Minor masterpieces

For composers from Giles Farnaby to Howard Skempton, the piano has offered a means of making a little go a very long way. By Bayan Northcott
Slowly, reflectively, the pianist begins to ripple a sequence of arpeggios up and down in triple time - suggesting an accompaniment over which we might expect, say, a violin to enter with a long melody. But nothing of the kind happens. Instead, the arpeggios evolve through a succession of gently unexpected harmonies. And, just as we have become fascinated by the process in its own right, the piece evaporates in a tiny pentatonic flourish. Entitled passing fancy and lasting less than a minute, this mesmeric miniature turns up on a new recital disc recorded in the lustrous ambience of the Maltings, Snape, by John Tilbury and containing a selection of no less than 44 piano pieces by Howard Skempton.

Born in Chester in 1947, Skempton must by now have composed at least double that number of piano opuscules - together with a comparable tally of brief pieces for piano-accordion, which he plays himself. Meanwhile, his larger-scale efforts have remained few and still relatively modest in spirit; even the best-known of them, Lento (1990) for orchestra, confines itself to a 13-minute litany of hieratic chord-progressions. As he has remarked, "Most of my pieces, certainly my most characteristic, are short. Many are occasional. It is in the company of such music that I feel most at home"... but not, it would seem, in which so many music commentators or historians in recent centuries have felt most at home. Composers who prefer to concentrate their ideas in short forms rather than developing them in large ones appear perennially at a critical disadvantage: think only of the anomalous reputation of Chopin, some of whose (not so short) nocturnes and ballades actually pack in as much substance and originality as many a celebrated symphony.

Yet another probable reason why Skempton has had to wait till the age of 48 for his first full-length disc is his declared adherence, through his teacher Cornelius Cardew, to the anti-establishment tradition of so- called Experimental Music. By this, John Cage, who so called it, essentially implied the setting-up of performing conditions from which the musical results could not be predicted - as notoriously exemplified in this country by the rambling improvisations of the Scratch Orchestra that Skempton helped Cardew to found back in 1969. But Skempton also claims Experimental provenance for the concise clarities of his little piano pieces on the grounds that their structures are always derived from the sound of the instrument rather than from abstract ideas, and that their notation also invites a creative input from their performers.

For instance, a cluster of notes struck and allowed to reverberate will reveal a whole range of internal sound-relationships. These, in turn, patterned and permutated, can become the substance of an entire piece, and many of the items on the new disc suggest such an origin. Others, featuring chorale-like chord successions or traceries of figuration, seem to derive from the natural way the hands fall upon, or move across, the keyboard. Still others encapsulate "found" sounds: a rumba rhythm, a Durham folksong, the bells of Rome or, curiously in Well, well, Cornelius - the memorial piece for Cardew that gives the disc its title - the ambling of a parlour piano. Choice of tempi and dynamics often being left to the sympathetic performer, Tilbury turns in lucid, rapt readings, seeking out the mystery that the most banal allusions and simplistic processes evidently aspire towards. A calm steady state; the renunciation of virtuosity; the world in a grain of sand. But are these specifically Experimental ideals? Have we not encountered them before?

Most traditions are, to a degree, retrospective inventions. And perhaps the idea of a creative career centred on the continuous production of miniatures is still only a tradition in potentia. If we knew more about him, Giles Farnaby might emerge as its founding father; for while other Jacobean virginalists wrote little pieces with comparable titles to Giles Farnabys Dreame, His Humour, His Reste, Farnaby seems to have composed more of them, and shorter - Farnabys Conceit is just six bars long. The nearest 18th-century equivalent would undoubtedly be Francois Couperin, whose 230-odd, often picturesquely entitled Pieces de clavecin, with their accompanying manual L'Art de toucher le clavecin, encompass the nuances of an entire courtly culture. Schumann might seem the obvious 19th-century example, except that many of his miniatures - in Carnaval, for instance - are really fragments of larger wholes, only making complete sense in sequence; so that the mantle falls rather on Grieg and the luminous succession of 66 Lyric Pieces, full of beautifully turned inner details, which he published in 10 volumes between 1867 and 1901.

But the real inspiration for Cage, the Experimental tradition and, hence, Skempton has always been the anti-rhetorical, anti-developmental output of Erik Satie - from such early sets as the Trois Gymnopedies, which sound like the same piece heard from different angles, by way of the severe hymnodies of his religious period, to the later "cubist" constructs of cabaret fragments and mechanical patterns. Something of Satie's influence also seems to have touched the affectionate folk-arrangements and austerely mystic chimings that constitute the two main categories of short piano piece cultivated by the immensely long-lived Catalan composer Federico Mompou.

Nor is Skempton the only current practitioner. In 1991, John Woolrich embarked upon an open-ended sequence of Piano Books - there are six to date - each containing three or four little pieces, alternatively brooding or quirky, under intriguingly oblique titles. And on Thursday afternoon (at 4.10pm) Radio 3 listeners can sample such exotic offerings as Sugar- drop and Chinese Bossanova from the ever-lengthening piano album of Adrian Jack.

There is little of Satie's sardonic wit or Mompou's still intensity to be heard in Skempton's pieces, nor of the dark undertone of Woolrich's diaphanous textures. The gift is sweeter, purer, above all, even simpler, with many items poised on a knife-edge between the haunting and the commonplace. Yet the fact that players of the most modest technique could happily tackle this music - which comes in two volumes from Oxford University Press - is only one reason why many composers who welter away on the largest scale might do better to emulate Skempton's example.

There is a populist line in politico-musical correctness around just now which insists that any performance that fails to stimulate large audiences into transports of communal joy is elitist and useless. Yet much of the world's real-life music-making is, and always has been, a more or less solitary activity. The work songs, domestic lullabies, shepherds' pipings and so on, by which ordinary people all over the globe measure out their days, may be overheard but are far removed from the performing situation.

In Western art music - the song tradition aside - such individual needs have tended to be met through the keyboard, or such fretted instruments as the lute and guitar, because these are best adapted to yield a complete texture to a single pair of hands. In fact the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods were full of publications intended, in the first instance, to be played through and meditated upon alone, in the same way as one might read a book; offering the "strong foretaste of composition" Bach promised in his Inventions or the intimate disclosures of Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. Tilbury commends Skempton's little pieces for the sense of space and release they radiate, "providing an antidote to the congestion that blights our lives". And quite apart from their intrinsic interest as aesthetic enquiry, this would seem at least as valuable a social function as any doctrinaire attempt to simulate the spirit of the Notting Hill Carnival all the year round.

n `John Tilbury plays Howard Skempton' is on Sony CD SK 66482