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.

Political Classical: Dai Fujikura’s Piano Concerto No. 4 “Akiko’s Piano”


As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.

It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.

This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.

The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.

What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.

On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.

The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.

This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.

It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.

Music by Gerhard Schedl, a New Recording by the Walden Chamber Players


Suicide, the artificial ending to a life is an inscrutable act, especially so when it takes the life of a talented individual.  So it is with Austrian composer Gerhard Schedl whose life was ended by his own hand in 2001.  I had never heard of this man and his work and I always welcome the opportunity to hear music new to my ears and such an opportunity presented itself recently.

By good fortune and the kindness of cellist and current artistic director Ashima Scripp I received a copy of the Walden Chamber Players latest CD: ‘A Voice Gone Silent too Soon: The Music of Gerhard Schedl.  The disc contains 4 chamber works for various combinations of strings, piano and clarinet.schedl

As it happens I had not been familiar with this ensemble before either so a word about them would seem to be appropriate.  Founded in 1997 this flexible sized ensemble consists of eleven musicians including strings, piano, harp and woodwinds.  The musicians are all highly accomplished and most are on faculty at area Universities.  Their choice of repertoire distinguishes them as they seem to choose new and/or lesser known music that the musicians feel deserve a hearing and hopefully a wider audience.  Their fascinating catalog at the time of this writing consists of 6 discs and includes music by Beethoven, Debussy, Vaughn Williams, Francaix, Gubaidulina and Reger to name a few.

When they choose Beethoven they choose the seldom played string trios and their other choices seem to involve late romantic and early 20th Century composers with a focus on pieces that are little known and rarely played.  From what I have heard they bring a real passion to their performances.  In addition they have a variety of educational and outreach programs that serve to increase interest in chamber music and support new artists in playing this repertoire.

Now to the disc at hand.  At first I did what I usually do after a quick read of the liner notes.  I put the CD in my car stereo to begin some relatively casual listening so I can begin to form some initial impressions.  However this is music of wide dynamic range and some of the most beautiful moments are the quieter ones so I found that it is best heard in a quiet environment and preferably with headphones.  Most of the gestures in this music are the familiar sounds of chamber music.  The music is sometimes melodic, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic.  Schedl seems to be a sort of modern post-romantic who is well-schooled in what a chamber ensemble can do and is apparently influenced by the expressionism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as well as by Mahler, Debussy and perhaps Messiaen.  This being said his music does not actually resemble any of these influences too strongly.  The music is rarely dissonant but there are grand fortissimo gestures as well as glissandi and what sounds like some playing inside the piano and some extended techniques which my ears could not identify with certainty.  But this is not what I would call “experimental music”.  Indeed the music sounds very well planned with an ear for subtleties that the ensemble lovingly interprets.  It sounds like this music is as enjoyable to play as it is to hear.  Though virtuosic it is also expressive if agonized at times and the recording is fantastic.

The first piece, String Trio (1991) for violin, viola and cello is in three movements.  I did not find the tempi descriptions particularly useful as a listener since this composer’s music seems to sustain a variety of tempi and expression within each movement.  Inevitably comparisons to Schoenberg, Webern and perhaps Ernst Krenek will come to mind and it is difficult to predict this piece to stand with those models but it definitely bears additional hearings and would be welcome on any good chamber music program.

The next piece, “A Due”, a Duo for Violin and Cello (2000) is from the last year of the composer’s life.  It is in four movements and is the most angst ridden of the pieces on the disc.  This combination of instruments is relatively rare.  I personally know only the Ravel duo which resembles this piece though that is largely due to the instrumentation, not the style.  This is a concentrated and deeply felt piece which seems to reflect some painful emotions.  Here I am reminded more of Webern and perhaps Wolfgang Rihm with their spare textures and emphatic fortissimi amidst the quieter moments.   As with all the pieces on this disc the execution reflects the intense concentration and dedication of the musicians.

The five movement, “A Tre” for clarinet, violin and piano of 1984 is the earliest composition here.  It comes as a welcome relief emotionally from the previous “A Due”.  This is by far the most whimsical of the pieces featured on this album.  It has an almost orchestral feel to it at times.  Multiple techniques (and, no doubt, careful execution) result in textures that are sometimes rather expansive.  Shades of Messiaen appear to be present sometimes.  They contrast with the more chamber music like gestures familiar from the previous works.

The disc concludes with the 1996-7 “A Cinque” for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano.  It is a very serious post-romantic, even neo-classical take on the quintet format.  The piece consists of three movements.  The first two are serious but not terribly dark and showcase the ensemble well.  The last, an adagio, has a sadness mixed with nostalgia that reminds this listener of Mahler. There are none of the abrupt dynamic changes heard in the previous works on this CD, only a soft and gentle ending.

If you enjoy well-performed and recorded chamber music and are interested in exploring something besides the old war horses of the standard repertoire then this disc is for you.  Multiple listenings reveal more detail about the pieces and make this writer curious about this man’s work for larger ensembles as well.

Thank you Walden Chamber Players for a wonderful CD.  I look forward to hearing more from this fine and adventurous ensemble.