Nic Gerpe’s “Makrokosmos 50 Project”


CRUMB: Makrokosmos, Book I. IVANOVA: Karkata. NAVARRO: Crumbling. WOLFGANG: The Patience of Water. GUINIVAN: SIGNAL…In Which We Long for Connection. GERPE: Ghost of the Manticore. ELLIOTT MILLER: The Celestial Crown. CUONG: Scaling Back. HERNDON: Circle Of. LYONS: The Transcendence of Time. T. PETERSON: Aries. BANSAL: …through cracked mirrors. OSBORNE: Supernova / Nic Gerpe, pianist / self-produced album, limited edition of hard copies available at, also available for streaming or purchase at Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Quboz & Bandcamp


Nic Gerpe

Nic Gerpe is a Los Angeles-based pianist whose passion and specialty is modern music, thus you’ve probably never heard of him (I hadn’t). Here, he celebrates the 50th anniversary of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos with performances of Book I, supplemented by original compositions of other composers, including himself, inspired by Makrokosmos.

The title is a reversal of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or “Microcosm”; Crumb titled his work Makromosmos or “Macrososm.” A microcosm is, of course, literally means “a little world,” figuratively “a world within a world,” whereas a macrocosm means the whole of a complex structure, usually referring to our entire world and the universe it is a part of. When writing this work, Crumb was also inspired by Debussy’s Preludes, what he described as “the darker side of Chopin” and “the child-like fantasy of Schumann.” There are a few other recordings of both Book I and the complete version which runs to four books the fourth is also titled Celestial Mechanics), all by small labels: Musiques Suisses (by Emmy Heinz-Dièmand, Books I & II), Wergo (Enrico Belli) and CAVi-Music (Martin Klett, both of whom combines just Book I with Debussy’s Preludes), Kairos (Books I-III played by Yoshiko Shimizu) and Classico (the only recording which includes all four books, since No. 3 is for 2 pianos and percussion and No. 4 is for two or three  pianists).

As I’ve said many times, one “problem” with most contemporary music is that, unlike the old-timey stuff, there is no “performance tradition,” few if any alternate ways to play the music. It is what it is, the notes and directions for volume, tempo, pedaling and phrasing in the score being the directives one must follow. In one way, this is good; we don’t have to put up with musical midgets like Vladimir Horowitz, Evgeny Kissen, Daniel Barenboim or Boris Giltburg distorting and ruining much of the music they play with their wrong-headed “interpretations,” but on the other hand it means that once you have a good recording of a particular modern piece you’ve pretty much got it, period, and don’t need others.

Since I own the Shimizu recording of Books I-III, this is the version I re-listened to in order to compare it to Gerpe’s performance which, not surprisingly, I found to be very similar. Perhaps the difference is that his forte passages are even more strongly played than Shimizu’s, and the recorded sound of the piano here is even more realistic-sounding, as if the instrument were right in the room with you. But make no mistake, I’d much rather review a new recording of George Crumb’s music than anything by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt or even Beethoven, who has been done to death far too many times. As soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan said when she was auditioning singers for a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress that she was going to direct and conduct, “Just listening to all of this music over and over in auditions convinces me that I made the right choice” because she could stand to listen to this quality music multiple times without wanting to slash her wrists.

In making my comment about Gerpe playing this music more strongly than Shimizu, it reminds me of Marcantonio Barone’s performances of Crumb’s Metamorphoses on Bridge, which are similarly played, and Barone’s performances were praised by Crumb himself (the cover photo of the CD shows performer and composer together). After all, Crumb was an American composer, not a French, Swiss or German, thus he enjoyed emotionally direct performances of his music.

For those who haven’t heard the music before, it is everything Crumb wanted it to be. Mostly using the lower range of the piano to create eerie rumbling chords and an atmosphere of menace, he also occasionally has the pianist play the inside strings of his instrument as in No. 4 (“Crucifixus”), where the performer is also asked to yell out an incoherent word or two. Whether you respond to it or not, this was Crumb’s gift, to capture in sound what I refer to as “the dark side of the moon,” a sound world that us considerably darker than Pink Floyd’s album of the same name. I also wonder if anyone else besides me has ever noticed a strong kinship between Crumb and György Ligeti. At least, that’s how I feel about his music. And such dark feelings and seem all the stranger coming from a guy who was born and raised in West Virginia and looked like the kindly old mom-and-pop grocery store owner down the street from you. (Ligeti, at least, looked like a vampire from Transylvania, which suited his music.) Taken on its own merits, then, this performance of Makrokosmos Book I is a superb one. Just listening to it, you feel as if you’re right there in the room with Gerpe as he plays, shouts, and occasionally whistles the music.

But of course this is only half the album. The second half consists of 12 pieces written by as many composers as a response or commentary on Crumb’s Makrokosmos. The only composer whose name I recognize in this list is Gernot Wolfgang, and the only reason I know him is that he generally writes a fair amount of jazz-influenced classical works, which I happen to enjoy a good deal. But he’s certainly not a household name, just as the others are not.



First up is Vera Ivanova’s Karkata, the Sanskrit word for the fourth sign of the zodiac, Cancer, which of course means nothing because the whole concept of the zodiac is simply a myth, Using techniques similar to Crumb, Ivanova nonetheless creates her own sound-world, using what I would define as more “concrete”-sounding, less “ambient” music. Beneath its hard shell of sound, it also bears a strange resemblance to Oriental music in its harmonic construction. Here, too, Gerpe plays it with a strong attack, bringing out its repeated eighth-note rhythms with some force. The second half of this piece contains some quite busy figures, to which Gerpe imparts an almost Russian feeling of forcefulness and forward impetus.





But if you think Ivanova’s piece sounds forceful, wait until you hear Fernanda Aoki Navarro’s Crumbling. This piece uses syncopation in an extremely unusual manner, at times sounding as if the rhythms were doubling back on themselves to create incredibly dense non-linear rhythms and at other times almost as if it were a jazz-influenced piece. Indeed, the rhythm is the message in this extraordibnary and fascinating piece, although in the coda everything slows down and is reduced to very basic essentials. Wolfgang’s The Patience of Water, based on the third movement of Makrokosmos (Pastorale [Taurus]), is, by contrast, very Crumb-like though concentrating on the middle and upper ranges of the keyboard rather than the bass range. This could easily pass, even to academics, as a formerly unknown piece by Crumb himself, which is a compliment to the composer. It’s relatively wasy to write a piece that sounds like Mozart or Beethoven, but Crumb is truly a different universe.



With that being said, Eric Guinivan’s SIGNAL is also very close in form and spirit to the original, consisting of brief motifs which almost sound like pealing bells, using quite a bit of pedal and a little of playing the inside strings of the piano. The composer states that it is both based on Crumb’s Crucifixus movement and “the WiFi logo, symbolizing our desire for connectedness with one another.” But I’m more convinced that Guinivan is speaking for himself; since I don’t have and will never have WiFi and don’t particularly like “connectedness” with people because all they do, as Carole King once sang, is :use you and abuse you…they’ll take your soul if you let them.” So keep your WiFi to yourself and your friends, Eric. Don’t count me in.



Not too surprisingly, Gerpe’s own Ghosts of Manticore is a strong piece in terms of power and volume in certain passages. It is also quite Crumb-like although, if one compares it to the 12 pieces in this original Makrokosmos set, it is generally faster and more aggressive. Here, Gerpe uses the inside piano strings not to pluck but to run his fingernails over as if playing a zither—an unusual and striking effect—but make no mistake, this music has real structure and is not just a collection or string of effects. Alexander Elliott Miller’s The Celestial Crown is, by contrast, surprisingly delicate, even melodic which is something Crumb avoided much (but not all) of the time in his own set except when quoting Chopin’s tune that later became the popular song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows or the Appalachian hymn Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.

Viet Cuong




Scaling Back was written by Viet Cuong, an American-born composer of Vietnamese descent who studied at Peabody, Princeton and the Curtis Institute. The music consists mostly of fast figures played against one another. Julie Herndon’s Circle Of is exceptional, a gorgeous piece of modern music using tonality but not mawkish or sentimental in any way, using single-not e lines in the middle of the keyboard. Some of the “halo-like” sounds which she elicits from the lower range of the keyboard are extraordinary, sounding almost like an electric piano.

Gilda Lyons




The next piece is Gilda Lyons’ The Transcendence of Time, and here, too, we get music that sounds so much like Crumb that the similarity is eerie (including shouts from the pianist, playing the inside strings, and those incredible low bass rumbles). Timothy Peterson’s Aries is also very Crumb-like, though here concentrating on the chime-like quality of the piano’s upper range rather than its rumbling bottom. (I hope the reader does not assume that when I say that a piece is very Crumb-like that I am disparaging the composer. On the contrary, I consider it a high compliment since, after all, these works are supposed to complement Makrokosmos, not be in such a different style that they don’t fit in.)





Juhi Bansal’s …through cracked mirrors is more reflective of what Crumb called the dark side of Chopin, but this, too fits into the Makrokosmos mold. Her music is surprisingly florid, somewhat melodic but not conventionally so, and yet this florid style disintegrates into a Crumb-like mood in places. It’s a fascinating piece. We end our excursion with Thomas Osborne’s Supernova, where he channels the last movement of Makrokosmos. It’s a very busy piece, full of spidery fast figures in the upper range of the piano with the right hand while the left rumbles and occasionally crashes chords.

This is, on balance, an extraordinary album, and I give Gerpe all the credit in the world for organizing it, funding it through Kickstarter, and commissioning these eleven other composers to contribute to it. Would that we had more albums like this in the classical world; it would be a much more interesting place to visit.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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