Listening Through the Life of George Crumb

It’s rare for a composer to quickly find a broad audience. It usually takes years, or even decades, and sometimes doesn’t happen at all.

The American composer George Crumb, though, who was born in 1929 and died two years ago, reached wide prominence within a decade. He found his musical voice in the early 1960s, and by 1968 had won the Pulitzer Prize, not to mention a bevy of grants and fellowships. Perhaps most important, his premieres were seen as genuine events, such as the pandemonium that was said to have greeted “Ancient Voices of Children,” his 1970 setting of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca for soprano, boy soprano and chamber ensemble.

What explains Crumb’s near-immediate assimilation to the musical mainstream?

There was, first and foremost, his dizzying sonic imagination. Crumb took the extended techniques that originated with Henry Cowell and John Cage and exploded them, plying instruments for virtually any sound they would yield and creating a vast new timbral universe.

His scores — created by hand and themselves works of art — are rife with exacting instructions to performers: how to thread paper between the strings of a harp, or how string players should use the thimbles on their fingers. In “Ancient Voices,” there is an 86-word note instructing the pianist how to use a chisel (Crumb specifies the size) to create a glissandos on the piano strings that last well under a minute. He insisted that his extended techniques were not mere sound effects, as some listeners believed, but essential elements of musical expression.

In addition, Crumb was largely untouched by the rift between serialists and tonal composers that split the music world in the 1960s and ’70s. His writing was so original, it seemed to sidestep that whole fiasco. Indeed, there was something both timely and timeless about Crumb’s music. His pieces had titles that evoked distant worlds and had deep, primordial resonances, but they were unmistakably of their day. In “Black Angels,” one of his most famous works, symmetries, numerology and religious allusions in the score were accompanied, Crumb said, by “vibrations from the surrounding world, which was the world of the Vietnam time.” The score is inscribed as having been completed on “Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli),” or “in time of war.”

Bridge Records, the label based in New Rochelle, has been recording Crumb’s music since it was founded in the early 1980s. (The guitarist David Starobin, who created it, and Becky Starobin, his wife and the label’s president, met Crumb in 1971 at Peabody Institute.) Since 1991, Bridge has been issuing recordings in its Complete Crumb Edition, the kind of high-quality audio documentation few composers receive.

Many entries in the series mix older and newer compositions, creating fascinating cross-sections of Crumb’s evolution. That wasn’t intentional, David Starobin said. “A lot of it happened because we wanted to issue the new music as it was composed,” he added. In striving for each release capturing a “portrait of the moment,” the label often filled in the albums with older works from Crumb’s catalog.

The final entry, Volume 21, came out earlier this year. To mark both its completion and what would have been the composer’s 95th birthday year, I recently listened through the entire edition — a lengthy and luxurious immersion in the composer’s singular vocabulary, which became a fixture of my daily life. Even the subway started to sound like one of his creations.

What follows is a sequence of snapshots from Crumb’s output, in order of their appearance in the complete edition. Not everything in his oeuvre is of the same level of quality, as the composer even admitted, but there are gems throughout. I skipped some of the more popular works to focus on the underappreciated ones.

Lorca’s poetry, and especially his surreal visions of death, were a near-constant in Crumb’s early composing. “George always says this is going to be his last Lorca piece,” his wife told The New York Times in 1970. “Then he goes right down in the basement and writes another one.” A chamber ensemble of amplified guitar, double bass and keyboards, along with some 50 percussion instruments, creates a feverish mosaic of noise, including an electric harpsichord that sounds oddly akin to turntable scratching. Over all that, the baritone Sanford Sylvan declaims, “Little black horse/Whither with your dead rider?”Yet in the refrains and “death drones,” Crumb deploys silence to masterful and chilling effect.

In the late 1980s, Crumb experienced a creative block that largely halted his composing for several years. This work, requested by Starobin (who plays on the recording), was the breakthrough, a darkly spacious sextet for guitar, soprano saxophone, harp, double bass and two percussionists. The wild sonic invention of earlier years is largely gone; the instrumental palette, narrower. In their place is a sure sense of pacing and flow, along with some of the most openly beautiful writing in Crumb’s output. A serene ending is undercut by eerie, shifting chords in the bass and the saxophone’s microtonal shadings.

Bartok was a significant influence on Crumb’s development, and nowhere is it more apparent than in this 35-minute work for two amplified pianos and another battery of percussion. The instrumentation (minus amplification), of course, matches that of Bartok’s groundbreaking Sonata, and both contain new sonorities effected by the ingenious handling of the assembled forces. Above all, each composer creates his own haunting instance of “night music”: apparitional sounds evoking the mystery of the nocturnal world.

It’s fair to say that Crumb wrote more comfortably for chamber groups of his own devising than for orchestra. Among his symphonic works, the cantata “Star-Child,” which the New York Philharmonic and Pierre Boulez premiered in 1977, gets most of the attention, but I find it overblown and unrewarding. (Boulez was apparently not the composer’s biggest fan.) More successful is this Ivesian piece whose title, Crumb wrote, “reflects my feeling that certain places on the planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery.” Over a deep drone in the basses, sounds from the orchestra’s strata mingle and dissipate, with brief storms of percussion disrupting the calm. Despite the large array of forces, it has the subtlety of chamber music.

More Lorca: His poetry is the catalyst for four sets of three madrigals, each set scored for soprano — here the outstanding Tony Arnold — and two other instrumentalists. Often, Crumb sets only a single sentence of a poem, and the long melismatic lines reinforce the link with the Renaissance roots of these pieces. The startling transparency of the textures brings a listener in proximity to the theatrical intensity of his vocal writing.

The American Songbooks, seven in all, were the major compositional focus of Crumb’s last two decades. At the suggestion of his daughter, Ann, Crumb began revisiting old American folk songs, which he set for voice, amplified piano and percussion quartet. These sturdy tunes and spirituals were clearly responsible for reigniting his inspiration late in his career. Even so, I find them at best a mixed bag. The moods are less varied than in Crumb’s earlier vocal works, and the familiar melodies sit uncomfortably over the turbulent instrumental writing. “Unto the Hills,” centered on songs of Crumb’s native Appalachia, is to my ears the most consistently rewarding, the dark nature of many of the lyrics finding a perfect complement in both Crumb’s accompaniment and Ann’s unaffected singing. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” which opens and closes this Songbook, stands as one of the most effective creations of his later years: a vision of death delivered with quiet dignity and deep, unsettling resonances.

Bridge’s edition includes two recordings of Crumb’s nine “ruminations” on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” for amplified piano. Each has its virtues, but I prefer this atmospheric and mysterious performance by Marcantonio Barone. Monk’s famous melody winds its way through Crumb’s kaleidoscopic presentation — here accompanied by icy block chords, there sitting over an uneasy ostinato in the bass. There are also rare moments of levity when allusions to Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” punctuate the shadowy landscape.

The 21st and final volume in the Complete Crumb Edition turns out to be one of the most satisfying as an individual release. It opens with “Processional,” a dreamlike piano piece that Crumb, recalling Debussy’s description of his “Images,” called “an experiment in harmonic chemistry.” The pianist Gilbert Kalish, whose association with Crumb goes back more than half a century, offers the version without extended techniques, playing with no-nonsense command. Then, we hear one of Crumb’s final compositions, the muted and reflective percussion quartet “Kronos-Kryptos,” played by the Curtis Institute of Music’s Ensemble 20/21. The Sonata for Solo Cello, one of his earliest and most-played works, follows, in a forceful performance by Timothy Eddy. Finally: A reprise of “Processional,” in a version played by Barone with extended techniques in a few sections. At the end, the music drifts gently into silence, a fitting conclusion to Bridge’s entire project.

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