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George Crumb Resumes Composing Experimental Piano Preludes

July 21, 2020

George Crumb, who turned a grand 90 years old last October, has picked up where he left off about half-a-lifetime ago.

In the 1970s, he compiled two collections of short pieces for amplified piano that explore ways in which a piano can be manipulated to produce many kinds of strange atmospheric soundscapes. With a sly nod to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, he called these collections Makrokosmos, labeling each piece with an astrological sign. Two more sets soon followed, with Makrokosmos III adding a second piano and percussion instruments, and IV a second pair of hands on one piano.

Decades later in 2015, Crumb returned to the format by starting a new set of short amplified piano preludes, this time taking a leaf from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition by using paintings as jumping-off points. He calls this set Metamorphoses Book I — and Bridge Records, which for years has been busy compiling what aspires to be the Complete Crumb Edition, has released it as Volume 19. Marcantonio Barone, an old hand at Crumb from the American Songbooks series, is the pianist and special-effects manipulator here.

In conveying the moods of twelve paintings by Paul Klee, Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, James Whistler, Jasper Johns, Paul Gauguin, Salvador Dalí, and Wassily Kandinsky, Crumb is up to his old tricks again. He conjures dark, sustained, haunted nightscapes, with rapid flurries and/or strange noises followed by long periods of resonance produced by holding down the sostenuto (middle) pedal of the piano. He employs pinging prepared-piano effects, spidery strummed-piano strings, drummer’s wire brushes wiping against the bass strings, and occasional vocal noises and humming.

If there is anything in the literature to which these pieces can be likened to, it is Debussy’s Preludes, also impressionistic soundscapes where the pianist is asked to produce novel (for the time) effects in which the sostenuto pedal often comes in handy (albeit in the intended way of holding bass notes while leaving the rest of the keyboard free).

Chagall’s The Fiddler uses imitation Russian-Jewish folk fragments and his Clowns at Night employs a toy piano. The most dramatic piece, Gauguin’s Contes barbares, is true to its name, with war-like shouts from a Tahitian death chant and percussive effects. The whole cycle comes to a thundering conclusion at the close of Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider, toccata-like notes stabbing in the deep bass end of the keyboard.

Mind you, this is just Book I, for Crumb has since completed a Book II earlier in 2020, which speaks well of Crumb’s continued compositional energies in his tenth decade. A forewarning for those demanding value for money; the timing of Book I is only 37:28 — short weight for a CD — but don’t let that stop you.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.