By James M. Keller
In such 20th-century
classics as Ancient Voices of Children, Black Angels, and Vox Balaenae, this 75-year-old American master has spoken to
deeply human concerns that involve the heart as much as the head: man's connection to the natural world, the importance of
ritual, the anguish of conflict.
George Crumb turns 75 this year, and the flurry of celebrations scheduled to mark the occasion reflect the devotion he has inspired during that span. Crumb enjoys a following that is matched by few living composers, an absolutely committed group of international music lovers who seek out concerts of his music, pack the public coaching sessions he occasionally offers, and hang on rumors of works-in-progress. Yet this reputation derives from a body of work that verges on the minuscule: In the 42 years since he produced what he considers his first mature work, his catalogue has grown at an average that falls well short of one piece per year.
The spirit of anticipation has grown particularly keen in recent years, fueled by a sort of audience panic that Crumb might have “written himself out.” The concern seemed reasonable. Twenty-five years of slow but steady production culminated in 1987 in Zeitgeist (Six Tableaux for Two Amplified Pianos), and then … near silence. A four-minute carillon solo (Easter Dawning) appeared in 1992, but Crumb’s principal composition of the early ’90s proved to be an enduring challenge. Appropriately titled Quest, it had been partially unveiled in 1989 following a gestation period that was already elephantine, but its final form, as a 25-minute piece for guitar and chamber ensemble, kept eluding him for another five years. The result was a monumental achievement that may well become a classic, but it seemed to have taken a lot out of its composer. Four more years would pass before another piece appeared: Mundus Canis (“A Dog’s Life”), a lighthearted ten-minute suite for guitar and percussion celebrating five pets that have graced the Crumb household over the years.
But by now Crumb seems decidedly back on track. In 1997 he retired after 32 years as Professor of Composition at the University of Pennsylvania, and thus relieved from his daily obligations he seems to have recaptured his creative energies fully. A new piece appeared in 2001 and another in 2002, and reports are that the flow is now continuing. What’s more, every one of Crumb’s mature compositions is being documented through a highly regarded series of recordings on the Bridge label, an honor that appears to be unique among living American composers. Seven volumes have been issued so far and Bridge has pledged to continue with the rest of Crumb’s existing catalogue and on through whatever further pieces appear during this reinvigorated phase of his career.
Crumb has always stood somewhat apart from the mainstream of musical trends. He was born in Charleston, West Virginia, on October 24, 1929, and it’s characteristic of his sometimes dark sense of humor that he delights in pointing out that this was “Black Thursday,” the day the stock market crashed and set off the Great Depression. A thorough musical education carried him through a doctorate in composition at the University of Michigan and grounded him in the trends of his time, but his personal voice proved strikingly different from anything surrounding him. Timbre itself played an unaccustomed role—here Crumb seemed to develop out of Debussy and Bartók—and sometimes his scoring was so original as to become downright eerie. In works such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Echoes of Time and the River (a large orchestral piece from 1967) or Night of the Four Moons (a chamber work that followed in 1969)—to cite two among many—such sounds combined with ritualized movement to suggest a sort of extra-terrestrial performance art. Although Crumb has less than zero in common with “New Age” composers, the “cosmic” aspects of his music have curiously endeared him to many listeners of
that persuasion, an allegiance inevitably underscored by his own predilection for attaching astrological symbolism to his works.
Other extramusical inspiration found a place in Crumb’s language, too, particularly the poetry of Lorca, which emerged as central in his output, though sometimes reduced to mere phonemes—literal sound bites.
Such an idiosyncratic voice was bound to baffle doctrinaire authorities of the ’60s and ’70s, but Crumb seemed happy to travel his own path. He was vitally interested in parallel developments but was unencumbered by them in his own creations. Many listeners who felt alienated by the cerebral demands of serialism, for example, were surprised to find themselves responding emotionally to Crumb’s music. His scores were worked out as meticulously as anyone’s, but their challenges underscored deeply human concerns that involved the heart as much as the head: man’s connection to the natural world, the importance of ritual, the anguish of conflict. What’s more, Crumb pieces displayed an identifiable language. At a time when some composers were driven to constantly re-invent their voices in the service of novelty, listeners derived comfort from hearing Crumb’s music evolve, year after year, in his distinct accent.
Several of Crumb’s pieces have achieved repertory status—or as close to that as compositions can expect to come when they are still young. His Ancient Voices of Children (1970) became a new-music classic thanks to the Nonesuch recording issued a year after its premiere, a recording that remains legendary to this day. His piano solo A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 is now under the hands of numerous concert pianists, including many who are not principally devoted to contemporary music. Many string quartets program his Black Angels—those that do not are certainly well aware of it—and his Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), for flute, cello, and piano, is one of the most frequently performed of modern chamber works. All of these date from the 1960s and ’70s, and other Crumb pieces will doubtless follow them to prominent places in the active repertoire. But this process takes time, practically by definition, and it occurs through an inevitable time-lapse. It is perhaps worth remarking that these most popular pieces are related not just by their age but also by the fact that they are all solo or chamber works. It may be that Crumb’s style, which tends towards crystalline clarity, is imparted most effectively by small ensembles. On the other hand, his large-ensemble pieces convey certain ideals thrillingly, and one regrets that so few orchestras commit themselves to the challenge of his symphonic works.
In the music of George Crumb bold modernity is linked to timeless emotions. For more than 40 years he has asked his interpreters to make sounds that had not previously been imagined, but the results invariably transcend those sounds themselves, however captivating and momentarily surprising they may be. At the end of a Crumb composition, a listener is likely to understand that in the finest music the notes are merely a means towards an end. The image of a Crumb performer—a supple pianist strumming the instrument’s strings, a masked flutist clicking keys into a microphone—may remain vivid in the observer’s memory, but the universal humanity suggested by a Crumb piece makes a still more indelible impression. Crumb’s music conveys qualities that we encounter rarely in music: a sense of the visionary, the celebratory, the ecstatic.
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philhar-monic and the San Francisco Symphony.