courtesy of Naxos of America
Between the fall of 1973 and the summer of 1978, when I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, George Crumb was one of the three composers in that university’s Music Department. Our respective buildings were separated by a very modest parking lot. Nevertheless, over that half-decade I never saw the man once; and I had only one encounter with a performance of his music, when David Burge visited Philadelphia to give a performance of the first volume (the only one completed at the time) in Crumb’s Makrokosmos series. After that occasion, I heard at most two (I think) performances of Crumb’s music until I started working for Examiner.com and engaged all of my resources towards the goal of writing useful observations about music, how it is performed, and the nature of listening.
In retrospect this was an unfortunate turn of events. Crumb’s music rarely deserves to be subjected to a single listening experience, after which the listener moves on to other things. It also benefits from advance preparation; and, more often than not, that preparation can be provided by one of more of the performers offering up some orienting remarks before the performance begins. This was certainly the case in October of 2017, when cellist David Goldblatt gathered three of his San Francisco Symphony (SFS) colleagues (violinists Sarn Oliver and Yun Chu and violist David Gaudry) for an afternoon chamber music recital at Davies Symphony Hall, where they played Crumb’s “Black Angels.” Between Oliver’s comments and the group’s performance, one could appreciate the richness of the score’s technique and the intensity of its expressiveness.
Almost exactly a month ago the Kairos label released a two-CD album of the first three of Crumb’s Makrokosmos collections. The first two have the same subtitle: Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano. The organization of the second parallels that of the first in a variety of ways, only one of which is the ordering of the zodiacal signs. Where the third collection is concerned, it is “Makrokosmos” that is the subtitle, the principal title being Music for a Summer Evening. It is scored for two amplified pianos and percussion and consists of only five pieces. (Those interested in the fourth volume will find it on the album ZOFOrbit: A Space Odyssey, recorded by the ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann. It, too, has its own principal title: Celestial Mechanics.)
The pianist on the Kairos album is Yoshiko Shimizu, who studied with Burge at the Eastman School of Music and was fortunate enough to meet Crumb once she had committed herself to learning to play his music. When Burge was first bringing the first Makrokosmos volume to recital venues, Crumb was enduring a certain level of hostile push-back from the avant-garde. He was accused of appropriating many of the ideas of John Cage (not only the prepared piano and the use of electronics but also the use of a gong lowered into water in “Echoes of Time and the River”); and Donal Henahan explicitly called out such appropriations in the background article about Crumb that he wrote for The New York Times in May of 1975. (My wife and are were asked to play wine glasses for one Crumb performance.)
Nevertheless, the title of Henahan’s article was “Crumb, the Tone Poet;” and I doubt that anyone would classify one of Cage’s compositions as a tone poem! Indeed, where the first two Makrokosmos volumes are concerned, the most influential source was probably the piano preludes of Claude Debussy. However, that influence had more to do with structure than content; and, by drawing upon both amplification and alternative performance techniques, Crumb elicits a far wider diversity of sonorities than one would ever encounter in Debussy. For that matter, Crumb’s choice of title has more to do with Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos collection than with Debussy; and that connection is reinforced in the third volume, whose influence can be traced back to Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion.
What matters most on these recordings, though, is that aforementioned “intensity of expressiveness” that I encountered in the SFS Chamber Music offering of “Black Angels.” Sometimes (but not always) the grounds for that expressiveness may be established by the titles of the individual pieces. Sometimes it is more a matter of the “effects” behind the sounds themselves, particularly when they are external to the piano. Over the course of the album, those sounds are provided by Akiko Shibata (who whistles) and Natsumi Shimizu (who not only whistles but also plays alto recorder and slide whistle). Rupert Struber is the percussionist for the third volume, which is a tour de force of recording technology, since Shimizu plays both amplified piano parts.
Taken as a whole, this album may be a bit much for those encountering Crumb for the first time. Nevertheless, there is no reason why acquaintance cannot be established through piecemeal listening. Indeed, as is the case with the Debussy preludes, there is much to be gained from listening to any individual piece in isolation. For my part I have been delighted finally to catch up on what Crumb has to say and how he says it, and I feel fortunate now to have “listening access” to the entire Makrokosmos canon.