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Music History

A Crumb Score Demystified

December 28, 2019

Crumb’s music is like no one else’s. He always sounds like himself and has remained true to his personal style for over 50 years. His scores are equally unique. He notates practically every type of sound, whether traditional melody and harmony, imitations of nature, or new sounds from his imagination. He gives extensive instructions yet he strikes a balance between notating exactly what he intends and allowing performers to make their own interpretations.

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), written nearly 50 years ago, is a Crumb classic that shows his typically creative voice. Here’s some background on the piece from flutist Tara Helen O’Connor:

This article will break down a few of the incredible sounds in the piece and how they’re notated in the score. You don’t need to know any of this stuff to enjoy the piece—part of its charm is its spontaneous, improvisational atmosphere. However, what sounds spontaneous is often anything but. The following will give a little insight into Voice of the Whale and how it’s put together.

Vocalise (… for the beginning of time) – Wildly fantastic; grotesque

The piece begins with the electric flute (aka amplified flute) imitating whale songs by singing and playing at the same time. The score instructs that the flutist’s singing and playing should be “perfectly balanced.” The flute’s extended vocalise is only accompanied by the piano’s damper pedal, which is held to create a resonant, underwater sound.

The flute solo ends with a parody quotation from Also sprach Zarathustra—the trumpet “sunrise” motive—and the piano makes its entrance with the orchestral chords and timpani part. (Voice of the Whale was written just three years after the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The theme begins in the lower, “sung,” line in the flute:

Variations on Sea-Time – Adagio; solemn, with calm majesty

After the underwater vocalise and the introductory fanfare, the theme begins. It’s played in harmonics in the cello accompanied by “Aeolian harp” style strumming in the piano. An Aeolian harp is an outdoor string instrument that sounds as the wind blows, similar to wind chimes. Though they’ve existed since ancient times, Henry Cowell first imitated the Aeolian harp on the piano in the 1920s. The pianist strums the strings inside the piano with their right hand while the left hand silently holds down chords on the keyboard—the held notes sound after they're strummed:

Archeozoic [Var I] – timeless, inchoate

After the evocative pictures of water and wind, the first variation starts at the beginning of life on earth: in the Archeozoic eon (also called Archean). Lasting from 4,000 to 2,500 million years ago, this eon saw single-celled organisms develop and begin to flourish. The cello starts with the “seagull effect,” a series of downward glissandos on harmonics. The piano keeps the glissandos going with the help of a small chisel on the strings.

Mesozoic [Var IV] – Exultantly!

After two variations of increasing energy and volume, the Mesozoic variation reaches a climax to depict the age of the dinosaurs. The flute and cello play in jubilant octaves and the pianist inserts glass rods on the strings to create a jangling sound.

Cenozoic [Var V] – Dramatic; with a sense of imminent destiny
Sea-Nocturne (… for the end of time) – Adagio; serene, pure, transfigured

In the final variation and the Sea-Nocturne, the music comes full circle. The Also sprach Zarathustra theme returns without the opening fanfare. New sounds continue to appear. The flutist and cellist whistle and play the antique cymbals. Finally, the piece slowly dies away with repeated figures in the cello and piano that fade into a silent pantomime and seven seconds of holding the end-of-time “attitude.”

To not just see but hear these techniques and many more, come to CMS’s George Crumb festival on April 14 and 16.

Article by Laura Keller, Editorial Manager.
Score examples courtesy of C.F. Peters Corporation.