Classical Notes

A composer’s otherworldly resonances

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2009

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Composer George Crumb seems to reside in a world of specters, a world apart from the material, even a world away from Earth. A quick glance at the titles of works composed over more than five decades - “Black Angels,’’ “A Haunted Landscape,’’ “Makrokosmos,’’ “Star-Child,’’ “Otherworldly Resonances’’ - suggests a composer in touch with distant universes populated by unseen spirits. These mysterious domains are evoked in music of inexhaustible sonic invention.

But the image of Crumb as a messenger from alien worlds is complicated by the fact that he is a warm and surprisingly plainspoken man. During a phone interview from his home in Media, Pa., Crumb, 79, seems planted firmly in the terrestrial, speaking straightforwardly about his music and keeping the mystery to a minimum. In an easygoing drawl that nods to his West Virginia upbringing, he describes his settings of Appalachian folk songs, six books of which he has written over the last decade.

“I regretted that the music of the 20th century kind of left the whole connection with the voice of people and became kind of university music,’’ says the composer, who in one piano work referred to himself symbolically as “the phantom gondolier.’’ He admires Bartok, Mahler, and Ives - composers who never lost sight of the importance of musical vernaculars. “I hope that comes out in my works, because that’s something I’m looking for, that connection.’’

Next week the Bowdoin International Music Festival, where Crumb has been composer-in-residence several times, is paying homage to the composer in advance of his 80th birthday. His singer-actor daughter, Ann, will premiere a new cycle of songs on poems of Federico García Lorca, a poet who has fascinated Crumb since his first important works of the 1960s. “So I’m closing the circle again,’’ he says of returning to Lorca, “but I hope I can break it open later if I have some more ideas and find another way to experiment.’’

Crumb began to find his way as a composer by experimenting with sound. Other composers, such as John Cage and Henry Cowell, were also testing new approaches to instruments, but Crumb dates his interest to his childhood, when he immersed himself in the music of Debussy. “He elevated sound almost to an equal of harmony or rhythm, any of those basic elements,’’ he explains. “Sound almost became structural, especially in a work like ‘Afternoon of a Faun.’ ’’

In one song from the Lorca cycle “Ancient Voices of Children,’’ written in 1970, a pianist drags a chisel over the strings of the piano to produce an eerie, flutelike tone. Crumb gives a whole paragraph’s worth of instruction to the pianist on what kind of chisel to use, where on the string to apply it, how fast to move it, and so on. The passage lasts no more than a minute.

Beside the new sounds, an esoteric spirituality underlies much of Crumb’s work. There are Zodiac images in the piano cycle “Makrokosmos’’ and terrifying settings of medieval apocalyptic writings in the enormous cantata “Star-Child.’’ Performers are often instructed to chant and shout in various languages.

And there is his most famous piece, “Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land’’ for electric string quartet. The work is structured as a spiritual voyage: Its three sections are titled Departure, Absence, and Return. It is filled with references to angels and devils, as well as to the numbers seven and 13. “Black Angels’’ was written in 1970, and Crumb inscribed the words “In tempore belli’’ (“In time of war’’) at the end, which is why it is often tagged as an antiwar piece. But what is so terrifyingly enacted in “Black Angels’’ isn’t Vietnam or the protests against the war; it is the metaphysical battle of good and evil.

“It scares me sometimes,’’ the composer says of the work. “I’ve never written a piece quite like that - I couldn’t write another one, I don’t think. Sometimes when I hear it I think, my goodness, where did that come from?’’

When Crumb talks about these dark cosmologies, he mentions an abiding interest in the writings of mystics, as well as of Edgar Allan Poe, which makes the topic sound academic. When pressed, though, he admits the interest is personal as well.

“I think it reflects pretty much what I believe,’’ he says, adding that he was brought up squarely in the Bible Belt. “But at some point I began to question whether there couldn’t be many paths to spirituality; I guess that diversity impressed me as a truth in itself. And I’ve always believed in strange things, like a lot of people do. There are probably trillions of inhabited worlds out there we know nothing about. They wouldn’t have heard about our terrestrial religions.’’

The visual aspect of Crumb’s music is as striking as its aural expression. His scores are written in an ornate, highly symbolic style in which staves of music often run in circles and spirals; some of the more intricate scores are almost works of art in themselves. He says that the unusual graphic style was more a matter of instinct than careful plan. “I’m so embarrassed because I can’t account for it myself,’’ he says. “It seemed right to me, but I have no rational explanation for this kind of notation.’’

Crumb has been notably less prolific in recent decades, something he says has been due to increasing immersion in teaching. (He retired in 1995 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught for more than 30 years.) But his imagination was sparked by his daughter’s request to revisit the Appalachian folk songs he remembered from his youth. “The music is so beautiful, so real in its own right,’’ he says of the tunes he sets in the American Songbook series. In addition to the singer, his settings call for a piano and percussion quartet, though he says, “I try not to take away from the very strong melodic sense of the original tune. My own effort is all in the background.’’

Crumb is also overseeing a complete recording of his works on the Bridge label; the indispensable series has reached 13 volumes, including four of the Songbook settings. He insists, though, that there is more music to be written. Somewhat abashedly, he mentions that he has a commission from the New York Philharmonic that has gone unfulfilled for more than 20 years.

“I’m a slow composer, in any case,’’ he says with a great guffaw of laughter. “Unfortunately, I don’t share any of Mozart’s ability to write great music quickly.’’

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