His Music Full of Echoes, a Maverick Composer Turns 90

His Music Full of Echoes, a Maverick Composer Turns 90


MEDIA, Penn. — The sounds that filter into George Crumb’s composition studio here are a typically suburban mix of placid and suddenly brash.

The occasional car skulks by on the leafy street outside. Visitors are greeted by vociferous barking from one of the shelter dogs rescued by Mr. Crumb and his wife of seven decades, Elizabeth. She keeps the radio on the classical music station most of the day, while their youngest son, Peter, who lives with them, blasts country in his bedroom upstairs.

The music Mr. Crumb has dreamed up in this home studio, a converted garage, over the decades is often peaceful and jolting, like his sonic environment. But his compositions unfold in another world that is dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish.

He continues to compose here even as he approaches his 90th birthday, coming in October. On Sunday and Tuesday, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gets in early on the celebration, presenting a two-concert tribute to Mr. Crumb at Alice Tully Hall. Included is the premiere of a new piece for percussion ensemble, as well as some of the classic works that have made him one of the most recognizable and beloved voices in contemporary music.

Among them are “Vox Balaenae,” which draws whale-like sounds from a flute, and the Vietnam War-haunted “Dark Angels” for amplified string quartet, which one critic called “a work of frightening intensity, where Jimi Hendrix and Pierrot Lunaire shake hands with the devil.” In “Music for a Summer Evening,” for two pianos and percussion, the musicians become celebrants in a mesmerizing ritual that requires the pianists to reach deep into the instrument’s strings.

The pianist Gilbert Kalish, who has long championed this music and will perform in both concerts, spoke in an interview about Mr. Crumb’s expansion of the piano’s color palette through novel techniques. “It’s like a new instrument he’s invented,” he said. “And it’s really wild.”

Mr. Crumb’s compositions inhabit a strange kind of suburbia themselves, a liminal space, rooted in the canon of Western music but venturing out into the world of natural sounds and acoustic phenomena. Echoes abound, whether from the careful manipulation of overtones and resonances or through the discreet halo created by metallic percussion. Mr. Crumb, who grew up in Charleston, W.Va., with the sound of a rushing river ricocheting off the surrounding hills, said early sound memories might have found a way into his music.

“There were echoes constantly,” he said on a recent afternoon in his studio, as he sat in an office chair that allowed him to scoot back and forth between a desk piled high with scores and a piano in need of tuning. “I do think that composers inherit a kind of acoustic.”

Fragments from other composers float through his works and settle in strange places. “Vox Balaenae” references the optimistic ascending brass fanfare of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” but in so spectral a manner that it seems like a trick of the listener’s imagination.

For much of Mr. Crumb’s career, such quotations were anathema to the reigning modernist ethos. But the battles that raged in the middle of the 20th century between warring aesthetic movements seem to have passed him by. Asked whether he was ever criticized for writing tonal pieces or quoting Chopin, Mr. Crumb replied innocently.

“No, I don’t recall anything like that,” he said as his face creased into a smile. “Maybe they spoke about it, and I didn’t hear them.”

While much of the respected music in those days was intellectual and a bit airless, “George was a maverick,” Mr. Kalish said. “His music was so appealing and emotional.”

That’s not to say Mr. Crumb makes it easy for performers. His scores are known to delight and terrify musicians in equal measure. The hand-drawn staves on his manuscripts sometimes curve into circles or break up into islands in a sea of white paper.

The flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, who will perform “Vox Balaenae” on Sunday, said in an interview that the arrangement of notes on the page in a Crumb score is “his way of expressing how the music flows through space, which is really beautiful and unique.”

At the same time, she added, “it also leaves some of the magic and creativity up to the performer.”

Folded into the elegant design are countless instructions, both exacting and poetic. Some of them read more like stage directions than expressive markings: Under the title “An Idyll for the Misbegotten,” a work for flute and drums, Mr. Crumb wrote “to be heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August.”

“It puts the performer into that space,” Ms. O’Connor said. “Now I have a temperature; there’s insects and bugs; and there’s a thunderstorm brewing.” The music becomes an organic process: “It’s based in nature.”

For Mr. Crumb, the process of designing his manuscripts and drawing each stave by hand is painstaking, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I just don’t like computer notation,” he said. “It all looks alike.”

His works are loved by performers and audiences to a degree that few other living composers can match. Mr. Crumb counts over 20 recordings of his piano cycle “Makrokosmos” alone. Last fall, he received three new ones in the mail in the space of six weeks, made by pianists from Spain, Greece and Japan.

But it’s not just the notation that’s laborious for Mr. Crumb. Over a long career he has produced just around 50 pieces, a number he compared, with a wistful laugh, with the more than 600 Mozart wrote in a much shorter life. He has said his productivity dipped in the 1980s and into the ’90s as he devoted himself to teaching.

“You read about some composers who could write at the speed of wind,” Mr. Crumb said. “It was never that way for me. It’s like groping for something that’s resistant.”

He gestured to the stacks of manuscript scores on his desk, with their custom-drawn staves and hand-lettered instructions.

“You truly have to believe that you live forever,” he said. “Because it takes time.”



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