20 February 2007

Crumb: Makrokosmos III (Music for a Summer Evening)

I have been listening to the music of George Crumb chronologically. Back in college I was quite enamored by his music after hearing Ancient Voices of Children in the old Jan DeGaetani recording on Nonesuch. At a certain point I got to meet Crumb himself after a concert of the Kronos Quartet playing Black Angels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I went up to him afterwards and shook his hand telling him how much of an influence his music was on me - I had just written my first larger piece a work for Soprano, String Quartet and Percussion called Gettysburg Hospital, which I'm still quite fond of. I still recall what he said to me that day, something on the order of: "Just be sure that you never use the sounds as sound effects." Recently, I decided to explore his works, primarily influenced I imagine by the complete series being put out on Bridge Records. What follows are my notes to his works.

Sonata for Solo Cello (1955): This is played a lot, but I don't particualrly like it. Very Bartok like which may account for its popularity - ooh look I'm playing modern music!

Variazioni for large orchestra (1959)
Five Pieces for piano (1962)
Night Music I for soprano, piano/celeste, and two percussionists (1963)
Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) for violin and piano (1964)
Madrigals, Books I-II (1965)

Eleven Echoes of Autumn (Echoes I) for violin, alto flute, clarinet, and piano (1966): All the techniques are here, the ghostly playing, the piano harmonics, whistling. Overlong piece full of special techniques, a little too whispery for me: it never seems to get where it is going. What is amazing though is the way that all these techniques that we take for granted were worked in this Crumb piece and developed with Crumb. He has to explain things that seem quite basic.

Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) for orchestra (1967): I did listen to this. It was relatively unmemorable.

Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968): Quite nice, the last especially with the droning major chord and the detuning double bass.

Madrigals, Books III-IV (1969): I found this to be more interesting than some other of Crumb's works. Though I note a lot of sound efects in the piece. Odd considering how Crumb suggested to not have sound effects when he spoke to me. The final piece is moving with the bass as bourdon. However, the screeching spoken soprano is not particualrly effective.

Night of the Four Moons for alto, alto flute/piccolo, banjo, electric cello, and percussion (1969): Crumb refers to this as an occasional piece; it was written during the Apollo landing. What surprises me is the felxibillity of the material, that is the way in which Crumb can cut and paste and write quickly if he wants to. It does seem a little token in its exoticism - the mbira, but also the ending with the Mahler tends to stick out too much; the Mahler is too beautiful in the context and it,not Crumb, becomes the memorable part.

Black Angels (Images I) for electric string quartet (1970): The earnest numerology of this is fascinating only insofar as it is hard to believe that someone could be so earnest in their obvioususe of it. Everything is 7 or 13, number of notes in a phrase, interval strcuture, measures in a section etc. Also still effectively lacking in development, tons of small fragments that collage together, but don't develop from each other. I'm finding this fragmentation to be problematic.

Ancient Voices of Children (1970): The classic Crumb - here is his version of the Kindertotenlieder. Some dull moments, particularly the "dances" - his "ghost music" is trite - but after the harmonica major chord drone collage we move into a new world. These are still fragments but Crumb is able to unite them much more clearly.

Lux Aeterna for soprano, bass flute/soprano recorder, sitar, and percussion (two players) (1971): Here is a gorgeous piece. Finally Crumb is taking something whole, not the aphoristic fragments that allows him to not develop. The use of the sitar is quite lovely and not at all contrived.

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano (1971): Some lovely movements, but tied up in this Druid mumbo-jumbo. The ending is lovely, but it does take a long time to get there and we have to sit through this seagull stuff and whistling. Trite if it weren't among the first.

Makrokosmos, Volume I for amplified piano (1972): A catalog of new piano technique tied up again in three layers of mumbo-jumbo: the titles, the zodiac, the dedicatees. If I ever hear a pianist who can pull off the speaking and singing I'll be amazing, much less the ghost moaning.

Makrokosmos, Volume II for amplified piano (1973): A further catalog of piano techniques. The comments above are the same here, where is development, it is merely presentation and the same scales, the same harmonies.

Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) for two amplified pianos and percussion (two players) (1974): Extended (40 minute) work for two pianos and percussion. Similar use of the typical Crumb ideas - a fragment of Bach (in a long movement that seems like it should be profound), percussionists whistling a hymn (seems like it is again "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown" as in the Makrokosmos - I don't recall which book), a faux "Hymn to the Star Child" done with held down notes and strumming and in a minor-modal sound, a solemn pentatonic ending that is to signify some sort of culmination of striving (as in Vox Balanae). Nonetheless, it is a pleasant listening experience as suceeds in what it aims for. I only wish that Crumb would start doing something different. I understand that a composer works with what works and this period is when Crumb is really cultivating his techniques. It remains to be seen where exactly he wil go with them in the next thirty years.

Labels: ,