I was told that this
disc 'was not exactly easy listening'
and had thought that its appeal would
be mainly for the completist and those
with an academic interest in this composer's
However, whilst it
certainly has an unusual sound-world,
it has at least two other merits. Firstly,
it links Crumb firmly to other aspects
of American musical tradition. Most
obviously, to Ives and a tradition of
folk music sources - in this case from
the Appalachian Mountains.
Secondly, it gives
an insight into the effects of being
brought up with a religious musical
tradition and the influence that has
on someone who went on to write in a
very avant-garde way. This applies also
to another pillar of the American avant-garde,
John Adams, one of whose discs I have
also reviewed this month. Both these
composers have used the revivalist music
they grew up amongst as a starting point
for innovative compositions: Crumb in
The River of Life and Adams in
Both the works on this
two-disc set are stark, haunting and
melancholy. The soprano voice (the composer's
daughter) is accompanied by percussion
and amplified piano, giving an impression
of singing in a church or village hall.
The cover and insert notes show Crumb
family photographs, including the composer
holding the singer in his arms as a
baby. Together with the intimate themes
of religious songs and lullabies, this
adds to the feeling of a family album
or home movie.
'River of Life'
is subtitled 'Songs of Joy and
Sorrow: A Cycle of Hymns, Spirituals
and Revival Tunes'. The overtly
religious themes will inevitably deter
some listeners, but for others the results
will be intriguing as you witness Crumb's
distinctive sound world being applied
to well known hymns such as 'Amazing
Grace'. 'One More River to Cross' (based
on Noah's Ark) works well, in a humorous
and quirky way, as does the strongly
rhythmic 'Give Me that Old Time Religion'.
In its better moments,
this work mixes humour, bathos and feeling
in a distinctive and unique approach.
The composer's better-known work often
has political overtones, and this is
no exception; the use of Negro spirituals
alludes to covert signals and messages
used by those using the 'underground
railroad' to escape slavery. The half-time
instrumental interlude, Time is a
Drifting River: A Psalm for Daybreak,
is welcome in refreshing the ear between
the two sections of four songs each.
The second disc, 'Unto
the Hills' , subtitled 'Songs
of Sadness, Yearning and Innocence'
, although not having the overtly religious
connections of its predecessor, is actually
less accessible. The songs are predominantly
melancholy and often take premature
death as their theme. There is a reminder
here of the hardness of pioneer life,
contrasting with those sentimentally
nostalgic rural frontiers portraits,
and that folk music is not always upbeat
and bucolic. However, the result can
become relentless. An instrumental interlude
half way through the disc again provides
welcome aural refreshment.
This recording is part
of a complete set of Crumb's works issued
by Bridge, www.BridgeRecords.com. Unto
the Hills has already been issued,
on Volume 7 - coupled with the better
known Black Angels (famously
recorded by the Kronos Quartet). This
is an updated and extended version presented
for the first time in its entirety.
The River of Life is a premiere
recording. The series is interesting
in that it shows the prolific production
and diversity of this composer who,
far from being a one hit wonder, writes
extensively and for a wide range of
instruments and voices.