Total Immersion: George Crumb

Monday 14 December 2009

George Crumb turned eighty in October, and so was dragged across the Atlantic for the BBC to make a fuss of him for one day of the year. Actually, he probably came willingly, as the night concluded with what must be a rare concert of his orchestral music. He seemed pretty cheerful, seated up in the stalls doing that Rat Pack style double-pointing to the performers at the end of each piece.

I wrote a bit about Crumb’s music earlier in the year after hearing the Nash Ensemble perform it at the Proms:

Crumb’s music really needs to be heard live to appreciate it, not only for the theatrical elements of its performance, or for the spatial placement of sounds (more than once the musicians had to relocate from the stage to one of the balconies to achieve an elusive, distant quality to their sound), but for the subtlety and complexity of the sounds he specifies.

The Proms gig included Claire Booth singing Ancient Voices of Children, also played here by the Guildhall ensemble, with the soprano Anna Patalong (and a real, live boy this time), in between Joanna MacGregor playing the piano works A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 and Volume 1 of Makrokosmos.

The last time I heard Makrokosmos it was part of an ill-judged mix of music and visuals by Michael Kieran Harvey. Witnessing it performed again reminded me the extent to which Crumb’s music seems to be held together almost by the sheer force of his personality, and how dependent it is on musicians to hold the greater purpose of its disparate elements in focus. MacGregor’s performance was much less theatrical (or histrionic) than Harvey’s, but found and sustained the drama in the music.

The evening gig was a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Crumb’s orchestral music – in fact the only three mature orchestral works he has written – culminating in the massive Star-Child. Pure logistical difficulties aside, it seems clear why Crumb tends to keep his music on a more intimate scale. The often episodic nature of his music can be difficult for such a large group of musicians to follow without losing momentum.

The 1967 piece Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II) is a processional of varying sounds and textures produced by small, discrete groups within the orchestra, to the extent of moving some of the percussionists and brass players on, off, and across the stage in various configurations. In effect, Crumb was attempting to work with the orchestra to his usual scale, while taking advantage of the wider pallette of available sounds. The slow choreography of the musician’s movements added a theatrical, ritualistic aspect that was only slightly more awkward in reality than it doubtless was in the imagination.

A Haunted Landscape (1984) must be more successful in combining all the distinctive facets of Crumb’s music into a seamless whole, because I always remember it as being more conventional than it really is. On the other hand, Star-Child (1977) works hard to present a semblance of cohesiveness between its seven continuous sections. The piece is often referred to as Ivesian, and amongst the many parallels you could make out were the cosmic scope of the music, and its seemingly rough-hewn structure.

The entire 35 or so minutes is suspended from a repeated “music of the spheres” played by the string section throughout, oblivious to all the other goings-on; they form a separate orchestra, with their own conductor. The remaining sections of the orchestra, plus a truckload of extra percussion, half-a-dozen brass players in the balcony, a male speaking choir armed with handbells, and two children’s choirs, require between one and three conductors between them to keep everything together, depending on the music’s complexity. Oh, and there’s a Vox Clamans In Deserto recited antiphonally between a soprano and a trombonist.

Star-Child boldly reaches for profundity with its Latin texts and massed voices and bells, and for once Crumb uses the full force of the orchestra for emphatic, dramatic power. It’s an anomaly in Crumb’s canon, the way he uses brute force and awe to move his audience here, particularly in the apocalyptic middle sections. Thankfully his musical allusions never get too overt or too literary, but the piece is really left to stand or fall on the message Crumb wishes it to convey. The performance itself couldn’t be faulted, but in experiencing it I felt like I was witnessing an attempt to make manifest a grand vision best realised in the imagination, brought to life as best as one can.