George Crumb

George Crumb is an American composer whose music shows great attention to color and effect, creating a spiritual and ritualistic sound that fits neither into the modernist complexity genre nor into any neoclassical style. There is also a very postmodern usage, either directly of indirectly, of other musical materials, from recognizable classical works to folk and non-western music.

Crumb was born in West Virginia, USA and was surrounded by music in his early years: his father was a clarinettist and his mother a cellist. He was also well exposed to the Appalachian, folk, and country music of the area. He later described the natural environment of his youth as having a “reverberant” acoustic that influenced his aesthetic. As a young child he learned flute, clarinet, and piano. He studied at Mason College, West Virginia, and at the University of Illinois, before going on to complete a postgraduate study at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and a doctorate at the University of Michigan. His recognised works begin in the mid-1940s with several chamber works, a piano sonata, and his first orchestral work. A well-known piece from his earlier period is the Sonata for Solo Cello (1955).

Crumb was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1967 orchestral work Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II). In a response to a commission from the University of Chicago for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Crumb “wanted to express in musical terms the various qualities of metaphysical and psychological time.” Important aspects of his later work are found here: an element of theatricality or ritual, with choreographed movements of the musicians onstage, and also the use of his first musical quotation; the hymn Were You There When They Crucified The Lord is heard from offstage at one point. Crumb’s characteristic striking sonorities and effects are also present here, with the use of ringing bells and gongs, dramatic glissandi effects, breath and chanting sounds, and effects from playing the strings inside the piano.

Music can be a fusion of so many diverse, almost contradictory elements.

The following years saw a string of highly influential works: Night of the Four Moons (1969), Ancient Voices of Children (1970), Black Angels (1970), Vox Balaenae (1971), and Makrokosmos (1972, 1973). Ancient Voices of Children, for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin (tuned in quarter tones), harp, amplified piano, and three percussionists, was one of a number of works throughout Crumb’s career inspired by the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. Crumb wrote about the creation of the work: “It is sometimes of interest to a composer to recall the original impulse- the ‘creative germ’- of a compositional project. In the case of Ancient Voices I felt this impulse to be the climactic final words of the last song: ‘And I will go very far… to ask Christ the lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child’.” The piece begins with a surprising effect - wordless singing into the resonant amplified piano - creating a shimmering glow around the soprano’s melismatic lines before words gradually emerge and the full ensemble joins in the second movement - an instrumental “dance-interlude.” The boy soprano is heard from offstage for most of the work before appearing onstage for the concluding wordless duet. The mezzo-soprano part was written for the virtuosic and adventurous mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, whose abilities inspired works from many other 20th century composers.

Black Angels, for “electric string quartet” (with the score stating that amplification should at points reach “the threshold of pain”) and subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, is one of Crumb’s most legendary works. Composed in the midst of the Vietnam War, the piece is an allegory of good and evil, referenced throughout the work by numerological symbolism and musical references and quotations. The quartet musicians are also called upon to play various percussion instruments (including crystal glasses), chant (in different languages) and whistle. Crumb wrote: “Black Angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption).” The frightening effects reminiscent of insects and machines have become iconic sounds in modern music.

Makrokosmos, for solo piano, consists of two books of twelve pieces each. The title obviously references Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, and structurally, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier comes to mind, but Crumb has also spoken in particular of the influence of Debussy’s Preludes. In the twenty-four pieces, Crumb exhaustively explores the sonic possibilities of the piano, including a number of extended techniques and use of “prepared” objects, although in this case added and removed in the course of the performance. In characteristic style, the score also calls for the pianist to shout, whistle, moan, and sing phonemes into the piano.

Almost nothing is unimportant, anything can be referred to... any moment in the past, any moment in another style of music…

Crumb’s largest recent project was the American Songbook series for solo voice (originally intended for his daughter Ann Crumb), amplified piano, and percussion quartet. In seven cycles Crumb sets Civil War songs, spirituals, and traditional Appalachian folk songs with piano and an assortment of over 150 percussion instruments from all over the world. The melodies are set recognizably, reflecting Crumb’s desire to “stay out of the way of those beautiful tunes”, but may jump from key to key and are heard within the altered contexts of the evocative instrumental backdrops.

I’m a completely intuitive composer. Composing for me is like groping in the dark.”

Crumb was an important pedagogue for generations of composers, teaching for over three decades at the University of Pennsylvania. He was recipient of the MacDowell medal, and received awards from the Guggenheim, Koussevitzky, Coolidge, and Rockefeller foundations. 

George Crumb’s music is a unique mix of influences and references, musical, historical, and spiritual. He creates previously unheard worlds of new sounds, but always with surprising and effective musical results. The new technical demands called for in his detailed handwritten, graphic scores have helped to greatly enlarge the vocabulary of traditional instruments, and his attention to the theatrical aspects of performance have proven equally influential. His music is not easily classified, but will remain an inspiration and resource for composers working with extended techniques, instrumental color, and dramatic atmospheres.

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