British composer Lawrence Dunn (1991) has an unabashed affection for harmony and melody, for innocence, lightness, even naiveté. Wary of dogmatism in experimental music or trends, he says “while I definitely worry a lot, I try not to worry about being current. Currency is so tiresome—besides I’m interested in other things. There’s an inner eight-year-old who I would like to please, to stay friends with.”
“When I was about eight,” Dunn remembers, “my piano teacher—a wonderful guy called Chris Fuller—gave me a cassette mixtape. I can’t remember the exact title—it was something like ‘pan-global musical journeying.’ Unusual bits of Miles Davis’ fusion from the early seventies spliced into Balinese gamelan, Hindustani ragas, Ornette Coleman free jazz. It fairly comprehensively blew my mind. And I think it also baked into me a residual understanding that music could be anything it wanted; artful or aggressive or plain or lyrical or strange or obtuse.”
As a pianist—never patient enough for regular practice or dedication to technique—Dunn mainly spent time improvising: “I recorded a fair few improvisations on tape. My piano teacher had told me about the Greek modes, scales other than major or minor—Mixolydian, Dorian, Phrygian. I had a keyboard, and would pick a mode and a different sound to improvise in. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a tape of the eight-year-old me improvising in the Lydian mode with synth brass or oboe sounds. The more I think about it, it’s essentially what I’m still doing.”
A curious early piece in Dunn’s output is Oy (2009), a wayward composition for six clarinets and almglocken, dedicated to his uncle, clarinetist Antony Pay. “I was fond of the clarinet because of my uncle, and had written bits and pieces beforehand. Around this time I had heard Horatiu Radulescu, and brazenly pilfered the multiple-clarinets idea from his Inner Time II—opting instead for fast-and-busy over glacial. A little absentmindedly, I submitted it to a BBC competition; it wound up being broadcast on the radio. In the end they assembled some of the best young clarinet players in the country—one of them came up to me afterwards and said, ‘you do know, this is kind of tricky.’”
Within a few years Dunn was getting closer to obtaining a personal musical language. Organ Piece (2013) is a composition built from simple melodic lines and combinations of modal harmonies. “While it can seem a little peculiar in retrospect, I had come to feel that harmony was not thought to be interesting among composers coming from an experimentalist background. I felt vaguely embarrassed about harmony at the time—in particular the sort of harmony that has its origin in voicings: in other words, the hands, ‘tactile’ harmony. If in fact I had a ‘feeling’ for chords, voicings, triads, modes and such things, it would be foolish or faithless to go against it. By so doing, one catches a certain childlike approach to music making, where the composition is pushed by one’s hands and one’s internal singing.”
In its harmony, much of Dunn’s music utilizes Just Intonation—an approach to tuning that differs from the equal temperament normally used in Western music. In the latter, each interval, on a piano for example, is consistent—but tuned ‘irrationally’, dividing up the octave in twelve equal steps. Justly intoned intervals are by contrast based on simple ratios and are a bit sharper or flatter than usual. But they also have unique and unusual colors—equal temperament can sound colorless in comparison. Harmonies of this sort can be heard throughout Dunn’s piece While we are Both (2017).
The string quartet Carrying (2017), written for Quatuor Bozzini, comes from a sorrowful period. The piece was written as part of the group’s Composers’ Kitchen in Montreal, a kind of laboratory with workshops and tryouts resulting in new compositions for string quartet. “Frankly, I was a mess—I was grieving—and had to write something. You shouldn’t write music in such a state. Coming back from Montreal, I didn’t know what the hell to do with this music. Eventually I deleted it all. There are aspects that found their echoes in the final piece—it’s really an after-image.”
This is not without a particular irony, as memory in music interests Dunn a lot. Not in the sense of music that attempts to remind one of something, but, as can be heard in Carrying as well as in While we are Both or Organ Piece, musical memory specifically: “The way music and musical items become encapsulated in recollection. It probably has to do with improvising. What relationship do you have with something you just played, or played fifteen minutes ago? Can you remember it? How is it that musical things become shapes that we can hold on to? Sometimes a musical encounter is extremely present; as you come across it, you know exactly what it is. Conversely, sometimes there’s music that disappears completely. And sometimes there’s music that hovers somewhere between these positions—having parts that approach and parts that recede. Music with certain aspects that disappear on you, and others that remain, can be recalled. Or even that the music is vacillating in its capacity to know and remember itself. I think this is what I’m trying to make.”