* Vox Balaenae (1971)
* Federico's Little Songs for Children (1986)
* An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1986)
* Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965)
New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitken.
Naxos 8.559205 Total time: 59:42
In the Sixties and early Seventies -- the Dawning of the Age of
Aquarius the wand of media stardom touched the unlikely figure of the
great humpback whale. It played into many facets of the cultural moment:
the exaltation of Nature and the "natural" (the beginning of the word's
cachet in advertising and marketing); the genuine Silent Spring,
save-the-planet concern; the soft-headed, sentimental mysticism of
universal Oneness and vague "spirituality" our current cynicism mercifully
keeps at bay, except in California. The fact that the humpback whale
sings long, complicated songs and apparently makes up new ones struck
the heart of the general public the most deeply. An LP called (and this
was truth in advertising with a vengeance) Songs of the Humpback Whale
(1970) sold more copies than many Grateful Dead albums. Humpback whales
duetted with Judy Collins. Composers -- serious composers at that --
wrote odes to the whale. John Tavener, friend of the Beatles and cute
Sixties cultural icon in his own right, wrote The Whale (1966, released
on Apple Records). Alan Hovhaness came up with a nifty piece for tape
(of whales singing) and orchestra called And God Created Great Whales
(1970), which became a minor classical hit. As late as 1980, John Cage
came up with Litany for the Whale.
George Crumb entered the lists with Vox Balaenae, for three masked
players and amplified flute, amplified cello, and amplified piano.
Why the masks? To some extent, this always struck me as coming from
Sixties performance art -- that kind of theatricality. Obviously, the
masks don't significantly affect the score, otherwise why have a mere
recording? Crumb seemed to me to want to write opera without actually
writing an opera. Even after all these years, he makes special note of
the masks and goes into some justification and even suggests performing
the work under blue lighting to enhance whatever it should enhance.
Obviously, I don't care. I heard this work over the radio around the
time it came out and loved it, although I admit it kind of weirded me
out a little. If you've heard Songs of the Humpback Whale, you know
where Crumb gets his sonic vocabulary, but I stress this is a musical
evocation, rather than simple imitation. It really is music.
It begins with an introduction for flute (abetted by the flutist's
simultaneous vocalizings, sort of like a musical gulp), which reminds
me of Middle Eastern music. It then moves into what Crumb calls
"variations," which, honestly, I don't hear as such because of the
extreme fluidity of the piece. Instead, I notice that the same ideas
keep coming back. Crumb has so shaped the work that he evokes the song
of the whale over thousands, perhaps millions of years. It's the sense
of the aeonic passage of time that makes the score such a powerful one.
Crumb made his reputation mainly on a series of large works based on
the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. After a while, he understandably
felt himself written out with this source. Nevertheless, he still
harbored the wish to set certain Lorca poems. After a hiatus of decades,
he returned to Lorca with Federico's Little Songs for Children. The
poems, less intense than "Song of the Rider," for example, conjure up
the sensibilities of children, as they observe grownups and the natural
world: the fascination with and misapprehension of courtship, the
endlessness of a long afternoon, the intense absorption with a snail,
the delight in the repetition of games. You have to look at the word
"Songs" a little loosely. None of these split into verse-chorus, and
you probably won't be humming them any time soon. In a way, they remind
me of some of Mussorgsky's songs: strong, dramatic gestures, often
portraying physical movement. In "Senorita of the Fan," for example,
the music evokes quick sharp steps as she "with skirts a-flying / [seeks]
a husband." Crumb, with very few musical resources, penetrates to the
heart of these poems.
Despite the post-Webernian asceticism of his sound, Crumb for me
connects as strongly to the Impressionists as he does to the avant-garde.
His music is largely "about" his sensory reaction to nature, although,
unlike many Impressionists, he goes beyond a fascination with surface
to a quasi-metaphysical concern. An Idyll for the Misbegotten bears
the significant subtitle Images III and contains a quote from Debussy's
Syrinx. In feeling, it comes over as very japonoise and Zen. If someone
had suggested Takemitsu as the composer, you'd have no difficulty crediting
it. For amplified flute and three percussionists, it sings a very spare,
haunting poetry. Eleven Echoes of Autumn, for violin, alto flute,
clarinet, and piano, is pretty much the same kind of piece, although
more dramatic. It takes the shape of a large dynamic arch, starting at
pianissimo, building to a feroce climax, and sinking back into quiet.
An unusual effect involves the clarinet and the flute playing into the
piano with the sustain-pedal depressed, thus getting sympathetic vibrations
from undampened strings. This kind of timbral experimentation was typical
of the Sixties, when the piece appeared, but Crumb was one of the rare
composers who could actually make something moving of it.
This CD is pretty much an all-Canadian affair, to the shame of my own
country. The United States has little use for its serious composers and
apparently respects only known quantities. The performances, by the
way, are spectacular, getting a maximum amount of music out of a few
well-thought-up notes. A solid entry in Naxos's American Classics series.
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