment of the score in my head. I’m not really listening, I’m “seeing”. And then I might translate that into sound, and then that sound becomes another thing that I accumulate. It sometimes kind of snowballs from a visual idea.
Does the score come first for you?
I guess in most cases it’s the visual representation of the [piece] that comes first [rather than the score]. Sometimes, I might imagine the way the players look when they do something — is it gentle, soft, and quiet, or loud, heavy, aggressive? The rhetoric of a gesture. I visually imagine the situation, in performance, but also I visually imagine it sonically. -laughs- Sometimes, the aural idea comes first, and then I translate it into a visual. Sometimes, I see a fragment of what the score might look like for a certain sound, and try and work with that. But I’m always interested in the visual.
There’s also a physicality to it, as well. [In ‘September 6th’], it was literally a case of shuffling little fragments of paper which had the score on it, and saying “okay, that’s the order”. A lot of the time, these things are determined visually — I’ll shuffle them around and [ask myself if] that feels right, select that, and move on to the next one.
It’s interesting — while I guess that can feel like there’s a degree of automatism, I’d say it’s more to do with intuition.
Yeah. Also, likewise, with ‘Lecture on Sexist Narratives’ — when I’d marked up the text for that, the proportions of activity seemed very appropriate for the duration. Everything seemed to visually confirm what I was hoping, which was why I made the decision to go along with those ideas. With that piece, I used different number schemes to decide which words are sung, and which are spoken. But if I did that, and it looked wrong, I would revisit the number scheme, so it would look right. It’s not an exact science, but it’s important for me to accept something visually; the proportions, the distributions.
That makes sense — you’ve taken a lot of influence from unorthodox filming techniques in your compositions, right?
Another thing I’ve been doing a lot recently is “fixing” things. The roles of instruments, or musicians, is fixed throughout the majority of a piece. This is kind of inspired by a piece I saw in the Whitechapel Gallery, that kind of reinforced the idea… It was Illuminer by Steve McQueen, the filmmaker [and] director. They had a Fluxus event on, and as part of the Guildhall Composers’ Seminar, we did a visit to the gallery and had a look around. But there was an exhibition of multimedia works upstairs, and there was a Steve McQueen piece in this dark room… It was Steve McQueen, on a bed, in a hotel room, and there was a camera above his TV focusing on him. He was in the dark, and he was watching a military program [with] lots of flashing lights. And every time it flashed, the camera would readjust its lens. So you get this kind of focus-not-focused [effect]. I found it really interesting, because it was from a fixed position, but there was this dynamic thing about it — the lights [meaning] that the focus would change. By fixing something, you can focus on exploring other aspects.
It was really fascinating. It’s one of the things I feel is quite distinctive about his work, that he fixes the camera for extended periods of time. There’s a particularly disturbing scene in his film ’12 Years a Slave’ where a slave has been hung from a tree, and the camera just stays there, watching his body. No music. Just the sounds of the leaves rustling in the wind and birds singing. Not for a long period of time, but it’s longer than you want it to be… it forces you to watch. It’s a simple idea but can be incredibly profound.
Just long enough to make it uncomfortable.
This is something that I’ve seen before. I like fixing things — the role is set, and I enjoy playing [around] that role. In ‘Point, Line, Plane’, the role I’ve set — the brass has this material, the strings have this material — doesn’t change. Within that there are changes, but the roles [themselves] don’t change. There’s variation within it, but the material is set out from the beginning. I really quite like that. Their roles are determined, and they remain that way.
Tell me about some of the projects you have in the pipeline at the moment…
At the moment I have quite a few different things going on. Lots of teaching projects such as the BCMG: Listen Imagine Primary. I have a few performances coming up in May as part of the Contemporary Collaborations project in London, involving the premiere of an old unfinished song cycle which I’m currently in the process of completing. I’m currently involved in the Psappha Composing For… scheme writing for cello and percussion, which is fantastic. A performance of that piece will be available later in the year. There’s also a large scale collaborative project I’ve been chipping away at for a while with Ben Smith, and I’ve also decided to begin work on another large-scale project, purely for myself. I was once encouraged by Hollie Harding to think about what my ideal project might look like — I’ve had this idea buzzing around in my mind for a while now. and it’s come to a place where I feel like I can begin to lay the foundations for it, and possibly start writing it, with or without anyone lined up to perform it. I’ll be performing an aspect of it myself which I don’t think I’ve been brave enough to do before. First time for everything!
More of Robert Crehan’s work can be found at the links below, including details of his upcoming performances in London:
- Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Night of the Unexpected, LiveBrum (2013)
- Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson, au. E. Jean Carroll (1993)
- Illuminer (2013), Steve McQueen
- 12 Years a Slave (2013), dir. Steve McQueen