for two soprano saxophones

James Erber

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for two soprano saxophones

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Composer James Erber
Year of Composition 2016
Duration 10'20"


Categories (all composers) , ,
Catalogue ID ce-je1c1


Crai was written between August and November 2013 for Gianpaolo Antongirolami and Michele Selva, to whom it is dedicated, and who gave the first performance at Area Sismica, Forlì, on 15th March 2015.  After the first performance, the work was withdrawn and substantially revised between January and March 2016.  The first performance of the revised version was given at Goldsmiths College, University of London on 30th October 2017, also by Gianpaolo Antongirolami and Michele Selva.  

The work’s title refers to a passage from Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir of the year he spent in internal exile in a remote area of Southern Italy, as a result of his political activities:

“In this timeless land the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language: beyond the motionless and everlasting crai every day in the future had a name of its own. Crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, maruflo, maruflone; the seventh day was maruflicchio.  But these precise terms had an undertone of irony.  They were said less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.”

Levi’s book contains many precious insights into the culture of the area in which he was forced to live, and which he calls by its ancient name, Lucania.  However, when I first read the book, about thirty years ago, it was this passage that stood out and made me think “this could be the basis for a piece”. I loved the local dialect words for the different days of the week and also that these words could be spoken both singly and as a sequence. The standard English translation is, in general, very good, but when I finally got round to writing a piece based on this passage, I read it for the first time in the original Italian, and was pleased to discover that the description of Lucania as “this timeless land” was the far more suggestive “questa landa atemporale”.  “Landa” is not just “land” but the much more bleak and inhospitable “moorland”, and “atemporale” is replete with more references than the blander “timeless”.

In fact, it struck me that the first challenge I faced was to convey precisely this quality of atemporality. I could have used (for example) space-time notation, perhaps with note heads indicating pitches and long lines indicating durations, to create a sense of floating timelessness.  This would, however, have been a bit too woozy and fuzzy for my taste and would definitely not convey the “undertone of irony” implicit in the series of terms. So instead, I created two strictly-notated saxophone lines, which do contain points where pitch and (more especially) rhythm coincide, but which are mostly not quite synchronous, creating the sensation of vertiginous atemporality which I wanted

Underlying the entire piece is 28-bar formant, which I had used in two previous pieces, Mox Nox (2009) for bass clarinet and string quartet, and Landscape (with Laocöon and his Sons) (2010-12) for clarinet, trumpet and percussion.  The formant is repeated seven times, each time in incomplete form, the sevenfold repetition clearly mirroring the seven days of the week.  These seven repetitions are divided into four sections of gradually decreasing length.  In the 1st section both saxophones subject the cyclical material to seven types of variative activity.  In the 2nd section, the saxophones play further versions (or “sub-versions”, as I call them) of six of the seven variative types heard in the previous section.  In the 3rd section, they play further sub-versions of four variative types from the 2nd section, and finally in 4th section they make use of 2 variative types from the 3rd section.

The piece, therefore, is both cyclical and sectional.  Its cyclical nature refers to the fact that crai “meant tomorrow and forever” but also recalls the “string” created when the dialect words for the days of the week are spoken one after the other.  At the same time, the four ever more attenuated sections into which it is divided act as symbols of mortality, both reflecting on the lives of the people desperately trying to make a living out of this “timeless land” and hinting at decay and destruction and the ultimate “futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai”.