Monday, August 13, 2012

George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children/Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III)

This blogger's first encounter with the magical work of composer George Crumb (born in 1929) came through the title track of Kronos Quartet's Black Angels, a 1970 piece of disturbing power featuring electric violins in a thematic tie to the Vietnam War, covered on this blog.  This stirred an interest, though long delayed, of exploring Crumb's work.

This Elektra Nonesuch recording takes two pieces from the composer's body of work that have very different structural components.  "Ancient Voices of Children" is from 1970 and, as Crumb states on his Web site (see here), these six pieces forming a song cycle capped off an eight-year period of absorption with the incredible poetry of Federick Garcia Lorca, whose death at the hands of Spanish fascists during the era of Francisco Franco's ascendance during the civil war that ravaged that country in the 1930s enhanced his legendary status. 

Female and young male soprano vocalizations of Lorca's evocative words are brilliantly supported by a variety of unusual instruments, including a toy piano, a musical saw, an oboe, harmonica, mandolin, harp and a variety of percussion.  Four of the six pieces use Lorca' poetry, while the other two are interludes.  Perhaps the most striking effect is the female soprano's singing into a piano, which creates an unusual vocal effect with the strings.  As Crumb notes, the boy's voice is heard in the background until the last song when he joins the female. 

Also of note is the way the composer has the instrumentalists play with varying pitches, as well as uses a palette of vocalizations such as whispers, singing and shouting, which further support the mystical and dreamlike qualities of the music and soprano singing.  The inventive mixing of instruments, changes in their pitch and tonality, and the unusual vocal elements make "Ancient Voices of Children" an unforgettable experience, especially if you've read Lorca's poetry, which I did some years ago.

As to "Music for a Summer Evenig," this 1974 work features two amplified pianos and a pair of percussionists, a structure employed first by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who will be featured here someday, in the 1930s.  There is a great variety of percussion instruments used in this piece, including some that are ancient and exotic, qualities that recur frequently through Crumb's work, including Tibetan prayer stones, African log drums and thumb piano, a metal "thunder sheet," and slide-whistles. 

As with the first piece, "Music" employs an influence from poetic quotations and uses all-instrumental interludes betwen them.  The amplified pianos also have some different sounds associated with them, including one movement in which sheets of paper are laid over the strings.  Not surprisingly, given Crumb's fascination with the duende (or passion) of Lorca, one of these is the mystical and spiritual Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work was also read by this blogger back in the early 90s.

Crumb, who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy, among many other awards and achievements, but is shamefully underrecognized and appreciated, is one of the truly unique and masterly composers of modern music.  This excellent recording, issued in 1987, is another stellar release by the Elektra Nonesuch label.

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