George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

On Forms

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve spoken quite a bit about Chopin and Mozart and Brahms; these names just keep coming up. And you’ve written solo piano music—although it’s for an extended piano. You’ve written for string quartet, but again it’s an amplified and somehow extended string quartet. And there are the handful of orchestral pieces. But you haven’t really written anything in conventional forms. You haven’t really written an absolute string quartet or a violin and piano sonata or a symphony or a woodwind quintet or anything like that. Do those formal structures and conventional combinations still have anything to offer younger composers or should we all be looking for new structures and combinations?

GEORGE CRUMB: It’s an interesting point. I’m not sure I have an answer to it. It seems to have two parts. One thing is the actual kind of ensemble. Few people write piano trios anymore. There are a few exceptional ones in those categories, those genres, but… And the other thing is the forms that were attached—the sonata, the rondo, the scherzo. The forms probably would be hard to use these days because it depended on a functional tonality which is kind of lost to us now. But I think it makes us obliged to find other forms to fill, to make the music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yet interestingly enough, someone like Roger Sessions wrote great 12-tone sonatas and symphonies.

GEORGE CRUMB: So did Bartók. Not 12-tone, but I mean, hugely complex in terms of dissonance and chromatic possibilities. But you’re right, they were structured very much like the old forms.

FRANK J. OTERI: And as a corollary to that I would say that although your music definitely goes into new harmonic areas, it is essentially operating from the sense of a tonal center.

GEORGE CRUMB: I think so, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the most beautiful things in all of your music is the end of Voice of the Whale, for flute, cello, and piano, which after a great deal of tonal ambiguity ends triumphantly in what is undeniably B major!

GEORGE CRUMB: It’s used in sort of a non-functional way though, again. It’s like one’s taking a bath in the tonality of B major. In a sense, it’s like you’re bathing in that tonality. Um, I suppose that one can make that gesture still, but I would find it hard. I shouldn’t speak for other composers, but I would find it hard to use some of the older forms in a modern way. I had too much influence from composers like Robert Schumann, all of his early works were kind of in the fantastic variety, you know. Carnival music and different kinds of dances and then weird images and poetically inspired and inventing new cycles that had nothing to do with conventional forms, very much to do with conventional forms. Although later on he of course wrote his symphonies and so forth and found his own way of using those forms. But nowadays, well, I think it’s really just open. There’ll be a renaissance maybe of the sonata form 10 years from now. Somebody will discover a new way to do that. It’s hard to close off any possibilities, I think.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I hate to close this off, but that really is a closing thought, I think.

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, yeah. I like to think of it as encouraging, saying that it’s all open really, you know, that nobody knows where music is going. But it’s a nice thought to think that it can go so many directions still.

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