George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

The Goal of Music Notation

FRANK J. OTERI: Your music, more than that of any composer I can think of, is so sensitive to sound both to the ear and to the eye. It’s completely original sounding and looking yet it’s also extraordinarily beautiful. How did you come to be so concerned with the way music looks?

GEORGE CRUMB: With its appearance on the page? It may have something to do with my teacher, Ross Lee Finney. He was a stickler for notation and getting the music on the page to look like it sounded, and also to try to find an evocative notation that would convey something to the performers, to jump off the page and want to become sound. He was very much into that himself. He was a student of Alban Berg, whose pages were also rather interesting I think, visually.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, what was the first piece that you did that defied conventional ideas about notation?

GEORGE CRUMB: I think it was a transitional work for orchestra, which happened to be my doctoral dissertation in Ann Arbor, Michigan; it was a work call Variazione, variations for orchestra, large orchestra. I think there the notation is already an important part of the music. But the first time I used bent staves was in a work called Night Music I. That was in 1963 and that’s a few years after the orchestral work I mentioned. But certain aspects of my notation, like in the orchestral work, were already changing a bit in a visual way.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, even before you started doing this full-blown, do you feel that you came to this way of notating because of certain sounds that you were hearing that you wanted to convey that standard notation just didn’t offer? Or was it, as you were saying, an extension of Ross Lee Finney’s idea to convey something beyond what notation conveys to the performer—to make it jump off the page?

GEORGE CRUMB: I suppose all of my notation is concerned with being as clear as possible in communicating the necessary information to the performer. There are only a few pages of my music that are involved in what I would call these rather symbolic notations and I think you’re referring to those specifically—circular notations that involve bending the staves on the page. And this may reflect what seemed to me a kind of a circular element in the sound itself, in the music itself.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it’s to give the performer, or the listener following the score, a sense of the structure of the piece…

GEORGE CRUMB: It’s also tied in with actual sound.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, if a classically trained performer, who is used to playing standard repertoire like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, is all of a sudden confronted with one of your scores for the first time, it might not seem very clear to them at first. What were the initial reactions to these scores when performers…?

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, I’m trying to remember back all those years ago. Musicians were kind of interested, not being used to it would be the better expression, but they quickly assimilated that, like pianists who played my music a lot. They learned to memorize the pieces and avoid the impossible reading off the page, for example.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, how would a page-turner deal with a circular score?

GEORGE CRUMB: Yeah, that’s right!

FRANK J. OTERI: It almost defies sight-reading in a way…

GEORGE CRUMB: I think of it as more positive, as in a more positive way, as encouraging memorization, which pianists do a lot anyway, so….

FRANK J. OTERI: But then again, when you’ve memorized a score, you’re no longer interacting with the visual element.

GEORGE CRUMB: That’s right, then it’s in your mind, I suppose. But a lot of these things are just in my piano music, so I’m thinking a little bit practically there, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you wouldn’t write those sorts of things in an orchestral score?

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, actually I might, in the score itself, Frank, but in the parts, I would tend to write those out on the horizontal.

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