CD Reviews





Thomas Conlin, Conductor

George Crumb: Orchestral Music

George Crumb: A Haunted Landscape

Program Notes by the composer

A Haunted Landscape is not programmatic in any sense. The title reflects my feelings that certain places on planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery: I can vividly recall the “shock of recognition” I felt on seeing Andalusia for the first time after having been involved with the poetry of Garcia Lorca for many years. I felt a similar sense of déjà vu on visits to Jerusalem and to Delphos in Greece. Even in the West Virginia woods, one senses the ghosts of the vanished Indians. Places can inspire feelings of reverence or of brooding menace (like the deserted battlefields of ancient wars). Sometimes one feels an idyllic sense of time suspended. The contemplation of a landscape can induce complex psychological states, and perhaps music is an ideal medium for delineating the tiny, subtle nuances of emotion and sensibility that hover between the subliminal and the conscious.

The orchestra for A Haunted Landscape is of normal size (winds in threes, etc.) except for the percussion section, which is enormous. In addition to the timpani there are four other percussionists playing some forty-five different instruments, including such exoticisms as Cambodian angklungs (a kind of bamboo xylophone/wind chime), Japanese Kabuki blocks, a Brazilian cuica (a friction drum), Caribbean steel drums, and an Appalachian hammered dulcimer. The amplified piano is also treated as a percussion instrument with the playing occurring on the strings and crossbeams inside the instrument. The two harp players are sometimes asked to tap the sounding boards with their knuckles.

In addition, two solo double basses tune their low C strings down to B-flat and, by overlapping each other, sustain this pitch very softly throughout the work. I had imagined that this low B-flat (sixty cycles, the frequency of alternating current) was an immutable law of nature and represented a kind of “cosmic drone.” But, alas, science defeats art. A chemist friend informed me that alternating current is arbitrarily determined by man, and that B-flat in not even international, much less intergalactic!

George Crumb: Echoes of Time and the River

Program Notes by Steven Bruns

George Crumb’s oeuvre includes many startlingly original achievements, but his 1967 orchestra work, Echoes of Time and the River, is surely among his most daring creations.

The piece was commissioned by the University of Chicago for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1968, before the composer had turned forty. Aspects of the work are anticipated in earlier instrumental literature, from the timbral and spatial effects in Gabrieli and Berlioz to those in Mahler, Debussy, and Bartók. Few other orchestral compositions, however, present such a dazzling array of challenges for conductor, players, and listeners alike. The composer has emphasized that, despite its title, Echoes of Time and the River has no connection with Thomas Wolfe’s novel and that it is not programmatic. Mr. Crumb “wanted to express in musical terms the various qualities of metaphysical and psychological time.” Careful study of the score reveals that the composition explores – one might even say it deconstructs – aspects of time, space, memory, and the act of musical performance.

Each movement includes processionals, during which small groups of players move in carefully choreographed step-patterns around the stage. Crumb asks performers to enter and exit the performance space in later compositions, but Echoes is by far the most elaborate instance of his experiments with spatial, theatrical effects. The score contains diagrams for the location of the performers in each of the four movements, as well as the path each processional is to follow across the concert platform.

In the first movement, Frozen Time, three of the six percussionists process from the far-right apron of the stage to the rear left-hand corner. Near the close of the movement, the mandolinist stands at center stage, and as he plays, moves to the front-left edge of the stage, eventually disappearing into the wings. Six wind players stand in a row along the rear right of the stage, where they play tuned antique cymbals, and they exit when the mandolin procession begins. The aural relationships of the various parts are thereby enriched by the shifting spatial locations of the players. For concert audiences, the effect is further enhanced by the visual choreography of the performance. In this unfamiliar context – where players move about the stage in a quasi-ritualized fashion – one also grows intensely aware of the spatial relationships of the performers who remain fixed in their stage positions. As is so often the case in Crumb’s music, the familiar begins to seem strange, and vice versa.

Resonant, ringing sonorities are everywhere in George Crumb’s music. In this work, however, the composer uses the echo as an especially potent symbol: the echo calls attention to the existence of sound in time and in space. The lingering “after-voices” of each initial sound are persistent reminders that the sound is continuing over time. The score calls for effects that are “like ghostly bells,” “distant,” or invisible (because they emanate from off-stage). At least since Ovid’s retelling of the ancient myth, the haunting voice of echo has been associated with lonely caves, woods, mountain slopes, and other natural landscapes, Indeed, the composer has often mentioned the echoing acoustic of Appalachian river valleys as a primal influence on his music. Crumb exhaustively develops the central theme of the echo, and a selective list of samples just begins to suggest the richness of this score.

The orchestra is replete with resonant, ringing instruments: from the bells, chimes, and gongs of the enormous percussion battery to characteristic inside-the-piano effects. Nearly every page of the score includes ideas that are imitated in close succession. For example, just after the opening seven percussion strokes, three offstage trombonists play barely audible low-register glissandi. Their darkly mysterious solos echo and overlap one another, evoking as they do a music that is distant both in space and time. Near the end of the first movement, the mandolin solo is twice imitated by percussionists who produce delicate mandolin-like tremolos by striking the piano strings with hard mallets. As in so many other Crumb pieces, the imitative echoes here are inexact, as if they are slightly distorted, lingering memories of a “distant music.”

At the opening of the second movement, Remembrance of Time, nine brass players are positioned along the front of the stage, where they will play “a distant wind music,” to be performed “as from afar, almost imperceptible (ghostly, hushed).” The nine players evoke a rising and falling wind sound by blowing through their instruments, and then the three trombonists whisper – in a closely-spaced, echoing sequence – a brief quotation from Federico Garcia Lorca: “Los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo” (“The broken arches where time suffers”). The second movement culminates in two complex, echoing webs of imitation in the form of Circle Music. The first Circle Music involves the three clarinets, six percussionists, and three off-stage trumpets. The second, answering Circle Music replaces the clarinets with two piccolos and a flute. In both passages, the segments for each player are notated around three circles, a notation that reinforces the aural effect of the swirling, exuberant counterpoint. As before, the imitations are fragmented and inexact. A further halo of echoes is produced here, because the onstage wind players aim their instruments as close as possible to the sympathetically vibrating piano strings.

Circle Music recurs at the end of the third movement, Collapse of Time, this time played by brass trios, and in one of the circles, by pianos, vibraphone, harp, and offstage mandolin. The fourth movement, Last Echoes of Time, opens with a multi-layered series of echoes. Crumb labels the components of one imitative series respectively as “A” Music, First Echo of “A” Music, and Second Echo of “A” Music. The “A” Music features percussion, flutes and clarinets, and piano. Simultaneously, strings, percussion, and piano play “B” Music, also with two echoes. In both the “A” and “B” music, the echoes are staggered one measure apart, at an extremely slow tempo, with five main pulses per bar. Each entrance is signaled by a player striking a perfect-fifth on the antique cymbals. The “A” Music wind players then exit the stage. Echoing sequences of “A” and “B” music happen twice more, in varied form, and we hear along the way fragmentary echoes from the three earlier movements. The composition moves gradually toward a hushed, deeply expressive simplicity, and the final imitative whistling figures seem to dissolve into the blowing wind.

Included in the rich tapestry of internal echoes are two memories from Crumb’s youth. Near the start of the piece, groups of performers whisper the state motto of West Virginia, “Montani semper liberi!” (“Mountaineers are always free!”). The motto is repeated throughout the composition, sometimes with an ironic question mark added. Echoes of Time and the River also contains the first instance of musical quotation in Crumb, an important technique in his later compositions. At the end of the third movement, the strings serenely intone muted fragments from the revival hymn, Were You There When They Crucified The Lord? Characteristically, the passage is marked “a distant music.” Both of these echoes point to places distant in time and space, memories of which linger during the musical present.

George Crumb: Star-Child

Program Notes by the composer

Star-Child, completed in March, 1977, was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and written for Irene Gubrud, soprano, and Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic. The score bears a dedication to my two sons, David and Peter.

Star-Child represents my largest work in terms of the performing forces required. (Most of my writing has been concentrated in the chamber dimension, and even my earlier orchestral music is fairly modest in its instrumentation.) It seems to me that when a Latin text is involved, a large, monolithic quality is suggested. Also, I was interested in constructing a work with the maximum contrasts of textures and timbres. However, the full weight of the orchestra is employed only in the Apocalyptica section, with its driving rhythms and sustained fortissimo.

The title was suggested by another of my works, Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), in which there is a section called Hymn for the Advent of the Star-Child. In addition there are certain pertinent references in Star-Child’s Latin texts to “children of light” in the Biblical quote (in Hymn for the New Age) and to finding the light in a world of darkness (in Advent of the Children of Light). Binding the work together is a sense of progression from darkness (or despair) to light (or joy and spiritual realization) as expressed by both music and text – a conception that is at the same time medieval and romantic. For instance, the idea of dark and light is reflected in the orchestration, for the earlier sections of Star-Child favor the darker instruments (the lower brass, bassoon, contrabassoon), while near the end the effect is quite different when the children sing amidst the luminous sounds of handbells, antique cymbals, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. However, there is no esoteric, philosophical basis to Star-Child. It is simply a work within the tradition of music having a finale which expresses the hope that, after a struggle, or after dark implications, there is something beyond. I feel too, that the Latin texts transcend doctrine and convey universal meaning.

Four conductors are required for Star-Child, two primary and two secondary. Conductor I conducts all the vocal passages and also all of the winds and six of the percussionists until the concluding portion of the work. Conductor II conducts all the strings and two of the percussionists throughout. During the Hymn for the New Age the winds divide into smaller groupings, and at this point Conductor III directs the brass instruments and three percussionists while Conductor IV leads the clarinets, flutes, and vibraphone. For this recording Thomas Conlin conducted all four ensembles separately, with the result being edited and mixed under my supervision. Because the vertical coordination between ensembles is always slightly different in Star-Child, editing between takes would not have been possible without employing this method of recording.

Star-Child is continuous, despite sectional divisions. The germinal idea, Music of the Spheres (strings, pianissimo), moves throughout the work in a circular and therefore static manner, a kind of background music over which the human drama is enacted.

This idea consists of a continuum of chords built upon the interval of a perfect fifth. Over these slow-moving strains of “suspended” music I have superimposed (in the manner of Charles Ives!) a sequence of boldly contrasting musics. The necessity for four conductors arose from the fact that each music has its own tempo and metrics. (Metrics tend to be odd-numbered: the opening music is in 11/4 time, the entire Apocalyptica in 5/16, and there are other sections based on sevens and threes.) The four conductors do not synchronize and therefore all sense of vertical alignment between them is erased. I had even imagined that the “visual counterpoint” of the four-fold conducting would produce a choreography of its own.

Star-Child contains a number of programmatic or pictorial allusions. The seven trumpets of the apocalypse are represented, quite literally, by seven trumpets – two in the orchestra and five positioned around the auditorium. This extended passage of trumpet cadenzas climaxes with a heroic high F on the fateful seventh trumpet. Also the four horsemen of the apocalypse are represented, not quite so literally, by four drummers playing sixteen tom-toms. Dies Irae is quoted at several points in a rather surreal whole-tone transformation: the first phrase of it is extensively used in the Apocalyptica, while its three phrases comprise the soft brass music that accompanies the children’s chorus at the end. Voice Crying in the Wilderness, with a text consisting of extracts from the Dies Irae, is a long duet for solo soprano and solo trombonist. (The trombonist is in front of the orchestra for this section.) The “voice” is therefore a composite voice, with the trombone functioning as a kind of doppelgänger.

Star-Child’s eight percussionists play a wide range of instruments. Some of the more characteristic are: iron chains, flexatones, pot lids (struck with metal beaters), sizzle cymbals, a metal thunder sheet, log drums, and a wind machine. Some of the more usual instruments are required in pairs, e.g., vibraphones, sets of timpani, bass drums, and tubular bells. Since the percussion instruments are arranged in a semi-circular fashion around the orchestra, their multicolored timbres are textures totally impregnate the orchestral fabric.