George Crumb turns 80

George Crumb: 80 years young

'A mood I felt I could understand.'
'A mood I felt I could understand.'

James Freeman, the director of Orchestra 2001, once quoted a Russian who told him how wonderful it must be to live in a city in which you could hear great modern composers like George Crumb. For most Philadelphians in Freeman's audience, that remark packed unintentional irony. If it weren't for Orchestra 2001, Philadelphia's most assiduous concertgoers would hardly be aware that George Crumb exists.

I first encountered Crumb's music in 1988, at my first Orchestra 2001 concert. The main event was a Crumb work in which the musicians moved around a darkened stage as they created strange sounds with standard instruments and eccentric novelties like toy pianos. Orchestra 2001 performers always wore red shirts in those days. They looked, to my eye, like a uniformed crew working in the control room of a mysterious technical complex.

I had just started writing my review column for the Welcomat (now Philadelphia Weekly), and I had no idea I was beginning a 20-year fascination with Philadelphia's "new music" scene. The academic new music usually presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra had endowed me with a strong, presumably permanent bias against the stuff American composers were writing. But I could see that the Orchestra 2001 performance created something coherent and interesting.

I knew I wasn't listening to a series of random sounds. The composer was obviously creating a mood— and it was a mood I felt I could understand. A bit of outside research— especially an essay by the New Yorker's music critic, Andrew Porter— confirmed my intuitive response.

Moods rooted in experience

Crumb may do odd things with odd instruments, but he is one of the most accessible composers now writing. At performances at Penn, I've been struck by the number of young people who clearly like his work. Crumb doesn't produce unusual sounds just to be different. He always has a purpose. His inventive orchestration creates moods and atmospheres that are deeply rooted in modern experiences.

A Haunted Landscape evokes the emotions associated with historic sites. Vox Ballaenae places the haunting songs of the whales on a darkened stage, peopled by musicians wearing masks. The Makrokosmos piano pieces conjure immense vistas of time and space, and that same cosmic landscape adds a lonely backdrop to Crumb's settings of Appalachian folksongs. You always know what he's doing and why.

A celebration

Crumb was approaching his 60th birthday 20 years ago and still working away. He seems to be just as active now that he's about to hit 80. Orchestra 2001 is celebrating the dawn of his ninth decade with a program that features selections from Crumb's most recent works, the six "volumes" of his American Songbooks. The Orchestra will play six selections from the first three volumes at the Perelman concert, and six from the second three at Swarthmore. The last volume received its premiere just a few months ago, and no one will be surprised if Crumb presents more premieres in the future.

Full disclosure time: Orchestra 2001 invited me to participate in the committee planning the birthday bash, and I did offer some minor suggestions at one meting. But I would have written this piece even if they hadn't bribed me with cookies and apple juice. Orchestra 2001's association with Crumb has been one of its major contributions.

His students do it their way

Crumb is a true American individualist. He created his own style during the years when American composers mostly seemed to be writing for the approval of their academic promotion committees. And he stuck to that style when the tide turned and they started writing music the rest of us can respond to.

It's significant that none of the composers who studied with him at Penn have aped his style. At another Crumb birthday celebration a few years ago, Jennifer Higdon presented a very funny piece that duplicated a number of Crumb's trademarks. She proved she could write exactly like Crumb if she wanted to. But she doesn't; she writes like Jennifer Higdon. And Crumb, in a number of statements, has made it very clear he likes it that way.♦

To read a review of the Crumb concert by Lesley Valdes, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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