Celebrating George Crumb

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CRUMB: Dream Sequence (Images II) / Alexander Balanescu, vln; Rohan de Saram, cel; Douglas Young, pno; James Wood, perc/glass harm / Sonata for Solo Cello / de Saram, cel / Vox Balaenae / Kathryn Lukas, fl; de Saram, cel; Young, pno / Ensemble Dreamtiger / First Hand Records FHR130

I may have missed one CD, but to my knowledge this is the first album of George Crumb’s music to be released since his death, and I was utterly delighted to see that Rohan de Saram, one of the living cellists I most admire—not just because of his gorgeous tone and excellent musical style, but because he tends to specialize in modern music (as does American Matt Hainovitz)—is prominently featured here. The rest of his colleagues come from a chamber group formed in 1973 with the express purpose of exploring “music, old and new, from around the world,” Ensemble Dreamtiger, and it figures that I had never heard of them before. If you don’t specialize in the old-timey music that’s been around since Victoria was the Queen of England, you don’t get much promotion.

I rush to point out, however, that this is a reissue of an album originally recorded at a Dutch radio station in 1978, and so not technically a new album.

Of the pieces presented here, the only one I had in my collection, and thus was familiar with, was Vox Balaenae or Voice of the Whales for flute, cello & piano. We start off with Dream Sequence (Images II), composed in 1976 for violin, cello, piano and a percussionist who also plays an “offstage glass harmonica.” The latter is divided into two players, one using a glass harmonica consisting of three crystal goblets and the other using four, but since only James Wood is credited in the booklet as percussionist, I assume that he is playing both, probably dubbed in on tape. Although Crumb described this piece as representing “shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses,” the notes also tell us that the core of the work is the “high ethereal drone (reminiscent of Japanese Gagaku music), the piano and tuned percussion, [which] all circle around the famous chord in Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, movement 3, Farben (Colors). The original title of that movement was Summer Morning by a Lake.”

But even the score of Dream Sequence is bizarre, being one of Crumb’s “shaped” scores, which I would think is extremely difficult for musicians to decipher. Here is a sample page, part of which was included in the CD’s booklet:

Dream Sequence

You will note that amidst the percussion instruments are “5 Japanese temple bells,” and it is these plus the glass harmonica(s) that create the eerie droning effect. My readers know that I detest modern-day “ambient” music because it is usually soft, slow, tonal and drippy, but Crumb, one of the pioneers of ambient music, was NEVER tonal and drippy. Even in his slow, soft music, as here, he was harmonically and texturally adventurous to a fault. Like Harry Partch before him, he created sounds never previously heard by human ears out of instruments that were, in other contexts, quite “normal”-sounding, and Dream Sequence is clearly one of these. Both the theme statement, fragmented and almost as an allusion rather than a solid statement, and the variants move very slowly, building incrementally over a period of time. But it’s such a hypnotic piece that you can’t take your ears off it. Being a dream, one does not reach a fulfillment so much as just one dream stage after another. Each of the three solo instruments play individually and independently of one another, adding their minimalist contributions in bits and pieces, fits and starts, but never quite conclusions.

The solo cello sonata, composed as far back as 1955 in Berlin, is more reminiscent of Zoltán Kodály’s excellent 1915 cello sonata than of the kind of music prevalent in Germany in the ‘50s, which would have been either the influence of Schoenberg or Hindemith. Although Crumb was not yet “really” the Crumb we know from about 1964 onward, it is still a creative piece, occasionally using some light microtonal effects, and played superbly here by the then-39-year-old de Saram. The second movement, with its moving harmonies, borders on the atonal, while in the third Crumb throws in a (for him) quite jazzy syncopated rhythm, which de Saram captures perfectly.

Vox Balaenae, one of his most famous and technically difficult works (which includes some singing along with the music by the flautist, while playing his or her instrument), is also given a superb reading. This deeply affecting work is more modal than usual for Crumb at this stage of his development (1971), by which time he had written the completely atonal Ancient Voices of Children which became a surprise classical “hit” album on Nonesuch (sung by the late, lamented Jan de Gaetani), but it still fits into his style of the time, particularly by having the pianist play the inner strings of the instrument. The cello plays undulating, ambient figures to suggest a whale, then high held notes on the edge of its strings. This is as good a performance as the one by flautist Jan Krzeszowiec, pianist Malgorzata Zarębińska and cellist Marcin Misiak on the Dux label, and I think this recording even has more ambience around the instruments.

Wow, what a great tribute to Crumb. If you don’t have all three of these works (I didn’t) already, this is an indispensable CD for you.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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