May 5, 2011

Composers A-Z: Crumb

Last time we met I gave the impression that I would write this about Freddy Chopin. Shortly after finishing that post (read: 30 seconds) I thought, hey wait a tic, shouldn't I write about a more obscure, hipster-loved composer? But since Phillip Glass is still a couple of letters away (even his cousins are hipsters!), I'm going to write about George Crumb.

George Crumb, in the garden, with the chair (1929-   )

George Crumb, like John Cage, is well known among freshman music students as "the guy who does weird stuff to the piano." Unfortunately, that riveting description fails to describe Crumb as the inventor and architect of sound that he is. A piano teacher one time explained to me that the reason he isn't fond of Crumb's work is that it lacks the meaning and purpose of other piano compositions, and is essentially a series of "pretty sounds." I actually agree with this to a certain extent, but I also don't believe that music has to have explicit meaning, so the fact that Crumb's works are a series of sounds doesn't bother me. And really, the sounds are wicked awesome.

Crumb pieces (and here I'm going to talk entirely about his piano works) are essentially a series of "sound events" but not in the way that some other composers do it. There isn't anything overwhelmingly aleatoric, and the music is mostly written out in meters with precise rhythmic writing, and they often have some sort of discernible form, but to the listener they come across as a journey of creative colors and events. When I've performed Crumb, people often come up after the performance and want to talk about "that one sound" and "how did you do it?" It's a very different experience from listening to a Mozart piece where the listener can "love the second theme" or in a Beethoven concerto where "the cadenza was riveting." When talking about Crumb, you talk about timbres instead of themes.

Crumb uses what is broadly known as "extended technique". This means plucking the piano strings, slapping the bass strings, knocking on the wood of the piano, using pedal techniques, and in general doing a whole bunch of things that you're told never to do. To play Crumb, you have to learn a whole new set of techniques, and get to explore the piano in ways that no other composer will allow. This is what excites me about Crumb. The pianist, who is normally trapped within one set of sounds (although you can achieve many different colors on the keys alone) gets to explore a huge range of timbres, and can even create the effect that there are multiple instruments playing at the same time. For example, in the movement "Canticle of the Holy Night" from A Little Suite for Christmas, AD 1979, Crumb uses plucking and strumming at the same time as normal "on the keys" playing. By layering different timbres, the pianist gets to become a one-person-band and create the impression of a variety of instruments playing at once. Here is a video of me playing this movement. I put the camera inside the piano to give a better idea of the extended technique, so the audio is a little distorted.

Crumb also uses "prepared piano" techniques, most commonly associated with John Cage, specifically in his Sonatas and Interludes. Crumb doesn't usually go to quite the extent that Cage does with his piano modification, but some of his pieces call for things to be placed on the strings that will alter the sound somewhat. The majority of his piano works don't call for this kind of preparation. With the proper training, his pieces are very safe for the piano, despite how they look, and once the pianist learns the required techniques they are not overwhelmingly difficult to perform.

Despite any ease in performance, the pieces are difficult to learn. Crumb's rhythmic notations are exceedingly specific, and their organization on the page can me intimidating for many pianists.

As a piano teacher himself, Crumb's pieces work for the piano very well. He often works in patterns (although it can be difficult to figure out what patterns are) and you rarely have to make awkward contortions or un-pianistic alterations for the sake of the score. His piano output is somewhat limited, although all of the pieces he has put out are of high quality.

His first piece, and the most typical "entry-level" piece for pianists is the Five Pieces for Piano. These pieces are a great place to begin, although some of the techniques, such as the trill on the strings, are difficult to pull off, and are so quiet that they don't always make sense. The Little Suite for Christmas that I played (see top video) is another popular piece that I found very accessible to the performer and the audience alike. It helps that the piece is programmatic and gives the audience some sort of general thread to hold on to. I would highly recommend this work to a pianist interested in playing Crumb's music but intimidated by the larger works.

Crumb's most famous piano work is the Makrokosmos set. It is divided into four books, the first two written for solo amplified piano (the pianos have to be amplified in order to hear some of the more subtle effects), the third titled Music for a Summer Evening for two pianos and percussion, and the fourth titled Celestial Mechanics, for four-hands, one piano. Many of these pieces are written in unorthodox ways, with the scores laid out as symbols on the page, in peace signs, or spirals as can be seen below:

Many of the pieces are of a mystical nature and require the performer to scratch at the strings, tap on the piano, and even sing, whistle, or moan. Listening to the whole cycle can be an extremely rewarding experience.

Crumb has a few lesser known works for piano as well. The Gnomic Variations is a set of variations (divided into three large parts) that are extremely creative in their take on the traditional genre. Variations are a genre with a long history and Crumb uses extended technique to provide a new compositional tool. The set is extremely virtuosic and is on the highest end of difficulty as far as Crumb's piano works are concerned.

Some of Crumb's other pieces include a Processional for Solo Piano, a Prelude and Toccata, and interestingly, and most recently, Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik which uses themes and motives from the jazz-standard "Round Midnight" by Thelonius Monk.

Part of the challenge of playing these pieces can be the difficulty of "pulling it off", meaning creating a performance that is musically convincing. Audiences can be understandably startled by a piece that involves slapping strings and chanting mysterious words. Playing these pieces requires the pianist to dedicate themselves fully to the experience and take it seriously in order to convince the audience that the piece is valuable.

Crumb's pieces for piano do have a tendency to sound like a "series of pretty sounds" but they also exist in a space outside of the traditional Western-Classical tradition. They cannot be analyzed or heard through the same lens as a Beethoven or Chopin, or even many other pieces from the contemporary period. Crumb may not be for everyone, and the unorthodox use of the piano may be off-putting, but audiences generally enjoy the pieces once they get over the initial shock of the performance. Crumb's pieces are a valuable part of the contemporary piano repertoire and should be performed more often.

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