George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

Working with Performers

FRANK J. OTERI: You haven’t written that extensively for orchestra, and maybe this is because of that. We have had the unfortunate situation in the U.S. where a piece of music will get commissioned and maybe you get two rehearsals, three if you’re lucky. So there isn’t that kind of time that you really need to probe into a score full of mysterious notations.

GEORGE CRUMB: That’s true. I have only four representative orchestral works, but even the first of those is transitional, so I have all together only four works. It’s true that not only in the notation, but in the sound itself one has less flexibility with orchestra. The minutes that go by are costing money and all these people are on stage. Whereas in small chamber groups it’s easier to get at problems of timbre, projection, or rhythmic subtleties, coloristic subtleties, generally, notational things. All of these things would become simplified in a smaller chamber dimension.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve been very lucky to have musicians who have championed your music, which is the exact opposite of an orchestra rehearsing something twice or three times. You’ve had people who have devoted substantial portions of their performing life to your work. I’m thinking of Jan DeGaetani, whose fantastic recordings of your music really spread it around, more recently David Starobin who has been a real champion of your music and has got you writing for the guitar

GEORGE CRUMB: Mmhmm. Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: …like the pieces about your dogs including the one who keeps wandering back into the room! (laughs)

GEORGE CRUMB: (laughs) That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: Or the Kronos Quartet, who weren’t the initial performers of Black Angels, but they certainly have spread it around.

GEORGE CRUMB: They played it quite a bit. Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And they have gotten to know it in a way that allows them to live the music which brings me back to the question of the score. What should a score convey to a performer? What kinds of things should a performer be guided by in a score, in your opinion?

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, I used to tell my students when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, if they would send there scores to Tokyo or Tel Aviv and couldn’t be there themselves, they would receive in the mail a taped cassette and their notation is good if it conveyed enough information so that they recognize their piece. And if the essential content of their piece projects to, first of all the performers, and then eventually to the listeners—if it falls short of that, then it’s under-notated.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now have you had experiences early on or even recently, when you’ve heard a performance and thought, “That’s not my music?”

GEORGE CRUMB: You know, that may have occurred in earlier years, but I think after a while, Frank, the word gets around, the way your style goes, generally, or certain idiomatic things, certain technical things amongst performers, I’m sure through the grapevine. You know, “This is the way you do this.” “There’s an easier way to do this difficult thing,” you know. It might be a question of harmonic projection, harmonics on the piano or something. So the word gets around, but in more recent years, even the last 20 years, I’ve generally had kind of solid performances. Not equally inspired, but not disastrous ever. Just very exceptionally… But in the early years, it was kind of a normal thing. After all, we were writing in a time when there were very few people amongst the performers who can do this music at all. You’ve already spoke of Jan DeGaetani. One could also say Gilbert Kalish, David Burge, you could say Paul Zukofsky. These people were kind of one or two in a category and that’s all there were and of course, now they’ve had students and their students have had students, so that one can go to an out of the way place now and there might be a beautifully competent percussionist, for example, out in the wheat fields of Kansas or something, you know. So things have changed so remarkably that way.

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