George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

The Working Process

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Now to that question then, the question of analysis. What does a listener get from your music following a score that say a listener not following a score might not get?

GEORGE CRUMB: I think that most listeners probably don’t look at a score. Do they really? That’s more, I suppose if you’re a terribly dedicated amateur or an enthusiast about music, maybe you’d get into the notation somewhat, but I think of the score primarily for the performer and anything I invent in terms of the visual aspect I hope will focus musically then to the listener. I think you’re implying another area too maybe, Frank. I never was much into a kind of analysis—self-analysis or any kind of analysis about music. It’s been my experience that people who know nothing about music technically sometimes can have an incredible awareness of everything that’s happening. I can understand that immediately because I feel that same way when I hear Indian music. I wouldn’t know a raga from a balalaika, but I feel that that music is just as clear as a Beethoven, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now in terms of this question, to get back to what you were saying about practicality and mailing your scores to Tokyo and getting a tape back and if it’s your piece than you did something right—um, there’s something delightfully impractical, I think, about your scores. I remember I was a high school student and I got a copy of the score of Ancient Voices of Children and I still have it and, in fact, I was going to bring it today and have you autograph it, but we’re carrying all this stuff and I didn’t want to damage it…it’s so huge and it’s hard to carry around!

GEORGE CRUMB: It’s hard to carry, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s not exactly practical!

GEORGE CRUMB: Some of my scores I call master scores for kangaroos, you know. But it’s true. Hasn’t that become a common thing with lots of composers in our time?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting, because yesterday we went out to the Subito warehouse and they’re doing all this stuff. They’re providing a service for any composer who pays for their service to have their scores copied and bound and printed up and they have these fancy machines that staple the parts together and hand sew them and glue them and, I thought to myself, “Well, you couldn’t do a George Crumb score.” They certainly couldn’t do the Ancient Voices of Children score. It’s too big.

GEORGE CRUMB: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: So I guess the question for you then is, could these scores have been presented differently and still convey what you wanted to convey?

GEORGE CRUMB: No, in a way I think the size of the score, in a way, was linked to my concept of the notation. For example, there’s a movement as you know, in Ancient Voices, that’s based again on this circular thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: “Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle.”

GEORGE CRUMB: And that had to be on one page really, and that sort of demanded a certain size score page to accommodate that kind of notation and then that, of course, became the size for the score.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve been extremely fortunate, as have all of us in fact, to have had a publisher who’s printed these things up. For the most part, all of your published scores are from your hand-written manuscripts.

GEORGE CRUMB: Yeah, they’re either hand-written manuscript or in some scores I used a kind of transfer process, but even then most of that was even pen and ink.

FRANK J. OTERI: I notice on your piano an actual binder of blank score paper with a bunch of staves, but for most of your music you probably begin with a completely blank piece of paper with no staves.

GEORGE CRUMB: Oh, yes. Like, this representative page is all hand-drawn as far as the staves… I may sketch in a sketch book that’s printed score paper to save time, but once I get to my own copy—this for example wouldn’t show the structure of the piece which is involved in these little units of ostinato and it leaps out clearly that the piano, two staves reduced to the one, every time it occurs, you see? So in a way, it’s a visual fortification or emphasis of a musical idea.

FRANK J. OTERI: Interesting, so do think there are any advantages to computer notation programs?

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, the computer notation now is very beautiful but in the early days it was atrocious. It looked scrawny and undernourished. It was horrible. Now it’s almost as good as, let’s say, German engraving in the great days, say the 1880s, 1890s, the characters are beautiful and it’s possible to reproduce the highest standards of engraving. It takes time to do that just as in every process, but there’s a charm in a more manual way of working too—one’s own manuscript. I love to play Mozart from copies of his own handwriting. His rondos for piano… Of course, you have to learn to read the C soprano clef to do that, but that’s easy to learn. You know, you get past that barrier and you’re playing from Mozart’s script! It gives you a different sense.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to get back to this, this thing we started with, this sensitivity—I find there’s also a magical quality to almost all of your music and part of that magic is your personal touch and the computer kind of takes away the magic a little bit.

GEORGE CRUMB: Just like engraving erases the personality of all the old masters. You know, their original copy had so much character. Chopin, Brahms.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although those Beethoven scores were impossible to read.

GEORGE CRUMB: They would’ve been impossible, but they’re just loaded with character. Of course, there’s a limit of practicality. You know, one could hardly read Opus 111 from Beethoven’s copy.

FRANK J. OTERI: But if he would’ve had Finale or Sibelius, it would have been very different.

GEORGE CRUMB: You know, it’s interesting. All of my students use those ways of making scores nowadays and I guess, for me I’ve done the other way for so long I probably wouldn’t ever consider converting, but generally, you’re right, it’s being done. And it’s very useful. It makes very clean scores. They’re ultra-legible.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you feel something is lost though?

GEORGE CRUMB: Maybe something is lost, but it was lost anyway in the period of engraving. The thing we’re talking about.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you feel like if a composer starts creating a piece using this rather than working with pen and pencil…

GEORGE CRUMB: I don’t know if there’s a mistake in the actual writing that…I don’t know. I know of composers that work directly into that machine, which I think probably is a mistake. I see it more as a copying device, not as a way of notating. Even when I was teaching, students would bring in sketches as if they were published things. They looked like engraved music and these were the most fleeting first sketches of a piece and, you know, here they are immortalized in beautiful type. It was disconcerting.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I make all my notes on one of these little hand-held devices and this has replaced a notepad for me.

GEORGE CRUMB: You know, maybe it’s just what one is used to. Times change and however, you know, you work. I have to do a lot of sketching like, you know, I have these books and I throw away so much. I work very slowly. I’m a bumbling composer. It’s like plodding. I have to work through all kinds of wrong ideas before I can find the right one. But people work in different ways.