A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb


Dear Mr. Crumb,

When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.

The 1971 premiere recording

At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.

Makrokosmos I with score excerpt on cover

It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.

Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.

Voice of the Whale on the premiere recording on Columbia Records, 1974

When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.

Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.

Lorca Madrigals 1965-69

I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.

Makrokosmos III

The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.

Robert Miller’s premiere recording of Makrokosmos II

Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.

In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).

After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.

To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.

Jenny Q Chai brings Synaesthesia to CNMAT in Berkeley


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All is set up in the diminutive performance space at CNMAT.

Jenny Q. Chai is a graduate of Curtis Institute and the Manhattan School of Music.  She is trained as a pianist but she is in the process of expanding that role somewhat.  Chai is one of an unusual group of people called “synaesthetes”, that is, people who see sounds and hear colors.  Her program tonight is entitled, “Sonorous Brushes”.

I am not a synaesthete and it is most likely that most of the audience was more like me.  The actual prevalence of synaesthesia in which stimulation of one sense (such as sound) simultaneously stimulates another sensory or cognitive pathway (such as color or emotion) is estimated to occur in about 4% of the general population (estimates vary).  This condition is unusual but is not pathological.  The interest or the challenge here is the artist’s attempt to convey her personal synaesthetic perceptions in a way that can be understood by those not similarly wired.

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Chai spoke eloquently about her research to the audience.

The program was divided into sections.  In the first Chai performed some mostly conventional repertoire from the early twentieth century namely Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen.  The four Debussy pieces with which Ms. Chai opened this recital (two etudes, “Pour les huits doigts” and “Pour les quartes” and preludes 11 and 12 from book 2) left absolutely  and no doubt as to  and the artist’s virtuosity and interpretive skills.  She then launched into a Ravel homage by one Frederic Durieux followed by Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes and a  truly athletic Messiaen piece.  Understandably these pieces inspired visual creations by this artist and seemed to be the seed for her ongoing research.

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It is curious and somehow very fitting that this musical exploration begin with music that was inspired by the visual.  Impressionism was pretty much paralleled by the music which appears to have been inspired by the visual art, an early argument for synaesthesia.  There is little doubt that many artists (and non-artists) have had this condition for better or worse but it is likely that such unusual perceptions would have been classified as pathological and not the topic of polite conversation back in the 19th century and before.

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On this night it would be not merely a topic of conversation but an introduction to research which began with a grant Chai received from the French government for research into synaesthesia and presenting these ideas to a wider audience.  Far from pathology, this could even be seen as a deficit in those who lack this ability.  The key then is to explore synaesthesia as a potential asset.  Of course a complete and detailed explanation was not the goal of the evening.  This was to whet our appetites.

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Composer Jarosław Kapuściński explains some of the technology behind his compositions and the visual art that accompanied these performances.

 

This next part of the program involved the work of Jarosław Kapuściński (Warsaw, 1964-) whose two pieces were slated for the last portion of the program.  He is, since 2016, the chair of the music department at Stanford University and no doubt spends time with CCRMA (Stanford’s equivalent of CNMAT) investigating music, sound and computers.  He spoke of being inspired by a calligrapher who was also well known to Ms. Chai, a Chinese woman and master calligrapher named Shanshan Zhao (the film was done at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music).  While he did not go into great detail the composer basically shared his visual inspirations and spoke a bit about how his composition program “listens” to the performer (see the photo with the two mikes inside the piano below) and responds in some way.  This sounds like another chapter in the book which includes David Behrman’s early computer/performer interactive experiments.  Some 50 years later (this piece, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” is from 2018 and got its US premiere here tonight).  Another generation shows its expertise.

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Note the two black microphones inside the piano. No, its not the Russians.

The title, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018) references Ziqi, a man whose listening was so perfect that the musician destroyed his instrument after Ziqi died because he knew he would never find a better listener.  This ancient Chinese story (approx 770-476 BC) is also about the merging of sound and image in its way.  Several calligraphies are displayed in process during the performance with the music reflecting the moods of the Chinese characters being displayed.  Each movement involves a different Chinese character and a different attempt at calligraphy.  There may be extramusical references here but the music does a satisfying job of standing with the visuals and further analysis can be left to musicologists and program annotators.

In addition Kapuściński is no stranger to Asian arts.  He has explored eastern musics and incorporated aspects of them into some of his works.  He is also no stranger to computers and their use in composition.  His appreciation of disparate artistic techniques effectively spanning 5000 years and utilizing them effectively is a mark of genius in this writer’s opinion.  This is a challenging piece for the soloist but it is a sensual journey for the audience.  While the geekier folks (this reviewer definitely included) would like to know much more about the technical aspects of this gorgeous music, suffice it to say that such knowledge is not a prerequisite for enjoying the art.

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Chai playing the interactive piano part to the visuals in “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018), This was the California premiere.

This was followed by another visual/musical collaboration, Side Effects (2017) also by Kapuściński involves music set to videos by Kacper Kowalski who shoots from a perspective 150 meters directly above his subjects.  Think a latter day Koyaanisqatsi (do I need to footnote that reference?).  Again we see affecting music which captures the composer’s reaction to the visuals.  I didn’t get the sense that there was any computer interaction here, just some good music to some stunning visuals.

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Chai playing the music to the visuals in “Side Effects” (2017)

The capacity audience (the room capacity is only 49) was very appreciative and gave a standing ovation which compelled no less than two encores.  Forgive your reviewer for not being able to recall the first but there seemed to be a new magic afoot when this pianist launched into the second, a wonderful rendition of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It was a loving and intense interpretation (no doubt full of colors as well) and it left the audience satisfied as a dessert would cap the climax of a fine meal.  Brava, Ms. Chai.  And thank you Mr. Kapuściński.