Sunday, January 3, 1999

George Crumb as interviewed by Robert Duckworth, John Harvey, and Julie Powell 

Robert Duckworth: Hi, and welcome back to the Unclassical Show. Right now we have in the studio George Crumb Mr. Crumb, welcome to the University of Georgia.

George Crumb: Thank you Robert.

R.D.: We also have in the studio Julie Powell who is the President of the Student Composers Association, and John Harvey who is the Secretary. I'm Robert Duckworth, and we will be conducting a brief interview with Mr. Crumb. We've prepared a few questions, and hopefully things will proceed smoothly. I appreciate your patience. Julie will be asking the first question for Mr. Crumb.

Julie Powell: Mr. Crumb, my first question deals with your use of Lorca's texts. In many of your works for chamber ensemble and solo vocalists, you set the texts of Frederico Garcia Lorca, and I was wondering what was the inspiration you find in Lorca.

G.C.: Well, it was during my student days, actually, that I got onto his poetry. A fellow student had used one of his poems for a voice-orchestral setting, and I located a bilingual edition of the Lorca poems. I must confess, my Spanish is not so good--except I read a little, so I started with the English but then determined that it would have to be in Spanish. I fell in love with the poetry and felt that these words, for me, you know, kind of inspired musical images.

J.P.: There is one quote in particular, and since I don't speak Spanish, I won't read it in Spanish, but it's in Night Music I, and the translation would be something like “and the broken arches of time where time
suffers” It's somewhat of an enigmatic quote, and I was wondering what that meant to you.

G.C.: Yes, I think of kind of fallen monuments, you know, ancient monuments in a state of decay? It was an image that I guess I associated in my mind with the musical materials of that piece. It actually was in Eleven Echoes of Autumn, and I just used it as a kind of motto phrase in the work, and the performers intone the words. [Crumb laughs]

John Harvey: Mr. Crumb, would you mind telling us a little bit about the current activities of you son David? He's teaching at Oregon now, I believe. Could you comment on his compositional direction as compared to yours?

G.C.: Yes. Well, thank God his music doesn't sound like mine! You know, that would be tragic if [all laugh] we were too much alike. David is beginning now to get some recognition in the field. His music probably I could describe as a little bit Stravinsky-based. It seems to be more of a model for him, Stravinsky, than it ever was in my own music. He is now teaching. He has his first real job, so to speak, at the University of Oregon. I understand he has a commission now for a new work that is related to the University here. One of your faculty was involved in the
commissioning of this work.

R.D.: Mr. Crumb, I have a rather lengthy question for you.

G.C.: Yes?

R.D.: All right, it specifically deals with Quest. Your most recent work occupies a unique position in your catalogue. I think, on the one hand, it addresses and sustains certain issues that have always been present in
your music since your mature period began. It also, I believe, calls up a few new concerns. The example that I am speaking of is in the final section the piece Quest which is Nocturne. Recently there was a lecture given on this piece to the SCA. Some of the ideas presented in this lecture [are what] I have questions about. Your thesis is again . . . I guess you could say you're returning to your old theme of light and dark, which seems to me to be a concern.

G.C.: Umm-humm.

R.D.: In the final measures of Quest, you present the Amazing Grace theme, and then I believe that you then juxtapose it with the Dark Paths theme with the quarter tones again in the soprano [saxophone] which first appeared there [in that instrument]. So my question is this: Given that you juxtapose these two themes, are you suggesting that there is no way to mediate between these two concepts, these two areas that these themes perhaps represent? Dow you feel that there can be no reconciliation between these two vastly contrasting ideas?

G.C.: Yes, that's a good question, I think. I guess my music always has this kind of dual sense about it. Maybe it comes from some of the models I've followed. I hear this quality in Mahler's music. There is sometimes kind of a folk-like quality, and yet underneath there is an underlying irony that is implied in his music. I find most music, the music I love most, always seems to have both sides to it. I hear, for example in Mozart, the same underlying dark implications. Even with some of those kind of piano sonatas that begin in such an innocuous way, you know, and would seem like almost a kind of light salon music, there is kind of a underpinning always, which I think makes Mozart such an interesting composer.

J.P.: Following on that, I was curious about your use of quotations. You quote Mahler in the end of Night of the Four Moons. Bach, I believe, in Ancient Voices. You generally set them, as you say, with some kind of ironic setting, something dark underneath the quote. I was wondering [in terms of] when you quoted, how did you think about the setting, and why do you choose what you choose to quote?

G.C.: Well, the Mahler is not an actual quote, it's kind of in the style of Mahler. My quotations can range from more literal quotations to just evocations of the composer's style. Usually, even when the notes are recognizable as coming from another composer, usually something happens to the music: the timbre is different, it's rescored, the damper pedal of the piano (if it involves piano) is depressed so the music kind of runs together [Crumb laughs] and goes out of focus. Where there are overlays, usually it involves truncated segments that kind of lead nowhere. Psychologically, it's awfully hard to explain why I quote. I just do it instinctively, I guess, to make a reference to some earlier music that maybe has something to do with the music in that context. My own music, it suggests the other music. Sometimes it's nostalgia. Sometimes it's a commentary or of a quality, like a Hammerklavier quote from Beethoven suggests to me a metaphysical music. It always did have that quality, so does Bach. That particular Bach fugue is metaphysical and that was why I choose those passages.

J.H.: Mr. Crumb, you've traveled very extensively in your career, and as we'll hear later in the broadcast, your works certainly reflect a melding of the musics of the world in a certain degree. In your article “Music: Does it have a future?, I believe you posit the idea that all the musics of the world are progressing towards a unity of one music. I'm wondering to what degree have your travels influenced the sounds in your music? Did the unity of sound across the world of timbre occur before your travels or sometime afterwards?

G.C.: Yes, well I think there has definitely been some influence there. I think this is part of a larger thing that has been happening in music, of course, since the turn of the century. There is an upbeat to the turn of a century. John Cage was early into the liberation of percussion instruments and the use of borrowed instruments from ethnic cultures (mainly percussion), and I followed this and added maybe some that he didn't use, even in his own music. There are other composers. I think it's just a part of a sense of the world as one music in a way, and all these are potential sources for composers in the West.

J.H.: Sort of an enlarged musica humana?

G.C.: Yes, really enlarged! And not only the instruments, in some cases the quality of time, suspended time. Again, one thinks of Cage in that sense or Debussy who did a little bit of the borrowing from at least Arabic culture, Arabic music and Spanish. Of course the Indonesian-- Bartok touched on that. The quality of time is beginning to change already. I said Bartok; I meant Debussy. [laughter from all] That continues in Charles Ives and in Cage and into Bartok occasionally.

R.D.: My question is actually along those same lines Mr. Crumb.

G.C.: Yes?

R.D.: As far as the way you treat instruments, your instrumentation, it seems to me that you are finding ways to realize sounds which exist, one might want to say naturally, in the ethnic world of music. You take the sounds, and you find ways to realize them in our Western tradition. It seems to me that although this is at first the most fascinating element of your music, I find that the most deep and penetrating element of your music is the way that you compose the relationships between and among the various sounds. I grant that the sounds themselves are fascinating, and they are, but to me it seems the most subtle elements of your music are the relationships that you compose, and I was wondering if you could comment on your transition from these sounds to their relationships.

G.C.: I hope my music would sound organically unified and not sound like a gratuitous collection of sound effects. Otherwise if fails, you know? It couldn't be successful. I think sound is just one dimension, an important
dimension, but harmony, rhythm, of course, and form are other elements that are just as important to me. The right notes [laughter from all] are something I think music should have. The sound then should be integrated and should always support the emotional or the expressive
sense of the music. That at least is the intention, that it be integrated. It can be from any source, as you say. I sometimes borrow instruments, you know. I've used sitar in one of my pieces, but not like it would occur in Indian music at all, you know. I'm bent in my own way [laughter from all], a more Western way of using sitar, but the sound I loved, and I wanted that connotation in that work called Lux Aeterna.

R.D.: Did you ever find a way . . . I recall that you had a desire to incorporate the diggeridoo in . . .

G.C.: Well, I own a diggeridoo and I thought about the problem, but several of the Australian composers have used it very well already. [Crumb laughs] They've pre-empted the “digg as they call it. [laughter from all] Really, many of them have used it. It is almost a symbol of the native Australian music. But you know, even the tiny little instruments can have a very special voice and might be effective if they fit into the music--like the prayer stones or a tiny little voice like that. I love instruments though, and I am delighted that the percussion world is an explosion of possibilities. It is ongoing. [Crumb laughs] Oh, and electronic music has been such a large effect on our hearing, and I think it's enlarged our sense of what sound is. So even though I don't use those things directly, it has changed my hearing and effected the way I write for instruments, I think.

J.P.: Moving from your writing for instruments to your writing for the voice, I think you have a very unique and successful style of solo vocal writing. I believe you mentioned in your article “Music: Does it have a future?” that the choral idiom was one that had not been fully explored in the 20th Century. I was wondering, with your penchant for vocal writhing, why hadn't you ventured into choral writing?

G.C.: Well, I think it has been more used with the European composers; there are several interesting works. It's hard to think of American composers [as having] really successful works. Say, you know, earlier pieces maybe. In post 1950's pieces it's gone all in the solo voice and
especially the soprano voice. Psychologically, I don't know whether the chorus it too large a voice. It is more like the people's voice, or something, and the music had become more introspective. You know, like one voice? Still, there are beautiful possibilities there, and that may come back even for American composers too.

J.H.: Now, with the technology that we have, interactive performance is a real and distinct possibility with the audience members themselves either consciously or unconsciously determining the shape of the music. Where do you see things like that going?

G.C.: Those are all interesting experiments. A lot of that was done in the sixties already. You know, some things kind of showed up there for the first time maybe, and are resurfacing a little as kind of an evocation of that time. But one can't discount any possibilities. Normally, I do think of
composing as not so much a committee project. You know
the Yellow River Concerto and other such works? Even the Russians, you know, the Russian Five composers collaborated on a couple of string quartets, one movement by each composer. It didn't represent collectively the best that those composers had done, you know. So, I think that music can be experimental. Maybe something can be learned. It would be a form of improvisation. It guess it would be a form of chaos-theory, you know? [laughter from all] If [Crumb laughs] too many people are involved . . . but that could be fun too I suppose. [Crumb laughs]

J.H.: The one differing element that we have today is that with computers, you're able to set up intelligent programs that can take what material that audience may submit and then emulate the composer's mind in the treatment of that material.

G.C.: Umm-humm.

J.H.: So, it is just a very neat time to be working . . .

G.C.: Yeah, it is something out of my experience. You know, that application of the computer? I would never really use the computer in any sense. I see its value as a copying device. All my students use it habitually now. [laughter from all] They don't use erasers, and they
don't get ink on their fingers any more. [Crumb laughs] You know, like in the old days? And then, of course, [there is] synthesized sound; there are impressive pieces that involve that. As far as the computer as a
composer, one wonders, you know? I can be convinced. If the next Eroica Symphony comes from a computer . . . so be it [laughter from all], you know? One has doubts but . . .

R.D.: Well, my final question . . . and I think we'll give Julie the final question. [Crumb laughs] My final question: It seems to me in the early part of your mature period you were very much an alternative voice in the field of composition. I wonder if you felt a weight or a pressure that what you were doing wasn't like [Duckworth laughs] what the other composers were doing. If you did feel that weight, how did you handle it? How were you able to maintain your [musical] convictions? You were certainly able to. You've always had a consistency,...and I would like to know how
you were able, after finding your voice, to sustain it?

G.C.: Well, you know in writing music I never felt like it was a process of protest against prevailing styles. I guess [that is] because the influences on my music tended to be more turn-of-the-century rather than influences from exact contemporaries. Oh, there are some small things maybe, some vocal writing influence of Boulez and Berio. The larger things, I think, tend to, for composers, straddle the century: Bartok, whose early work crossed the century, Debussy, Mahler, and Charles Ives maybe; and those composers interested me because their music contains...it's an anti-purist approach. Their music pulls in all kinds of things that didn't seem to belong in the same piece, you know? And yet they were masters of style, and their style seems elegant and organic and compressed, you know? And entirely convincing despite the plurality of the things that went into their music. As we're approaching now another turn-of-the-century, I think there is going to be even more interest directed to the
last turn-of-the-century, you know, because we are facing the same problems.

J.P.: As a very successful composer, looking back, what advice do you have to give the young composers who still may not have found our unique voice or may not have mastered all the techniques but are at that stage where we probably need advice from the people who have done it?

G.C.: Well, most advice is not very valuable, I think, because all the young composers are in the process of finding their own voice. Nobody can tell them, you know, “Write that, that's your voice! You know? That is a process of self-discovery. I've always thought originality was an important element, maybe a very important element in music, but since there is so much music to process, composers today, including myself we are apt not to even find our own voice until we're into our thirties, say.
Sometimes, I've even known cases when even later it develops. The problem is that there is too much music; we know too much, you know, which is good and bad. [Crumb laughs] It delays us. Of course maybe we live longer too . . . so we have a chance to...once we find our style.
Any advice would be not so important as that recognition that it's just a process of being yourself, I guess; learning what “yourself is, you know? Your own DNA patterns? [laughter from all] All that.

R.D.: Well, thank you very much for coming into the studio today, Mr. Crumb. We certainly appreciate your presence here at the University and on the Unclassical Show.

G.C.: I've enjoyed chatting with all of you.

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