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An Interview with George Crumb by Marc Medwin

Silence, space, timbre, repetition and reference—all composers must come to terms with these and other basic elements of music, but George Crumb has found solutions to the problems they pose that render his work unique and vital after almost fifty years. His compositions force listeners to hear traditional instruments in new contexts and performers to rethink their approaches, and yet, there is always a very human accessibility at the heart of his music. As he turns eighty, he is experiencing new compositional prolificacy as well as a broadening of his musical scope. History continues to inform his work, but he is never enslaved to it, using it instead to nurture one of contemporary classical music’s most unique compositional visions. He was gracious enough to grant me a lengthy interview, our wide-ranging discussion filled with his melodious voice and infectious sense of humor. It is impossible to commit to paper the reflective and deliberate cadences of his speech, precision juxtaposed with deep emotion in every statement, as they are in his compositions.

Judging by the steady stream of new works issuing from his pen, Crumb seems to have found the proverbial fountain of youth. His own explanation is much more prosaic. “I retired,” he laughs. “In the 1990s, my composition was somewhat spasmodic, in part because I was devoting a lot of time and energy to my graduate students.” Since his retirement from teaching in 1997, Crumb has undertaken a broad range of projects which, he states, began with the solo piano work Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (2002), an astonishingly diverse set of variations on Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Round Midnight.” In it, we find Crumb refining his inclusive and multi-timbral approach to the piano, a process begun with the Five Piano Pieces of 1962. Monk’s tune is examined under a microscope, its melodic and intervallic construction laid bare; they become fodder for all manner of reassembly and reinterpretation. At one amusing moment, a reference to Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” leads, understandably, to a Tristan quotation which then jumps unexpectedly but humorously into Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. “Well, one hopes not to be too predictable. I’d like to think that even though my overall style hasn’t undergone any drastic changes, I bring something to each composition that makes it unique.”

While it may be true that Crumb’s central themes remain remarkably similar to that of early works such as Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968), which he considers his first mature composition, he is always exploring some new facet of his art—an instrumental combination, a novel form or maybe a new philosophical angle. Crumb has recently completed two new works setting the texts of Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet whose starkly beautiful imagery is so integral to Crumb’s most celebrated pieces. “Certainly, you could think of them as a cycle,” he says of his Lorca settings, which include the afore-mentioned Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death as well as Ancient Voices of Children (1970) and the four books of Madrigals (1965-69). Federico’s Little Songs for Children (1986) was the most recent entry in the Lorca series, but they are not specifically referenced in the new pieces. “Really, there’s only one quasi-quotation that I can think of; I borrow an oscillating minor third from Songs Drones and Refrains. It shows up in the last song of my new work, The Ghosts of Alhambra.” The other new Lorca song cycle, Sun and Shadow, is unique in that it is set in English. Both were premiered last summer in Maine and Colorado to great acclaim.

As much as Crumb enjoys expanding previous concepts, he is always eager to explore unknown regions. Chief among his ongoing projects is a seven-book collection of pieces based on American folksong, six of which have been completed. “It started as a suggestion from my daughter Ann,” explains Crumb. “She said that she wanted some Appalachian songs to use in concerts, and Unto the Hills (2001) resulted. I eventually re-titled it American Songbook 3 and added an extra song; that’s why it was recorded twice.” The definitive sequencing can be found on volume eleven of Bridge Records’ uniformly excellent Crumb Edition; the same installment, a two-disc set, also contains the first songbook, The River of Life (2003). Books two and four, A Journey Beyond Time (2002) and The Winds of Destiny (2004), can be heard in volume thirteen, the most recent addition to Bridge’s survey. Book 5, Voices from a Forgotten World, has been recorded, and while earlier books employed one voice at a time, Crumb has now written for male and female voice, sometimes in alternation and also in duet. Book 6, Voices from the Morning of the World, has been performed four times, including a notable production at Carnegie Hall, but not yet recorded. The seventh and final book, Voices from the Heartland, is in progress. “They’re songs from what you could call the interior of America. It contains a number of spirituals and two Indian songs, one Navaho and one Pawnee. These are actually texts that I’m setting in English, and I’m writing the music for them, as I know of no existing melodies.” Book 5 also has two Indian songs for which he’s composed the music, “Song of the Thunder” and “Firefly Song.”

Crumb is quick to mention that, far from being relegated to a specific point in history, he means the series to embrace modernity. To that end, Book 6 contains renderings of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” by Pete Seeger and “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan. “These have been favorites of mine,” he smiles. “I enjoyed the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s very much, so I thought I’d bring this series a bit closer to our own time.”

Far from simply comprising literal presentations of the folk melodies, Crumb has transformed the material with varying degrees of subtlety. There’s the drifting tonality of “Shall We Gather at the River” and the conglomerate text of “Oh Shenandoah,” but often, his changes involve rhythmic concerns. “I’ll lop off a beat here and there from the melodies, introducing syncopations, or I’ll change the meter from a four to a five pattern, or from a six to a seven pattern, broadening the rhythmic scope in some cases.” Yet, it is the accompaniments that are the most astonishing, sometimes referring obliquely to the parent melodies with a shimmering snatch of malleted percussion or a piano figuration hanging just on the edge of recognition.

While Crumb’s fascination with American folk music is most evident in the songbooks, it predates them by a considerable margin. Some of his 1960s works quote the folksongs that form the substance of the new series, most notable being an appearance of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” in the monumental Echoes of Time and the River (1967). However, there are moments in Crumb’s work where what I will call the American gestalt transcends quotation and becomes integral to a work’s structure. Mitternachtmusik is a case in point. Its obvious concern with jazz is usually not overt in the music, save in the seventh section, called “Blues in the Night.” Even here, clichés such as blue notes and their associated resolutions are used very sparingly. Only gradually do we hear some loping swing, mysterious hints of a bluesy chord progression and the occasional metallic striking of a piano string suggesting a hazy high-hat accent.

Quotation is also used to darker effect in the Winds of Destiny, taking on an element of subversion. While politics is not necessarily a driving force behind Crumb’s work, it manifests itself in his disturbingly contradictory setting of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” “No, the ending is not really victorious at all,” he observes, a rather frightening example of understatement. Indeed, in spite of the text, the setting seems to undermine a sense of victory, veering from manic to satirical to devastating and approaching meditative silence by the end. Quotations from the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony, sometimes played in tritones, infuse the song’s second half and form the fabric of its conclusion. The percussive drama is undoubtedly military in rhetoric, and chronological distance provides no sense of safety or comfort. Its sinister elements conjure shades of Crumb’s 1970 quartet masterpiece Black Angels.

Whatever political implications are present, Crumb’s creativity and working methods seem remarkably free of dogma. While his musical language is unmistakable, its philosophical underpinnings are broad but unsystematic. “I read widely, as I’ve always done, and I consider spirituality to be an important component of my work; I don’t subscribe to one faith over another, as they all interest me. I may be one of the few Americans that has actually read the Quran.” Crumb attributes his eagerness for exploration to his father. “He was very well read, and he also had a large library of miniature scores, and I spent hours with them as a boy. I immersed myself in the music, certainly, but its visual components made as large an impression on my thinking at that time.” Crumb began to compose in his pre-teen years, churning out pieces in the style of Mozart. “They weren’t very good,” he chuckles, “I thought they were quite contemporary at the time.”

Even now, after nearly fifty years of mature composition, his approach to the act of composing varies from day to day. “I have a piano in my studio, and my desk is opposite that; between them, there’s a rotating chair. Sometimes, I’ll compose at the piano, but often I’ll go for three or four days without touching it.” He does not use any compositional software, professing a dislike for sounds meant to imitate real instruments. “I might improvise at the piano to feel my way into a piece, but I suppose everyone does that.” Because he does not use any software or simulation, a work’s premier is really the first chance he’ll have to hear it. “I have an intuitive sense of what the piece will sound like as I’m composing it; I hear it in my inner ear, so to speak, but when it’s done, I’m always moving onto the next project, so it’s as if I’m hearing it anew when it’s performed.” Guitarist and long-time Crumb associate David Starobin reports on Bridge Records’ blog that after the first rehearsal for Ghosts of Alhambra, Crumb was “in tinkering mode.  Little fixes here and there- tremolos in the first movement vibraphone part, a new pitch structure for the bottleneck guitar in #5, etc …” His sketchbooks contain a fair number of what he jocularly calls misfires, to which he may or may not return at some point. “There have been many miscalculations along the way. I usually know what something should sound like, as I know a lot of fine instrumentalists, and they’ve shown me numerous new sounds over the years.”

Though Crumb does not use technology during the composition process, developments in recording now allow his myriad timbres to be heard very clearly. He has been very involved with Bridge’s ongoing series, supervising most of the recordings. “They’re fantastic,” he marvels. His association with the label goes back to its inception and before. Starobin met Crumb around 1970, when the composer visited Peabody Conservatory, where Starobin was studying guitar.  A dozen years later, when Starobin founded Bridge Records in New York City, Crumb's "Apparition" appeared on the second LP the fledgling firm issued. Starobin writes:  "Recording all of George's music, working along side him over the decades, has been an honor and an education.  His superb musical instincts are matched by his great ear for sonority and his uncanny sense of musical drama.”  

While many fine recordings of Crumb’s music have appeared over the decades, many featuring powerful performances by the late Jan DeGaetani, there are now ensembles who are thoroughly immersed in Crumb’s very personal musical language. The International Contemporary Ensemble and Orchestra 2001 are two such aggregates, and they have brought a new level of understanding and virtuosity to the complex soundworld that Crumb continues to refine. With players such as these, there is no limit to the timbral intricacies that can be added to each new score. Of course, there is also the George Crumb Ensemble, which includes Tony Arnold, soprano; George Crumb, percussion; Robert Shannon, piano; and David Starobin, guitar. They are featured in a new film, George Crumb, “Bad Dog!” which will be shown on George Crumb Immersion Day, presented by the BBC and taking place on December 5th at the Barbican Centre in London. Bridge has a DVD of the film in the works which will comprise Volume 14 of the Crumb Edition. Early next year, the remaining pieces in Crumb’s back catalog and Book 5 of the American Songbook series will also see release.

The flurry of activity surrounding Crumb’s eightieth birthday only cements his continued maverick status. His work continues to break new ground, but invention and innovation never render human feeling subservient. In this, Crumb remains unique. “It seems to me that a lot of fairly recent music is very short on emotion,” he opines. “This isn’t true with the very young composers, who seem to be reaching for that level of feeling again. To me, that depth of human emotion is the most important thing.” Perhaps that is truly what keeps his music vital, as Crumb is, at heart, a seeker. The essence of his work is manifest most clearly as each sound approaches silence.

Marc Medwin

(from an interview conducted by Marc Medwin with George Crumb on 3 September 2009)



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