Collaborating with Percy Grainger

Burnett Cross

This article first appeared in NMA 7 magazine. The author recounts some of his experiences working with Percy Grainger in developing Grainger's Free Music.

I have the pleasure first of all of thanking the Dean [1] , and the Grainger Committee, and all the people who are associated with it, for bringing me back again to where I have so many friends, and where it is such a pleasure to work once again for Percy.

My job this time is to go through Percy's day books and make up a chronology of our Free Music experiments. And so I've been planted in the Grainger Museum looking through his little books. Percy kept a pretty precise record of what we did. The day books run from 1944, when I found my name tucked into a corner in the back, to 1960. I am now up to 1951 and things are getting rather dense and hectic, but I am having the details of our work filled in, details which I had completely forgotten. What surprises me is a closeup view of Percy's professional life which I did not have when I was working with him. On tour, travelling, trains, buses... He wrote letters in the train, he wrote letters in the station, he composed at every possible moment, wherever he was sitting down. And he practiced and practiced and practiced. Most amazing. I came into contact with him in 1944. I have discovered in the daybooks that from about 1945 to about 1949 we weren't really beginning to work together, I was more of an adviser. I was trying to find people who could help him realise his idea of Free Music - music free from the limitations of ordinary performance, and performers.

So I introduced him to various people, among them for instance a man in the Physics Department of Columbia University, a Mr. Stone. Percy had many discussions with him about the possibility of constructing a machine that would play his Free Music. In the end they came to nothing because, Percy told me, he could see that what Mr. Stone - a kind of consulting engineer and inventor - had in mind was something that would require two or three technicians to make the machine go, and to translate Percy's music into something that the machine could handle. That was not what Percy wanted. Percy wanted a machine on which he could play, so to speak, on which he could perform his Free Music. So for the first four years or so that was my relationship with Percy, that and doing various odd jobs for him. It wasn't until 1949 & 50 that we really started to work together.

I ought to tell you something about the odd jobs... I was invited around to Percy and Ella's place in White Plains one evening, and it turned out to be a kind of party. There were two or three dozen people there, they were talking and chatting, and this was a rather strange thing because Percy was not the party-giving kind. But about halfway through this occasion everything was made clear.

Percy arrived with an armful of steel marimba bars and mallets, and started passing them out. He must have had ten or a dozen single bars of different pitches distributed among the group. Then he said: "Now, somebody here will say `one - two - three, hit!' and you will all strike the marimba bars with your mallets. But first let me go up the stairs into the top of the house." There he could get a proper sonic perspective. Someone said `one - two - three, hit!' and we all struck our marimba bars - and a most tremendous chord swelled out! Filled the house, surged out of the house - filled White Plains for all I know. Percy came leaping down the stairs, two or three at a time, and said: "Now, you take this bar, you take this one, play a little more softly over here, you play louder"... He rearranged the whole thing. Up he went again, one - two - three- bang, another giant chord! So that explained that pseudo-social occasion.

One more odd job that I did for Percy involved a folksong that he had collected in England, Bold William Taylor. Percy had made a setting of it for strings & reeds, harmonium, and tenor voice. He pulled out his manuscript one day and played it through on the piano for me. "I've never heard it," he said. And I said, what do you mean? He said, "I've never heard it performed in my setting. Why don't you learn to sing it?" Now, that included not only a multitude of irregular rhythms and variations in the tune from one verse to the other, it included the Lincolnshire dialect for which Percy had provided a glossary.

I had sung in my mother's choir as a baritone of sorts, the kind of voice that can be listened to with a good baritone on either side of me. (My mother was the choir director and organist, and so I was drafted.) It struck me as a rather absurd idea that I should learn to sing anything, especially for Percy Grainger. But Percy was the kind of a man who, when he suggested something, you felt you ought to have a try at it.

So I learned Bold William Taylor, irregular rhythms, variations, Lincolnshire dialect and all. (People sometimes say, can we hear you sing it? My answer is: the world is not yet prepared for that.) We did this slower than the tempo called for so that when I copied the record I could speed it up, and raise the pitch to the tenor range. Thus Percy did not have to transpose the string and reed parts, and I became a tenor. Percy went off with the recording on one of his tours. In Knoxville, Tennessee he appeared with the symphony orchestra there, and ran through Bold William after a concert with a group of strings & reeds, and the record playing on a phonograph. He came back just glowing - I've never forgotten - and said: "It sounded just as I thought it should". That was something he always did; he never released anything until he'd heard it and approved the way it sounded.

There was a postlude. The recording - an acetate disk - disappeared into Percy's archives and I thought no more about it. Only Percy and Ella and I, and some orchestral people in Knoxville knew about it. Years later, after Percy's death in 1961 in fact, I went to the Aldeborough Festival concert given by Benjamin Britten for Percy Grainger. I was introduced to Peter Pears, the renowned tenor. He said "Burnett Cross? Burnett Cross? The man who sang Bold William Taylor! Marvelous. Marvelous!" And so I became an internationally known tenor.

That was one kind of thing that Percy got me into. Let me get on with something that I need to say. The people I found to help Percy really couldn't help him, for one reason or another. Finally one day Percy said to me, it must have been in desperation, can't we try some experiments ourselves? That was the beginning of our work together., to see if we could realise some part of Percy's quest for his Free Music.

I must say right away that Ella Grainger was a full partner in this effort - not only in the matter of supplying us with dinner, tea, cake etc., but in helping with what we were trying to do - with creative ideas and with labour. So we embarked on the experiments that produced among other things the Free Music machines you can see in the Grainger Museum, as well as the very last machine (which I am still proud of) that never got here.

With our labour from about 1950 to 1960/61 Percy did in fact hear some elements of his Free Music and did confirm his feeling that he was on the right track and that Free Music was something of great importance. I am today even more impressed with Percy's achievement. I look at it from the point of view of one whose field is science and science education. I think that was why Percy's proposal that we work together on Free Music attracted me in the first place - I could see this as a research problem worth doing.

I look at it this way: Percy Grainger had a glimpse of unknown territory, an unexplored land, in music. That glimpse began, as you know, when Percy was a youngster of 11 or 12 and watched the waves lapping against the side of a boat on Albert Park Lake. He watched the waves and thought, why can't music have the same kind of continuous motion? That seems a rather natural and easy idea, and yet; how many people could have that thought?

Percy saw something that had to be explored. All his life he attempted to find a way to explore this unknown territory. The trouble was of course that to explore it, he needed a vehicle, a machine, and the machine wasn't to be had. What impresses me now is that throughout his life Percy persisted in this quest, this search, this vision, as his day books show. He persisted in looking for a way to enter the unknown territory. I am beginning to appreciate now what courage that took, what persistence, what expenditure in precious time and energy and money, and even reputation. For people to whom Percy tried to communicate about Free Music didn't really understand it. They went away, quite a few of them, thinking that there was something the matter with Percy Grainger. But Percy persisted. He represented himself sometimes as a rather timid man, easily scared. By heaven, when it came to Free Music, he was a brave man. That's what impresses me now. It seems to me that the time must come, as Percy thought it must, when this new land that Percy had got into a little way will be fully and energetically explored. Because Percy believed this is the way music is heading. When that time comes, I think Percy Grainger's achievement as a pioneer will be fully recognised and saluted.


1. This article is the transcript of a talk given by Burnett Cross at Melbourne University on November 2, 1988. return
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