George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

Theatricality and Setting Texts

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, one of the unique aspects of your music which, of course, you can’t really convey with computer notation and I don’t know if you could even conceive of it if you were thinking directly into a computer are all of the visual elements that go along with so many of these pieces. From performers wearing costumes to the performers walking around while they’re playing, being off-stage, singing, having the pianist suddenly sing or shout or having a clarinetist start playing another instrument, like a hand-held symbol or something. What prompted you to think of those extra elements, the elements beyond the actual instruments?

GEORGE CRUMB: My music accommodates many elements like that. It would be exactly analogous to opera. You know, like a recording of opera, you’re missing a lot of what’s going on. Sometimes things can be incorporated in a recording, like Bridge has done, is doing a series of my music now and later this summer they will be recording Echoes of Time and the River. Well, how do you record the processionals? You have to have a sense of the music actually moving in space, and one should be able to hear that certain musicians are describing an actual change of position, you know. But they’re going to work that out, I think, with a microphone technique rather than undergo the risk of the footsteps and the extra noises. But there are certain things, like if there are certain theater elements like lighting or some kind of costume, anything like that, of course, it’s not sound related. That’s lost like an opera décor or…

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting to me because there are all of these theatrical elements in your music, yet to the best of my knowledge, you’ve never written an opera or a musical theater piece.

GEORGE CRUMB: No, although in the early days two or three of my vocal works were called mini-operas of a new kind, referring to Ancient Voices and Night of the Four Moons as a kind of genre that wasn’t precisely a cantata, but that pulled in dramatic elements and was a little bit operatic in a miniature way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Would you be interested at all in writing an opera?

GEORGE CRUMB: I used to say no. I’ve been looking recently…I won’t even mention the subject because probably I will talk myself out of it. I might become attracted to it someday if I really feel myself pulled in that direction strongly.

FRANK J. OTERI: What pieces do you want to write that you haven’t written yet?

GEORGE CRUMB: Oh, there are a lot of those. In fact, I’m working on getting back into a little more sustained writing again. And some of these are ideas that were sketched out a bit in earlier years, so I’ve just completed a new piano work and a new vocal work for my daughter Ann based on Appalachian songs, a cycle for percussion, piano, and voice.

FRANK J. OTERI: Texts have been very important to you; the poetry of Federico García Lorca, in particular, inspired nine different piece of your music. That’s an amazing amount of effort to devote to one person’s work.

GEORGE CRUMB: The extended cycle, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: What initially drew you to Lorca?

GEORGE CRUMB: It was during my student years, it was the setting of one poem by a classmate. A fellow student used “The Boy Wounded By the Water”—that’s the English translation. And it was beautiful…well, I loved his musical setting and this got me into the poetry. It was set in English in his setting. And I got a bilingual edition then and got more and more into the poetry, but decided, as dangerous as it was, that it should be in Spanish. Because I have no real facility with Spanish, I read a little but and when I say dangerous, it is a leap to set another language that’s not absolutely familiar to you.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yet in some ways, it’s even more precarious for composers to set American English and make it work.

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, that’s true too. That’s true too! (laughs) That’s right. I’ve often thought that the greatest models for American English settings would be the popular song literature of the ’30s and ’40s. It treats English as a parlando language essentially which is not even as lyrical as German is, say, in Schumann and Brahms.