A PORTRAIT OF GEORGE CRUMB
Tony Arnold, soprano
Robert Shannon, piano
David Starobin, guitar
George Crumb, percussion
Bridge Records (DVD)
American composer George Crumb, as we learn early in this delightful video, was born on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. He’s been an unsettling influence for people with fixed ideas about music ever since. Reasoning that we all have different DNA and life experiences, he states, “I have to distrust any school of composition that eliminates the persona of the individual composer.” Certainly, his footprint is different from that of other carbon-based life forms in the music profession. In this program of performance and interview, Volume 14 in Bridge Records’ George Crumb Edition, we get to know the composer in a very personal way. He may have his idiosyncrasies, but he is also utterly without pretence and filled with earnestness to communicate to his audience in a way that some of our other contemporaries would do well to cultivate.
Crumb is relatively well behaved in this program. There is no “spoken flute,” no pouring glass marbles into an open piano or any other aleatoric (i.e., random) technique. In fact, in Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music), the major work for extended piano in the middle of program, he is at pains to notate precisely what he expects of the performer. In this instance, it is pianist Robert Shannon, who does a fabulous job realizing a score in which he is required to play the piano in non-traditional, percussive ways involving considerable open-piano techniques.
The work is so-named because it consists of ruminations on Thelonius Monk’s “˜Round Midnight. Other composers have fooled around with the strings inside the piano, but none, I imagine, as well as Crumb. Shannon is continually on his feet, plucking or striking the strings with his hands or using them to play arpeggio like figures and palm clusters that impress the listener with their flights of fancy reinforcing the prevailing mood of the piece. From time to time, he strikes the metal crossbeams with a yarn-covered mallet, the repeated notes adding an eerie quality that enhances the nocturnal theme. (He does all that in addition to playing the keyboard without the benefit of a bench.) All these techniques serve the real purpose of extending Monk’s familiar main tune through a series of nine ruminations in which it drifts in and out of our consciousness like a dream without losing its character. In the process, we encounter mysterious block chords, mischievous staccato figures, nightmare distortions, forte passages, ringing triads, rocking or falling triplets, tritones, and even, in 6: Golliwog Revisited, an affectionate parody on Debussy’s famous Cakewalk, complete with that composer’s impudent dig at Wagner’s “Tristan” chord!
A special treat on this program is vocalist Tony Arnold. We hear from her first in Three Early Songs from Crumb’s 18th year: “Let It Be Forgotten” and “Wind Elegy” (texts by Sara Teasdale) and “Night” (Robert Southey. In case you haven’t noticed, a fascination with the night runs through Crumb’s music.) The composer himself terms these deeply felt early works, which he dedicated to his future wife Elizabeth Brown, reminiscent of Barber and Rachmaninov, though a close listening reveals his own “latent fingerprints.” More mature works heard here are a lively “Sit Down, Sister” (2003), based on the well known African-American spiritual and featuring the talents of all four members of the ensemble, and Apparition (1979), originally written for the unique voice of Jan DeGaetani and here rendered with the greatest vividness and luminosty by Arnold and Shannon. The latter-named work is based on extracts from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Significantly the verses are from the sequence in the poem known as the “Death Carol,” and not the Lincoln elegy with its rich symbolism of the drooping star and the song of the thrush that has inspired most of the other composers who have treated the subject. Tony Arnold’s pure tones, her cleanly rendered melismas, and her unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the text, all serve to convey Whitman’s paean to Death as the central point between life and a return to the universal life force.
And, yes, there’s broad humor in this program, primarily in two excerpts from Mundus Canis (A Dog’s Life) entitled “Fritzi” and “Yoda” and inspired by canine members of the Crumb household. Both are deft portraits that capture the personality of their subjects. Yoda, the fluffy white Bichon Frise that we see on the cover (I actually thought it was a stuffed toy until I watched the video) is characterized by scampering guitar passages and rasping percussive sounds, ending in the words “Bad Dog,” spoken by Crumb, which give the program its title. But a curious ambiguity persists: is Yoda the naughty dog of the title, or is it Crumb himself?