George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

Tradition and Factionalism

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in terms of setting the language, and this harks back to questions of performers’ backgrounds, if you come to a piece in American English, with a bel canto background, or a heldentenor background, you know, singing Wagner or singing Puccini, it’s not going to sound like American English and yet, if the score exists in a certain way on the page, those guidelines for interpretation are not necessarily there and this gets back to the question from the very beginning—how much do you convey on the page, what do you say. What kind of training, you are fortunate and we are fortunate as a result, that the sound of your music is familiar to so many players so you will get a performance that is characteristic of your style, but if somebody doesn’t know your style, how do they get that without hearing it?

GEORGE CRUMB: Interesting question, but I think, you know, today recordings are considered a kind of an extension of publication, it’s yet another source to clarify, particularly if the composer is in on those recording sessions, like the series I’m doing with the Starobins. I’m trying to be in on all those sessions as a way of kind of doing just that—making it a supplement to the publication. One could refer and say, well, this is really what he meant, you know. But it’s a very good question. There’s an erosion of time too. I’ve talked about what they call the performance tradition but also there’s a certain erosion I think that maybe happened with composers like Beethoven to an extent, you know. Where the tradition is not so certain anymore about certain aspects. Tempos, mostly, in his case. We think his metronome was broken. But, maybe internally, if one knows the style, one studies a range of works, you could develop a sense of what seems appropriate.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, this question of tradition, in all the things you’ve said this afternoon, you’re definitely connected to that Western classical tradition, but your music is so its own thing. Where do you feel you connect to the rest of the Western classical music tradition?

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, I feel old music is interrelated and all of the classical tradition, whatever I know about tradition, is part of that, but also all of the non-Western music I’ve heard in all of my life—popular music, folk song, jazz, all music is interrelated. I’ve never believed in categories, you know. I think everything can come together. I have a recent piece on a Thelonious Monk tune, and I love the tune. It’s just as elegant harmonically as anything by Chopin. And as a student even there were beautiful recordings in those days already of a vast range of Asian classical music, South American, African. And that entered my ear; I didn’t study it. I’d never had a course in ethnomusicology.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting because you’ve used instruments from other cultures. The Lux Aeterna uses a sitar and tabla, although it doesn’t sound like any other sitar and tabla music there is! Or you use a banjo, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Appalachian music or bluegrass.

GEORGE CRUMB: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think those things can happen. That’s maybe an illustration of this crazy thing when you see all musics as kind of interpenetrating, you know. I think that’s the characteristic of our own day—that we’ve broken categories.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting because nowadays in so-called contemporary American classical, serious music (there’s no real good word for it), there are so many different separate fiefdoms. There are the people who do 12-tone music still or the disciples of that, the post-serialists. There are people who do minimalist music. There are the people who are neo-romantics who have gone back to writing this big, expansive orchestral stuff using lush late-romantic harmonies. People doing stuff based on chance. People doing stuff with other tuning systems, microtonal stuff. You’re somehow outside of all of that, yet there are elements of all of it, you know, that connect and I think that you are one of the few composers people in all of those camps respect.

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, it’s just a philosophical view of my own. To me all music is philosophical, and philosophically contemporary. I’ve had students who, maybe a certain measure in Bach sets them off. You know, they make a connection themselves. They’re interested suddenly…a whole world is opened to them, there’s this big circle, arc, back into time and they’ve touched a point that sets them off on a way of their own. I believe this. I’ve always been reluctant to think of it in terms of schools, all that sort of thing—post-this or post-that. I see everything as interpenetrating. Maybe there’s a penalty to pay for that, too, that I don’t know about, but that’s just the way I think.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting, because so many of these people in these various camps pretty much hate each other as we’ve discovered time and time again on our forum: we doing something about serialism and all the minimalists say that their stuff is terrible and we do something on minimalism and all the serialists say, “How dare you write about this stuff; that isn’t music?” Yet, here you’re essentially outside of all that, and you’ve been acknowledged with a Pulitzer Prize, you’re in the Norton Anthology of Music, which is the canon! You’ve even won a Grammy award for Star Child

GEORGE CRUMB: You know, I’d have to say Frank, there are contributions in all these areas. I was influenced by Webern in my early years. There are a lot of valuable additions to vocabulary that came through Schoenberg and the other guys, especially in my opinion, Alban Berg. The minimalists. It’s a very interesting concept and all good music is kind of minimalist in a way. Sometimes you can violate the principle of economy for a special effect, but as a general principle, it’s interesting… So even there I can’t have this feeling that there’s one way. I never believed in this idea that there’s one central stream of music. Otherwise, there’re all these composers you can’t account for like Debussy and Mussorgsky and Berlioz and Chopin, they were outside this European mainstream. I think this is fictitious and I think that any excuse that there was for that way of defining music has completely evaporated by now. What is the central tradition today? There isn’t such a thing.