The Music of George Crumb

New York, Miller Theater

Columbia University School of the Arts has lately relaunched Miller Theater, under its new director George Steel, as a prime venue for contemporary music. As part of New Works Octobzer, three selections by one of America's most original composers were featured in a well-attended concert by the Sequitur ensemble. Of late, performances of George Crumb's music have been fewer than deserved, perhaps because those with far less talent have elbowed themselves into the small space allotted to contempory composers. Far too interesting and personal to be readily slotted into one or another grouping, Crumb demonstrates a sophisticated eclecticism (references include Messiaen, Schubert and Ives among others) that is coupled with a timeless originality. Regarding his inspirational sources, the composerr remarked in a pre-concert talk that today world music can be as present as a Brahms symphony and a medieval madrigal as available as a work by Cage, thanks to chronology-destroying audio technology. Crumb's unsentimental spirituality is analagous to that present in the poetry and music produced int he Muslim world. Over the years Crumb has frequently set Federico Garcia Lorca's poetry, each time taking the utmost care to create a language to match the mood of the individual poems. In this Crumb's eighth Lorca work, Federico's Little Songs for Children (1986), a soprano (Beverly Hoch) is combined with the usual concert flute in C plus alto and bass flutes and piccolo, all played by Patti Monson, and harp (June Han). There is an extereme freedom in setting the texts with the soprano freely alternating between singing, speaking and laughing the words. Crumb has said that he has been inspired by the anti-rational in Lorca, who studied briefly at Columbia in 1929. In the middle of the seven short poem settings, the vibrato of the bass flute suggests the inner life of the snail a child is holding. The harp accompanyment to section five "The Lizzard is Crying!", is reminiscent of Salzedo's "Cancion de la noche", perhaps a deliberate reference to the fact Lorca was Spanish. The program contained the Spanish texts and English translations were provided in the program in addition to extensive notes by the composer.

Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land) (Images I) (1970) is a comparatively short three-part work for electric string quartet. Reading from oversized scores with detailed performance instructions, the Magellan String Quartet alternated being seated while playing their electronically-amplified instruments and standing at tuned and untuned percussion batteries. The cellist bowed a series of water-tuned crystal goblets to give a glass harmonica effect; another player taped on violin strings with her metal-capped fingers. Crumb makes extensive use of number symbolism (7 and 13) in the score and the players themselves call out numbers in various languages, although most of this is subliminal for the listener. The foregoing description should not be taken to mean that Crumb merely produces a series of sound effects. Instead each stage in the continuum portrayed in this work from fall to spiritual annihilation to redemption is delineated with the familiar (Schumbert, various requiems) and the original, steering clear of emotional cues in favor of penetratingly multidimentional description. Amplification offers a layer of disembodiment appropriate to the unseen world. Originally written for the Kronos quartet, Black Angels catapulted that group to the forefront of contemporary performing ensembles.

Ancient Voices of Children (1970) is often regarded as Crumb's most characteristic and also his most important work to date. Using five Lorca poems as text, the performers include an agile mezzosoprano with an extended range (here Mary Nessinger), a boy soprano, four percussionists plus players of oboe, mandolin, musical saw, harp, and electric and toy piano. At times the instruments are altered to produce sounds that fall somewhere between the familiar and the curious, thereby piquing the listener's interest. The mezzo vocalizes into the open piano while the offstage boy soprano relates a parable about looking for his voice. An oriental-sounding musical saw in Part II preceeds a poetically evocative dialogue between mother and child. The toy piano adds a note of irony to the text for Part IV, "Each afternoon in Granada a child dies". An offstage oboe casts a metaphysical shadow over the concluding section, which ends with "…give me back my ancient soul of a child." In an effective touch, gradually dimming downstage lights left the performaers silhouetted against a lighter background.

There was an electric atmosphere during the entire second half in recognition of the superb rendition by Sequitur. It is bang-up performances like these which can best demonstrate Crumb's deserved place at the forefront of the contemporary scene.

David Lipfert

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