Zeitgeist pays tribute to the strange beauty of George Crumb

by Daniel Nass, Special to Minnesota Public Radio
April 10, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. — George Crumb is one of the most important and distinctive composers of the past 100 years. Born October 24, 1929 — the day of the infamous "Black Thursday" stock market crash — the composer burst onto the scene in the late 60s and early 70s, producing many important works and winning a Pulitzer Prize. Now 84, Crumb lives in Pennsylvania and remains active as a composer.

Crumb's pieces are known for their use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques, his unique and very particular timbral palette, evocative theatrical elements, and beautifully crafted musical scores that employ the technique and practice of Augenmusik — music for the eyes.

Beginning this Thursday, April 10, new music ensemble Zeitgeist will be celebrating the music of Crumb at St. Paul's Studio Z with a four-day Early Music Festival of concerts and exploration of the composer's work. The festival's title reflects Zeitgeist's forward-looking repertoire: while most of the classical music community thinks of the 16th century when they hear the term "early music," Zeitgeist uses the term to refer to "the musicians of yesterday" — as far back as the distant 20th century!

Highlights of the festival include performances of these iconic pieces:

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale): This 1971 work, inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, is scored for flute, cello, and piano (all amplified), as well as four antique cymbals. The composer evokes the sea through haunting timbral combinations and extended techniques, as well as through the use of certain theatrical elements. He instructs each of the players to wear a black half-mask, noting, "the masks, by effacing a sense of human projection, will symbolize the powerful impersonal forces of nature (nature dehumanized)." In addition, Crumb asks that the stage be lit in a deep blue hue to further create an oceanic atmosphere. (Friday and Sunday)

Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III): Completed in 1974, this piece is an expansion on two previous solo piano works, Makrokosmos I and II. The work is scored for two amplified pianos and an extensive battery of percussion, which is somewhat of a hallmark of Crumb's sound. The composer is very particular with his choice of percussion instrumentation, at times choosing ancient and rather exotic instruments, such as Tibetan prayer stones, a metal thunder-sheet, a musical jug, and an African thumb piano. (Friday and Saturday)

Mundus Canis (A Dog's World): One of Crumb's more recent works (1998) came about when the composer wanted to write a guitar piece for his friend David Starobin that would be a tribute to each of the composer's dogs. He notes, "It occurred to me that the feline species has been disproportionately memorialized in music and I wanted to help redress the balance." Each movement is dedicated to the memory of one of the Crumb canines: Tammy, Fritzi, Heidel, Emma-Jean, and Yoda. (Thursday and Sunday)

Festival concerts are taking place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 2:00. Saturday evening's concert includes a special post-concert reception with wine, appetizers, and conversation with the guest performers. Tickets and details are available at Zeitgeist's website.

Daniel Nass is a composer, collaborator, and commentator based in Nordeast Minneapolis.


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