George Crumb's best works: explore the experimental composer through the finest recordings of his music
George Crumb was one of the leading pioneers of extended technique, creating music that we might think of as abstract – but Daniel Jaffé describes how it was anything but
George Crumb was one of America’s leading experimental composers, known for his unconventional demands on his musicians – he was a pioneer of what is generally known as ‘extended techniques’, which involves playing instruments in unconventional ways to produce novel and evocative sounds.
Yet Crumb’s music is anything but ‘abstract’: from the way it is written down – with staves curved and arranged to represents wheels, or a human eye – to the use of human voices and musical quotations loaded with significance, this is music which vividly captures emotional or psychological states.
A native of West Virginia, George Crumb’s roots were essentially in rural America rather than in the city. Unlike his city colleagues, who tend to create sonic canvases to blot out the extraneous sounds of everyday urban life, Crumb’s seems designed to complement the world in which it is conceived: it grows out of silence, and is meditative and dream-like. That is not to say it is ethereal: rather, it is dream-like in the broadest sense, blending the familiar (whether it is instrumental sounds, or snatches of music by composers such as Schubert, Bartók or Mahler) with unfamiliar, and ranges in effect from ecstatic bell-like sounds to tenebrous nightmare.
The best works by George Crumb
Solo Cello Sonata (1955)
Written when he was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, the Solo Cello Sonata came to be at a time when Crumb was yet to hit his stride as an avant-garde composer. The work already reflects his life-long admiration of Bartók, as well as the form and manner of a Baroque suite. Nevertheless, is unmistakably a 20th-century work with its plangent expression and rich variety of instrumental colour.
Matt Haimovitz (cello)
Deutsche Grammophon 431 8132
Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
Crumb’s discovery of the poetry of Frederic García Lorca was crucial to his development as a composer, and he aspired to match Lorca in pushing the boundaries of his music. Crumb made several settings of Lorca’s poetry, but this is the work which gained him the greatest acclaim in the 1970s. The work was widely performed, notably by the soprano Jan DeGaetani, and was even recorded in the USSR. Haunting and strangely beautiful, it ends on a relatively optimistic note.
Tony Arnold (soprano) and ensemble
Black Angels (1970)
Crumb was in his 40th year when in 1969 he began composing his most widely known and admired work: Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land. The horrors of the Vietnam War, which had escalated through the 1960s, were being brought home to Americans through photojournalism and TV coverage.
Black Angels, described in the score as being for ‘electric string quartet’, creates a nightmarish, phantasmagoric sound-world. The string instruments are amplified, and the lead violinist plays music associated with the devil, including quotes from Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ and such disturbing sounds as pedal tones, created by pressing the bow strongly into the string as it is drawn across it. Players are also required at various times to play crystal glasses filled with different levels of water, as well as gongs and maracas. They are also directed to play their instruments in unorthodox ways, such as trilling with fingers capped with metal thimbles, or bowing the wrong end of their strings, so creating a muted, viol-like effect which is used – for instance – when the music quotes from Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’.
Vox balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971)
Inspired by recordings of humpbacked whales singing, Crumb’s Vox balaenae is scored for flute, cello and piano. All the musicians are required to be masked and to play their instruments in unconventional ways. The flautist, as well as playing conventionally, also sings into their instrument; the pianist makes the strings play directly with his hands, as well as making unusual sounds with glass rods and paperclips; and the cellist produces a ‘sea gull’ sound from their instrument, as well as using other extended techniques and being required to play antique cymbals.
We named the best musicians who use extended technique here.
David Hetherington (cello), David Swan (piano), Robert Aitken (flute)
Makrokosmos (1972, 1973, 1974, 1979)
In these volumes, Crumb paid his most extended and overt tribute to the Hungarian composer whose music had most influenced his own, Bela Bartók. The title itself alludes to Bartok’s multi-volume collection of piano works, Mikrokosmos, which range in difficulty from the simplest works for beginners to the most advanced piano technique.
Crumb’s piano pieces extend the resources of the instrument itself, which may be transformed into a sizzling cauldron of baleful spirits with the help of a chain laid across the strings (Book I, ‘Primeval Sounds’), or create wailing sirens simply by the use of a glass tumbler being drawn up and down the length of the strings as the pianist plays a trill (Book II, ‘Ghost-Nocturne’).
More like this
Books I-III Yoshiko Shimizu (piano)
American Songbook Vol. 7 (2010)
Though Crumb was not so productive in the 1980s and '90s, from 2000 he returned with a series of song arrangements and settings which he named collectively American Songbook. The seventh book of that series, ‘Voices from the Heartland’, involves four percussion players in addition to a pianist and two singers.
Its best moments, though, are relatively simple and restrained. ‘Beulah Land’ is set to Messiaen-like pentatonic chords slightly soured by added ‘foreign’ notes, very beautiful despite the 1960s-style ambiance created by the vibraphone’s eerie interjections. The tranquility is twice briefly shattered by non-pentatonic percussion-led splashes, as if a stone were thrown into a placid pool. Even more affecting is ‘Old Blue’, about a man and his dog, the master inevitably outliving his companion: the song’s accompaniment, busy with energetic percussion and piano playing, is suddenly silenced, leaving only a seething cymbal, followed by the grieving baritone soloist accompanied by subdued funeral drums.
Ann Crumb (soprano), Patrick Mason (baritone), ensemble
Bridge BRIDGE 9413