Voices from the Morning of the Earth

Complete George Crumb Edition, Volume 17: Voices from the Morning of the Earth (American Songbook VI); An Idyll for the Misbegotten; The Sleeper. Bridge Records 9445. George Crumb’s profoundly American compositional voice is perfectly suited to the tunes and texts that form the basis of his huge American Songbook cycle, based on folk tunes of all kinds (plus a couple of folk-like tunes of his own devising) and scored for one or two solo voices, percussion quartet, and amplified piano. Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman, has this repertoire deep in its bones, and all of Crumb’s meticulously detailed effects are realized with exquisite care. While baritone Randall Scarlata sings with affecting beauty, it’s the composer’s daughter Ann Crumb who is even more captivating with her highly characterful singing. Ann and pianist Marcantonio Barone offer a reading of Crumb’s Poe setting, The Sleeper that is full of misty atmosphere, and flutist Rachel Rudich, alongside three percussionists, is eloquent in the Idyll. It was surely no simple matter to capture for recording both the barely discernible rumbles and tremendous bass drum thwacks of this piece. The uncommonly wide dynamic range of Crumb’s music benefits greatly from the capabilities of digital sound.

With the country in the midst of both political and ecological catastrophes, the mournful songs that Crumb draws upon (the texts include dying children, dying cowboys, dying lovers, dying solidiers, and the dead in general), enveloped in the ghostly resonances of Crumb’s sound-world, struck me as especially poignant.

Voices from the Heartland

George Crumb says he has now finished his American Songbook project, with the final installment premiered last night in Philadelphia by Orchestra 2001 with James Freeman conducting. This has been a huge undertaking: seven big cycles of folk song settings, all for solo voice or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet plus amplified piano. This last set, called Voices from the Heartland, includes settings of “Softly and Tenderly” “Lord, Let Me Fly!”, and “Beulah Land”, among others, as well as a couple of American Indian chants. There is a delightfully Ivesian treatment of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” combined with “On Top Of Old Smokey” – the two songs are sung simultaneously in different keys. In a sense, the pieces break no new ground for Crumb – he has his language  – but within that language they are unfailingly imaginative, varied, and beautiful. The performance was very fine, with George’s daughter Ann and baritone Patrick Mason as soloists. These singers, along with the instrumentalists of Orchestra 2001, are so experienced in performing Crumb’s music that the special demands he places on them – whispered vocal effects, or myriad non-Western percussion instruments – pose no problems. It is uncommon to hear players, for example, consistently command the extremely soft dynamics that George often requests.

I do wish the voices had been amplified more subtly – not just more softly, but not as closely miked. I feel there must be a way to use the amplification to support the voices and help them compete with the loudest percussion passages while still making it feel like the voices and the percussion are in the same acoustical space. In contrast, the amplification of the piano made some of its more delicate effects audible while keeping the instrument integrated with the non-amplified percussion. You were constantly aware of the voices being amplified – it shouldn’t draw attention to itself in this way.

The amplification was also a bit too loud for the Boulez Anthèmes 2 on the first half of the concert, in a virtuosic performance by Gloria Justen, with Peter Price assisting at the laptop.  As for the piece itself, it is a pleasant 8 minute demonstration of how a computer can process live violin sound. Unfortunately, the piece went on for 3 times that length. While the sounds were attractive, Boulez just presents them, never shaping them into a narrative. Not that every piece has to have a linear narrative; a succession (rather than a progression) of contrasting gestures can work, but if you are going to have a piece that long, you would need less repetition of gestures, or at least some genuinely extended phrases, rather than short phrases going on at length. A comparison with the Crumb is instructive: both pieces rely on an unusual sound palette, but the carefully shaped forms and the sensitive attention to timing in George’s music makes for a vastly more successful piece.

The concert began with a short piece by Louis Andriessen, a setting of a letter he received from mezzo Cathy Berberian, the spouse of composer Luciano Berio. In the letter she speaks of how Stravinsky re-shaped what became his Elegy for J. F. K. for her. The piece is straightforward, light in manner, with a hint of elegiaic tone, for it memorializes an artist who died too young. Ann Crumb served the piece well with her charismatic theatrical flair.

Here I am with George after the performance:

 

More about George and the Songbooks, here, here, and here.

Crumb’s American Songbooks

George Crumb is a quintessentially American composer – to my mind, ranking with Ives and Copland. Wildly popular in the 1970’s, Crumb’s stock fell a bit in the 1980’s, though I think his popularity overseas did not wane as much as here in the states. Crumb has experienced a late-in-life creative blossoming, in some ways comparable to that of Elliott Carter, two decades older than Crumb. Carter was extraordinarily productive in his 90s, and during the same period, Crumb was similarly productive in his 70s, finding in American folksong a rich compositional resource. The result has been a series of American Songbooks, now grown to six substantial sets. In these, Crumb has arranged folksongs, spirituals, and other traditional tunes, either for solo voice, or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet and piano. The medium is perfect for Crumb, with his exquisite ear for instrumental color and preference for long ringing sounds. Each set uses an extraordinarily large complement of instruments, including various non-western ones. (The works would surely be more widely known if the instrumental resources required were not so great.) The piano, as the composer has remarked, serves as a bass for the percussion ensemble which it would otherwise lack.

The pieces have been written with Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 in mind (see a relevant video clip at their website), and the group’s performances, led by its artistic director James Freeman, are exemplary. The first four of the Songbooks have been recorded for Bridge Records, with Barbara Ann Martin, and the composer’s own daughter Ann Crumb as the superb soloists. (Find Songbooks II and IV on disc here; Books I and III here.) The Bridge releases are part of a their “Complete Crumb Edition”, an admirable commitment to documenting the work of a true American treasure.