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CDA: George Crumb

Ah, the great George Crumb - - extraordinary American composer, he died the other day at the age of 92. I was lucky to have heard (and often, turned pages for) the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society playing a few of his pieces. His music was sparkling, haunting, peculiar, utterly distinctive.


My favorite piece of his is *Ancient Voices of Children.* Here's an excerpt from my review of a concert by Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish at BAM in 2014, at which they performed the piece:


"I’ve had the Nonesuch recording of *Ancient Voices of Children* for over twenty years, and have never heard it live. This is a piece that, for me, only existed on that recording. It was thrilling to hear it live and hear how effective it is on the stage. It had the feeling of a ritual, it was totally captivating.


"Crumb set a number of Lorca poems, in Spanish. The instrumentation is for mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe (also playing harmonica at one point), mandolin (also musical saw), harp, piano (also toy piano), and three percussionists playing a whole battery of instruments (also singing). The piano writing is far from ordinary - - from what I could tell, the pianist never plays it the way one usually does, seated and playing the keys. The lid is off the piano, and (s)he plays the strings, and does various prepared piano effects, like putting an eraser between the strings so the sound goes THUMP.


"The piece opens with Upshaw singing directly into the piano. Kalish was holding the pedal down, so her voice made a shimmer and echo against the strings. It was a spooky effect. Upshaw was full force in the opening, and throughout the piece. This is just the sort of thing she should be doing. She told a story at the Q and A: she was a student at Illinois Wesleyan, she thought she’d have a career in musical theatre. She went to a bookstore one day and they had a box of albums for $1.99. She sifted through them and came across an album with a beautiful butterfly on the cover. This was the Nonesuch recording of *Ancient Voices of Children*. She bought it, took it home, put it on the turntable, and, she said, her life was changed at that moment. She never knew music could sound like that, and knew that her singing would need to shift more in that direction."


Here's a live performance in Stuttgart in 2019:



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