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George Crumb

George Crumb was one of the most distinctive compositional voices to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. A charter member of the "New Virtuosity" movement, Crumb developed an expansive musical palette noted for its emphasis on extended instrumental and vocal techniques, its rich and sophisticated musical allusions, an evocative theatricality, and a poet's sense of sonorous detail. Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia, on October 24, 1929, into a musical family and studied at various schools in the Midwest as well as at the Berlin Hochschule as a Fulbright Scholar. In 1965, he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he composed and taught for 32 years. His highly intuitive approach to composition, with its emphasis on texture, timbre, and line, bore substantial fruit during the '60s, including the Madrigals (1966-1969), Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965), and, inspired by the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Night of the Four Moons (1969). Echoes of Time and the River, one of Crumb's rare orchestral works, earned the composer the Pulitzer Prize. Crumb's style remained remarkably consistent during the subsequent decades. Black Angels (1970) used a dizzying arsenal of extended techniques to evoke a surreal soundscape of the Vietnam War. Ancient Voices of Children (1970), with its unimaginable timbral variety and taxingly dramatic vocal lines, became a near-instant classic of the postwar period. It also demonstrated the resonance between his compositional style and the writing style of Federico García Lorca, whose poems would repeatedly serve as the inspiration for or words to a number of Crumb's pieces. Star Child (1977) applied Crumb's acute ear for nuance to an impressive vocal and orchestral ensemble. Crumb's works also became known for their almost choreographic visual elegance in performance -- and, in fact, numerous dance companies have composed dance pieces to be performed with his work. Crumb's poignant use of musical borrowing and stylistic allusion also add a sense of reflective history and introspection to his compositions. In some cases, this visual approach to design spills over into the very notation: some of the pieces in the four-volume keyboard collection Makrokosmos (1972-79) appear engraved on staves that turn and twist into a variety of curious Zodiac symbols. Having eschewed process-oriented compositional techniques, his output slowed in later years as greater demands were placed on his creative faculties to find continually new sounds and inspirations -- though by the turn of the century, his historical importance was already firmly established. Crumb continued composing until very late in life. In 2001, he completed the first of his seven American Songbooks (American Songbook, Vol. 3 "Unto the Hills"). For these Songbooks, he arranged hymns, spirituals, and popular songs for varied combinations of voices, percussion, and amplified piano. The final volume, Voices from the Heartland, was completed in 2010. During this time, Crumb returned to the writings of García Lorca, penning three song cycles subtitled Spanish Songbooks (2008, 2009, and 2012). During the 2010s decade, Crumb set to writing his Metamorphoses for amplified piano. In two sets of ten, the works are each inspired by different famous paintings. The first set, written between 2015 and 2017, was dedicated to Margaret Leng Tan, and the second, composed from 2018 to 2020, was dedicated to Marcantonio Barone and received its premiere in December of 2020 when the composer was 91 years old. In 2021, Barone issued a complete recording of the Metamorphoses on the Bridge Label. Crumb died at his home in Media, Pennsylvania, on February 6, 2022.
© Jeremy Grimshaw & Keith Finke /TiVo
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