First published in The Herald on 16 October, 2013
â€œIt’s hard to pin me down,â€ says Richard Craig. He’s talking about the prosaic matter of his postal address, but the sentiment could equally apply to his art. Craig is a flute player, a composer, an improviser, an inventor, a teacher. He plays with top-end contemporary music ensembles around Europe like Cologne’s Ensemble MusikFabrik and Vienna’s Klangforum. But he also treads various paths of his own, venturing on solo projects on that transcend the various factions and fractions of Europe’s contemporary music communities. His work roams outside the limits of what seems possible on a single flute, too. His latest album is an ear-bending collection of microtones and amp feedback â€“ fail to read the sleeve notes and you’d be hard put to tell what instrument is at the heart of it all.
Part of Craig’s knack for shape-shifting comes from being a regular outsider. â€œI’ve always had a fascination with understanding myself outside of big centres,â€ he says, meaning the big centres in contemporary music: Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam. â€œComing from Scotland at first felt like a hindrance; thenÂ I realised it gives me freedom. We’re a bit far away, a bit to the left, so we’ve always been left to tinker on our own. It takes a longer for us to tap into the Continental scene, but we’ve got self-reliance.â€
Craig is quietly-spoken and serious about his work, but a wry wit creeps in when he talks about navigating the music industry. He grew up in Clydebank and started out as a ‘regular’ classical flautist. â€œIt was the usual track,â€ he says. â€œI was a classical guy, and I still am.â€ As a student at the (then) Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama he was musically omnivorous: he’d search out scores by obscure composers because he â€œgot bored of playing standard repertoire. There was only one way of playing that was considered acceptable. I don’t like taking things at face value. I would always ask why.â€
After graduating he did some orchestral work with Scottish Opera, but says he â€œcouldn’t find a sincerity or authenticity in classical repertoire. It had been so layered by the weight of history. That’s why I went down this road. I want to have an active part in whatever I do.â€ Still, he says the formal training was a must. â€œLots of improvisers shift into playing contemporary music but there’s a missing weight that classical musicians carry around with us. I would advocate the idea that new music is traditional music.â€
â€œIt’s about taking received knowledge and making it pertinent to our times. That’s what classical music is, in my opinion. It carries the scars of what we’ve lived. So my technique is classical. I listen to Brahms as much as the next person. And to French baroque, a lot.â€
It was while studying with a flute player called Mario Caroli in Strasbourg that Craig began to hone in on what he describes as â€œa whole different way of thinking about music as art. I was still quite green and I got a hold of a book of Sciarrino solo pieces. ‘Congratulations for tackling such art’, someone told me. That really stuck: that it’s art, not entertainment. These pieces transform the instrument into something else that is very definitely not just a flute. The sounds are sculpted and shaped and formed in a way that makes poetry.â€
Eventually he found his way to composers like Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon, and was set on his route of sonic adventures. After a stint living in Stockholm he came back to Glasgow and tried to settle down, but felt the city unsympathetic to his musical aesthetic. â€œModernism? The UK, Scotland, we’ve never really been comfortable with it. Maybe it’s too raw for us,â€ he shrugs.
In concerts Craig is fairly uncompromising. He doesn’t like to introduce himself or the music: he wants people to listen â€œwithout smoothing the path for them. Music is what it is,â€ he says. Couldn’t a bit of stage chat offer a gentle way in for audiences who aren’t familiar with his kind of repertoire? â€œWhat I’m trying to do is keep a pristine environment without glossing over what’s going to happen or how it will happen. Often audiences are really afraid because they think they should know and understand the music. But who really knows or understands music? It’s a less exclusive kind of music than people think.â€
The recent album, AMP/AI, was dreamed up during a residency at the Clashnettie Arts Centre in the Cairngorms, and for the first time it features Craig as a composer as well as a player and improviser. â€œIt’s me trying to stay awake, to stay on my toes,â€ he says. â€œI wanted to make something that was based on exploring the instrument. I guess it’s the beginning of a compositional language.â€
Craig remains the only ‘classical’ act to have yet been longlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award: Inward was a contender for the 2011 prize, an experience he says he found extremely positive. â€œI was inspired by the way that other musicians navigate the music industry. The classical way isn’t to make your own Bandcamp site and try to sell your music from there. But why not?â€
AMP/AI picks up on that DIY aesthetic. It’s a limited edition of 90, each case hand-decorated with clay and ink by the Manchester-based artist Angela Guyton. (The clay, Craig explains, is supposed to fall off in time, reflecting the disc’s shattering final tracks.) The album is full of taught, angular sounds, but its impact is more about compact intent than aggressive noise: more about poetic succinctness than outright inaccessibility. It’s serious, searching stuff from one of Scotland’s most intrepid musicians. If it’s the beginnings of a new compositional language, we have much to look forward to.
Richard Craig performs at Sound in Aberdeen on October 29 and November 9