Progressive Trailblazer, Experimental Pioneer

By Robert Carl

Written for the concert Crumb, performed on April 19, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

George Crumb is a rare artist: on the one hand, he projects an immediate, gripping poetry in his music. On the other, he has also developed a rich and innovative toolbox of extended instrumental and notational techniques that has been enormously influential on successive generations of composers. In short, he communicates directly and immediately to listeners of all sorts, yet he is also a progressive trailblazer, an experimental pioneer. Few composers combine these traits successfully, yet Crumb has pulled off the trick.

When one thinks of the composer’s output, though, the first things that come to mind are his masterful vocal cycles (in particular settings of Federico Garcia Lorca in the 1960s and 70s), and music for chamber ensembles (not only for the vocal works such as Ancient Voices of Children, but the Makrokosmos piano series and Black Angels for string quartet, all now solid repertoire items). What we don’t always immediately think of is his orchestral output. Crumb is very much a poet of sound, and his voice has always been one of intimacies, often whispered—tender, melancholy, sinister, fragile. The grander rhetoric of the orchestra and the so-called “symphonic argument” would seem antithetical to his temperament. Yet tonight we have almost all of the composer’s orchestral works (only missing is A Haunted Landscape from 1984), and what emerges is one of the most visionary re-imaginings of the medium possible. Crumb’s orchestral music is not just “chamber music writ large” (even though there are definitely aspects of that to it). Rather, it is a new world of sounds and relationships between large communities of musicians who happen to inhabit this remarkable institution we call “the symphony orchestra.”

It’s appropriate that we begin with the 1959 Variazioni, written as Crumb’s doctoral dissertation piece at the University of Michigan (indeed, this is one of the few dissertation works that actually has had a life beyond its academic function, because we look in the piece for fingerprints of the artist he was to become). Crumb studied from 1954—55 in Berlin with Boris Blacher, and the influence of the Second Viennese School is evident. The work’s theme consists of twelve tones—but afterwards is used intuitively as a resource for motives and harmonies, not as a strict serial construction. The transparency and pointillistic precision of the orchestration suggests Webern, but Crumb also quotes Berg’s Lyric Suite at one point (I also hear the close of Wozzeck in the piccolo’s descending perfect fourth of Fantasia I). Crumb himself has written in the work’s instructions page that he had not yet found his personal voice, but also indicates that there are clues to his future development in “my almost obsessive interest in timbre and texture.” Certainly the use of string harmonics, tremoli, glissandi, and divisi weave a distinctive sonic fabric, as does the large and varied percussion section’s writing. But the most radical sonic exploration occurs in the three Fantasias, which interweave with the variations (between numbers 2 and 3, 5 and 6, and at the work’s end). Each is built around a trio of celesta, harp, and mandolin (the last a distant memory of the composer’s West Virginian upbringing; no “classical” composer has written more evocatively for the instrument). In the second Fantasia, Cadenza, the music consists entirely of the trio and percussion in a dreamy dialogue where unpitched sound takes on as important an expressive role as pitched. According to the composer, the concluding Elegia projects “suspended time and a rather surrealistic manner of distributing sounds in space,” though these disparate elements coalesce in a natural way into a climax that in turn reveals the wistful final statement of the theme. This sense of a layering, almost an implosion of the work’s elements as a culminatory gesture, is a trait of all three pieces on the program, and becomes increasingly ambitious and visionary as Crumb moves forward.

By 1968, Echoes of Time and the River shows us a composer in full command of his technique and understanding of his aesthetic. It won that year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music, and is one of the most radical re-imagining of the orchestra as a performative instrument, thanks to the “processionals” that glide through the physical space of the ensemble. There is something profoundly mysterious about seeing players we are used to viewing seated slowly marching across the stage, chanting, executing precise steps and gestures (though it’s something utterly familiar to most Americans with marching bands!). There is again an extremely elaborate mandolin part. Percussive techniques include pitch bending on the vibraphone, a water gong, and piano strings played by a percussionist with hard mallets to create a dulcimer effect. The work is a constant layering of prolific detail, but the careful choice of sounds and their placement guarantees transparency. It’s a very personal sort of counterpoint, based more on timbre and texture than line. But there also is counterpoint that’s more than just color: the “circle musics” in “The Collapse of Time” (stunningly rendered in the score, in Crumb’s immaculate calligraphy) that allow winds and brass to perform with precise cueing of one another, yet to preserve soloistic freedom.

The texts are varied and surreal: the West Virginia state motto, stated as a question (“Mountaineers are Free?”), Lorca (“The broken arches, where time suffers”), and Aristophanes’ The Frogs (“Krek tu dai!”). After the cataclysm of the third movement, the final “Last Echoes of Time” brings back the preceding elements of the piece. The music reaches a gentle climax by suggesting that all its materials have found their proper space in relation to one another, and coexist outside of ordinary time. And there’s perhaps no more poignant moment in the literature than the final whistling chorus of the orchestra, a gentle march receding into silence.

In 1977, on commission from the New York Philharmonic, Crumb made his grandest single statement, Star-Child. Its instrumentation is Mahlerian in size and scope, including soprano, solo trombone, children’s choir, a male speaking choir that also plays handbells, organ, and enlarged sections that include six horns, seven trumpets, and eight percussionists. It’s also Ivesian in simultaneities: first in the slowly repeating chords of the Musica Mundana for strings and percussion, which, along with the trombone soloist, evokes the Unanswered Question; later in multiple instrumental “circles” that create a swirling multiplicity of musics. Through a precise spatial arrangement, it allows multiple musical levels to coexist and be heard in a manner that would not be possible in a traditional configuration. It is the grandest attempt by the composer to create a cosmology, one that mixes apocalyptic fervor with Romantic ecstasy. Using Latin liturgical texts it charts a progression from darkness to light, reflected in shifts of register, timbre, and textural meaning.

Star-Child is Crumb’s most expansive and complete depiction of his vision of time. It’s vast, over half an hour long. On the one hand, it moves at a stately pace that refuses to be rushed—the opening duet of the soprano and trombone, while increasingly intense, grows gradually, until the tension broken by the climactic entrance of the children’s choir is nearly unbearable. As this suggests, the music moves ever forward (and upward), and the eruption of the Dies Irae in the “Musica Apocalyptica” is irresistibly propulsive. But also, the strings continue on their celestial rotation throughout the entire piece, and by the final section, “Hymnus Pro Novo Tempore,” a series of additional “circles” emerge that create a swirling texture that suggest universes beyond our own immediate perception. This is a time of multiple times, multiple dimensions, ever growing and ever still. It is the space where redemption remains possible, and where the final whispered choral words resonate into infinity: “Libera me.”

Dr. Carl is chair of the composition department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. He is the author of “Terry Riley’s In C” (Oxford University Press) and studied with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977.