Friday, October 31, 2008

George Crumb

George Crumb, for lack of a more precise term, makes weird music. It is shadowy stuff that seems to be cast from its performers rather than to come directly from them, dark anti-reflections of life. Quiet and seemingly undefined for vast expanses then suddenly clamorous and monumental, like you are walking through the fog and unexpectedly bump your head on a skyscraper.

Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death: At first, this is a rather rock 'n' roll piece for Crumb, (though he might balk at this description) utilizing the electromagnetic hum of amps as its baseline, disjointed electric guitar, drum lines and the occasional prog keyboard interruption. There is even a growled vocal line that bears shocking resemblance to the maniacal chuckle at the beginning of "Wipeout. " Ultimately though, the pieces succumbs to dream logic like much of Crumb's work, vocal lines punctuated by fleeting thoughts guised as weird percussive tings and rattles and thuds.

Here are four of the sections of A Little Suite Christmas, A.D. 1979, performed by pianist Jiun Yoong Lim:

I really like seeing him reach over and pound the strings to conjure those dark-cloud overtones.

Crumb occupies a sonic between space - his music is markedly unconventional, would hardly pass inspection as "music" to most regular tastes, yet I find it imminently accessible stuff. It operates on background channels, like Satie does, or grocery store music, does, or sounds outside your window do. Parts of it feel remembered as it issues out, like the quotations of Pacelbel's Canon in the Canticle of the Holy section of the above piece.

Quest is a sweet, cerebral lyrical excursion of a guitar into the curious wood, scampering like a fox in the snow. There is a distinct nervous curiosity to the interplay of the instruments, slightly laced with panic. In the composer's own words:

The poetic basis for Quest was never very clearly articulated in my thinking. I recall pondering images such as the famous incipit of Dante's Inferno ("In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy mood, astray ...") and a line from Lorca ("The dark paths of the guitar"); also the concept of a "quest" as a long tortuous journey towards an ecstatic and transfigured feeling of "arrival" became associated with certain musical ideas during the sketching process. But although the movement titles are poetic and symbolic, there is no precise programmatic meaning implied.
The Official George Crumb website, by the way, is the gold standard of how an artist should document their work. His notes for Federico's Little Songs for Children are reveal the process he goes through, moving through obsessions with material to set to music, thinking he's exhausted Lorca only to find one more piece to draw him in. Also there is this bit

The concluding piece, Silly Song (Prestissimo [and alternately: molto più lento]; with piccolo), is ... just a silly song!

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