George Crumb hears the heartbeat of America

Reporting from Media, Pa. —

Despite having turned 81 less than three weeks ago, American composer George Crumb remains deeply absorbed in his craft. The native of Charleston, W.V., has been nestled in his suburban Philadelphia home for 45 years. Thanks to an Emeritus professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, he can afford to not compose on commission. “I have always been a slow writer,” he confesses.

Slow he may be, but he is by no means uninspired. He composes every morning and rewards himself with a scotch and water — or two — in the late afternoon.

To say that he wears his prestige lightly is an understatement; it would be better to say he does not wear it at all. Tall and slightly portly in loose-fitting pants, a collared shirt and woolen vest, Crumb seems almost uncannily ordinary. His home, which he shares with his wife and son, would seem a touch too large for just three people if it were not for the Crumbs’ extended family, which numbers five dogs of varying sizes and breeds.

Even his studio is entirely divested of pretense: It is, in fact, the renovated garage of the house, recently adapted to his present purpose after Crumb relinquished his beautiful, spacious workroom at the back of the house (“It was so large I felt lost there and could not work”). Only the piles of published scores with his name on it and a few gigantic black binders of scraps from the past four decades give a clue to his his extraordinary musical career.


Indeed, Crumb’s music goes back a long way. Though he has been active as a composer since the late ‘40s, the unique voice that affirmed his leading place in today’s musical world came after years of development. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1968 but truly found his voice in 1970, with the piece “Black Angels” for electric string quartet. With that composition — his most widely known work to this day — Crumb adapted other composers’ post-serial experiments with timbre to an extended tonality laced through with symbolism ranging from numerology to unorthodox score layout and pointed references to music other than his own.

Crumb’s latest long-term musical project is a seven-installment “American Songbook” for female voice, percussion quartet and amplified piano. Originally intended to be on a much smaller scale (a single book of American songs for the composer’s daughter Ann, a Broadway actor and singer), it has taken on a life of its own and has grown seven-fold over nine years; the last volume is due for completion in a few months.

Four of the completed volumes have been recorded and have entered the concert-hall repertoire across the country. Los Angeles will hear “River of Life (Songs of Joy and Sorrow) — American Songbook No. 1" Tuesday in a Green Umbrella performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, starring soprano Tony Arnold and the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, with by the young French Canadian conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie. Arnold is something of a Crumb veteran, having already recorded Crumb’s earlier “Ancient Voices of Children” (which is also on Tuesday’s program) for Bridge Records.

Five months later and two-thousand miles away, Thomas Hampson will perform selections from all six completed books with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the Library of Congress in Washington on April 28 and at Alice Tully Hall in New York City the following day. And back in California, director Peter Sellars and soprano Dawn Upshaw are putting together a staging of “Book IV: Winds of Destiny,” a cycle of Civil War songs to be premiered June 10 as the centerpiece of the Ojai Music Festival.

It impossible not to wonder what it is about George Crumb’s “American Songbook” that calls for such a spectacular lineup of performances. As a collection of folk-setting, the work has seemingly little claim to novelty. After all, the use of folk songs in a modernist context has been a mainstream practice ever since the days of Crumb’s beloved predecessor, Béla Bartók.

Yet the songs chosen by Crumb for his “American Songbook” are hardly the same sort of folk songs as those sampled by Bartók in rural Hungary. They are, in other words, more than references to an archaic lost world: Some of the bloodiest episodes of the country’s history are etched into their very sinews. They are the spirituals of African slaves, the lullabies of American Indians, the congregational singing of the English settlers and songs of the Civil War. And they have been on the lips of the entire country since time immemorial.

The quality of a shared musical patrimony is precisely what seems to appeal to Crumb. When asked about the songs he chose, he simply answers, ''These songs have been floating around in my head for decades. I guess it was time I confronted them head-on.”

Arnold, who comes from a contemporary music background and has recorded much vocal music by Carter and Babbitt, explains, “Part of the aesthetic appeal of the song settings is that the part could be sung by anyone … many of the songs come from a vernacular body of tunes that used be sung around the dinner table.”

To Sellars, Crumb’s settings of the songs make the actual historical context that bore them in the first place. “The Civil War never really ended, it is going on to this day,” he says. Bewailing the street-level indifference that plagues much modern-day democracy, he continues: “The abolitionists were fighting for their beliefs, protesting against an inhuman law.” Crumb’s music puts the original songs through something of an awesome microscopic lens. “The song settings open up chasms of emptiness, doubt and danger,” he says, thus exposing “the invisible emotional force-field that makes these songs so powerful.”

When Hampson heard the first book of the set in 2001, he was immediately struck by this eerie magnetism. “In a way that is unexplainable to me,” he says. “The sonic effects of the instrumental ensemble augment the meaning of the songs; they are not just party tricks or weird musical events: there’s a real musical integrity to them.”

Arnold recalls the potent insight into Crumb’s music that came to her when she accompanied the composer on a trip to his hometown in West Virginia. “The landscape there is old, hilly and quite mysterious, and a river runs through it that also goes through the city, which is very industrial,” she says. “It is rural and industrial at the same time.”

The eerie co-existence of timeless landscape with the unequivocal signs of human artifice is a signature trait of Crumb’s musical mind. Both worlds (factory and hills, avant-gardism and folk song) are irrevocably clasped together in the blaze of a single gesture.

Crumb himself would be unlikely to think much of all this talk of chasms and juxtapositions. Tinkering at his faithful old Steinway to illustrate a few musical points, he sheepishly apologizes for the bad tuning (“The pin-board must have snapped”). Moments later he confesses to secretly enjoying the experience of working with the flawed instrument. Every time he tries something at the keyboard, he must strain to hear the pitch lurching “within” the microtonal halo enshrouding the struck note.

Crumb has been composing on this very piano for decades now, and if his wife’s chiding is anything to go by, it has not often been in tune. Indeed, the tinny piano is much more than a temporary inconvenience: It’s a poetic accomplice. Much of Crumb’s music (and none more than the “American Songbook”) urges the listener to do as he does with his Steinway and hearken to a familiar scrap of music hidden in a maze of strange sound.