George Crumb: Makrokosmos I & II

Makrokosmos I & II

by Steven Bruns

George Crumb’s Makrokosmos pieces for amplified piano were created during an especially fertile period of his compositional career. Crumb had received the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Music (before turning 40), and he produced a series of masterpieces in rapid succession: Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968), Night of the Four Moons (1969), Ancient Voices of Children and Black Angels (1970), and Vox Balaenae (1971). Volume I of Makrokosmos followed in 1972 and Volume II in 1973. The twenty-four “fantasypieces” of Makrokosmos remain the most comprehensive and influential exploration of the new technical resources of the piano from the latter twentieth century. Indeed, very few post 1950 piano compositions continue to be so widely performed and recorded, and from the present vantage point, it seems increasingly certain that these pieces have earned a secure
place in the repertoire.

Despite the many innovative features of this composition, the general conception of the two volumes of Makrokosmos belongs to the long and venerable tradition of composing pieces that demonstrate the technical and musical resources of an instrument. One of the composer’s sketch pages reveals that he intended to write “an all-inclusive technical work for piano ([using] all conceivable techniques).” The most celebrated precursor of this kind of work is Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, comprised as it is of two volumes, each with twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key. Bach’s imposing compositional vade mecum was later joined by Chopin’s Etudes and Preludes, Liszt’s
Transcendental Etudes, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, and similar works by Rachmaninoff,
Shostakovich, and others. Crumb has specifically acknowledged the influence of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos (in six volumes), and Debussy’s Preludes (like Crumb’s, arranged in two books of twelve pieces).

As is true of most of Crumb’s music, the rhapsodic, quasi-improvisatory impression of many passages in Makrokosmos belies an extremely precise compositional design. The voluminous compositional sketches for the work reveal the composer’s meticulous planning, from the large-scale formal shape of each volume down to the smallest details. Chopin’s manuscripts confirm that the apparently “free”
filigree in certain passages is in fact the result of painstaking revisions. Crumb’s sketches illustrate a similar concern for a perfectly balanced musical conception. Just as pianists come to appreciate the intricate architecture of Makrokosmos in the process of rehearsal and performance, the design of each piece and of the whole crystallizes for listeners after repeated hearings.

At one stage in the genesis of Makrokosmos, Crumb had planned three volumes, each with nine pieces plus an Epilogue. He ultimately settled on 24 “fantasy-pieces” (a subtitle alluding to Schumann’s Fantasiestücke). The twelve pieces of each volume are grouped into three parts of four pieces, and each part is to be played without interruption. Crumb highlights this formal design by notating the last piece of each group of four as a “Symbol.” For example, in Vol. I, piece 4 (“Crucifixus”) is in the shape of a cross, no. 8 is a circle, and no. 12 is a spiral. Recalling Debussy’s Preludes, each piece has an evocative title (e.g., “The Mystic Chord,” “Gargoyles,” “Spring-Fire”). Reflecting his preoccupation with time and space — in a musical as well as general sense — Crumb assigns to each movement a sign of the Zodiac. At the end of each piece, he appends the initials of a person born under the corresponding Zodiacal sign; these “enigmatic” dedicatees include the composer’s friends and family, as well as admired figures of the past (e.g., Brahms, Federico García Lorca, et al.). Volume I as a whole was composed in memory of Béla Bartók and is dedicated to the composer’s friend, pianist David Burge. Volume II is in memory of Gustav Mahler and is inscribed to the late Robert Miller. With this characteristically rich array of extramusical annotations, George Crumb suggests the multifarious influences on the composition.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Makrokosmos, and of Crumb’s music in general, is the dazzling exploration of musical timbre. Virtually every imaginable pianistic tone color is exploited in the work. The palette of traditional pianistic colors — those produced by playing on the keyboard as usual — is enriched by traversing the entire pitch range of the instrument, using special pedal effects, and exploiting an extraordinarily wide dynamic range (amplification makes possible not only tremendously loud sounds, but also helps us to hear extremely soft ones.) The blurry washes of sound throughout result from strategic use of the damper and sostenuto pedals, and all three pedals are used to create myriad gradations of color. At the opening of I/1 (“Primeval Sounds”; I/1 is the abbreviation for Volume I, piece 1), the “darkly mysterious” low chords — which emerge as a kind of indistinct rumbling — are played with the damper pedal down and “sempre pppp,” a dynamic marking on the threshold of audibility. Crumb seems to be depicting a world “without form, and void,” out of which
his musical macrocosm will emerge (the opening piece is aptly subtitled “Genesis I”). The sostenuto pedal is used far more extensively than in previous piano music. For instance, in the second and third pieces of Volume I (“Proteus” and “Pastorale”), the pianist holds down the middle pedal throughout,thereby allowing all strings of the lower half of the piano to vibrate freely. In these two pieces, the sympathetically vibrating lower strings create delicate, echoing “halos” around the incisive,
quicksilver notes in the high register.

Throughout Makrokosmos, sounds produced from the keyboard are combined with an extraordinary assortment of “inside-thepiano” effects. The pianist uses her fingertips and fingernails to pluck and strike the strings at various locations, to play glissandi across groups of strings, and to slide or scrape along the length of the string. She creates translucent harmonics by lightly touching nodal points on
the strings. In “Voices from ‘Corona Borealis,’” for example, whistled notes eventually are joined by glassy 5th-partial harmonics. The fingertips also serve to dampen vibrating strings, sometimes at the same time that the pianist strikes the notes on the keyboard, resulting in muted drum-like sounds. For instance, after the ponderous opening bass chords of I/1, resonant, thumping notes are repeated intermittently in the middle register. In other passages, the pianist produces unpitched percussive effects by knocking on the metal crossbeams and soundboard of the instrument. In I/6, “Night-Spell I,” a haunting, nocturnal atmosphere is evoked by the knocking that ushers in the whistled “Nightbird’s Song.”

Reminiscent of John Cage’s “prepared” piano, Crumb opens up further coloristic possibilities by using assorted foreign objects to alter the basic timbre of the instrument. Unlike Cage, however, Crumb has the pianist place and remove these objects during performance, not beforehand. Soon after the dark opening chords of I/1, for example, she drops a light metal chain onto the bass strings; for the rest of the movement, the vibrating strings cause the chain to produce a metallic rustling. In I/5, “The Phantom Gondolier” (Crumb’s sketches connect the piece to Mann’s Death in Venice and a Poe story), the pianist wears metal thimbles on her right thumb and middle finger to create a range of metallic hammered and scraped sounds. The opening of I/9 recalls the obscure “primeval” chords of I/1, and then the pianist uses a metal plectrum to scrape slowly along the ridges of the metal winding of the low bass strings. The “Morning Music” that opens Volume II calls for a sheet of paper to be placed on top of a two-octave span in the midrange of the piano, thus producing a brittle buzzing with each note attack. In II/5, “Ghost-Nocturne,” two sliding glass tumblers produce an uncanny, spectral bending of the pitches.  Like most Romantic souls, Crumb seems most at home in the nocturnal realm, as one can sense from this “Night-Spell II” (II/5) and its counterpart, I/6.

The otherworldly pianistic “voices” in Makrokosmos are further extended by the dramatic and sometimes startling vocal effects uttered by the pianist. The composer’s notes to himself in the working sketches indicate that the vocal effects were calculated “to intensify” the music. In I/5, the pianist heightens the eerie, daemonic affect by moaning, half-singing (“like an incantation”), and humming. In the next movement, the whistled Nightbird’s song is answered at the end of the movement by human song, in the form of nostalgic whistled fragments from the Appalachian hymn, “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown?” Crumb seems here to remind us that the source of all instrumental music is song: whistling is the closest humans can get to imitating the “Urmusic” of birdsong. Was it the arioso passages of the op. 110 piano sonata that induced Crumb to consider quoting it near the end of Volume II? (He opts instead to recall in II/11 a moment of transcendent lyricism from, appropriately enough, the “Hammerklavier” sonata.) True virtuosity is demanded by II/10, in which each statement of the Passacaglia theme calls for a different whistling technique: a conventional whistle, “warbling,” molto vibrato (“quasi Theremin”), and finally a vibrato-less “flautando.” Elsewhere, the pianist conjures up wind sounds (I/9 and II/9). In the “Ghost-Nocturne” (II/5), she acts as a kind of human sound synthesizer, altering the timbre of each plucked bass tone by simultaneously singing the phonemes “wã-õ” in a “nasal, metallic [voice] like the Indian Tambora.” Thus, her voice and the piano’s “voice” seem to merge.

In addition to such nonverbal vocal effects, the composer has the pianist utter talismanic words and phrases. The first instance is “Christe!”, which she shouts in I/4 (“Crucifixus”), during the final moments of Part One. Part Two (I/5) incorporates words borrowed from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (“Irimiru! Hass! Karabrao!”), and the composer indicates quite specifically how each word should be intoned. The violent “Cadenza Apocalittica” of II/7 culminates in the pianist shouting “Tora! Tora!
Tora!” over the closing, explosive cascade of notes. (This was the Japanese code —“Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”— for the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

One further refinement of George Crumb’s vast timbral palette is his detailed descriptive directions for the performer. In addition to the usual indications for tempo, dynamics, and articulation, he includes powerfully suggestive verbal phrases that point to the intended sonic and expressive effects. For example, “Night-Spell I” (I/6) includes the following indications: “Poised, expectantly,” “incisive, clear,” “Serene, hauntingly; echoing [like an Appalachian valley acoustic];” and “languidly, as from afar.” The “Spiral Galaxy” which closes Vol.1, should sound “vast, lonely, timeless.” The final movement of the entire work, “Agnus Dei,” is to be very slow; like chanting; tender, wistful; like a vision; as if suspended in endless time.”

Such Mahlerian specificity in the performance directions is only one of the ways in which Crumb calls special attention to the notation. The six “[SYMBOL]” pieces that mark the end of each four-movement subdivision are spectacular constructions on many levels, and they highlight the rich symbolic world of the composition as a whole. The cover if this recording reproduces the score of the final piece, “Agnus Dei.” Because the composer's draftsmanship is so exquisite, many people are surprised to learn that almost all of the published scores are photographic reproductions of Crumb's own manuscript.

George Crumb has often said that he is drawn to the “balletic” qualities in all live musical performances, and this “choreographic” aspect is essential to the piece. As is well known, many of his works call for theatrical actions from the players. Makrokosmos defamiliarizes the act of performance in somewhat quieter ways than, say the 1967 orchestral work, Echoes of Time and the River, in which Crumb has groups of players move across the stage in ritualized “processionals.” Yet, from beginning to end, listeners are enthralled by the pianist's every sound and gesture. That is why it is so important to experience Crumb's music live. Happily, this new DVD makes available for the first time a complete aural and visual recording of Makrokosmos I & II by on of the foremost exponents of the “new piano” and celebrated Crumb interpreter, Margaret Leng Tan.

In repeated encounters, listeners will surely discover for themselves the endless riches of this masterful composition. Every movement of Makrokosmos is a beautifully constructed “microcosm” floating amid George Crumb's unforgettable musical universe.

Hailed by The New Yorker as “the diva of avant-garde pianism”, Margaret Leng Tan is renowned for her performances of American and Asian music that transcend the piano's conventional boundaries. She has progressively perfected an individual style fusing sound, choreography and theater, inspiring composers to create performer-specific works for her, among them John Cage, Tan Dun, Ge Gan-Ru, Aaron Jay Kernis, Alvin Lucier, Michael Nyman, Somei Satoh, Toby Twining and Julia Wolfe.

One of the most celebrated performers of John Cage's music, Ms. Tan appears in the Public Broadcasting System's American Masters films on John Cage and Jasper Johns performing works by Cage. Her acclaimed Cage recordings on Mode, New Albion and ECM are critically regarded as definitive interpretations. As the world's first professional toy pianist, Ms. Tan has transformed a toy into a legitimate instrument. Since her groundbreaking album, The Art of the Toy Piano (Philips/Universal), composers have continued to create an adventurous new repertoire for her toy pianos and toy instruments. Award-winning filmmaker Evans Chan has captured the many facets of Ms. Tan's talent in his Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan (2004), a 90 minute documentary feature which has been screened at several international film festivals.

Ms. Tan celebrates George Crumb's 75th birthday with a Carnegie Hall performance of Makrokosmos I and II concurrent with this first DVD release of Crumb's music.

Composer, singer and whistler, Alex Nowitz studied music in Munich, Berlin, Potsdam (Germany) and Potsdam (USA), graduating in 2000 with top honors from the University of Potsdam (Germany). He has written chamber and electronic works, music for theatre and dance, and is currently working on a chamber opera, Die Bestmannoper, which has been presented, in part, by the Kammeroper Schloss Rheinsberg. His composition, About Noah's Boat of Ants for toy piano, was premiered by Margaret Leng Tan at the 2000 “Faszination Klavier” exhibition in the Museum of Musical Instruments, Berlin.

Margaret Leng Tan's and Alex Nowitz's 1999 performance of Makrokosmos I and II for Freunde Guter Musik, Berlin, in celebration of Crumb's 70th birthday, was broadcast on Deutschland Radio in 2000. Mr. Nowitz was the runner-up in the 1994 “Pfeifen in Walde” (Whistle in the Wood) Competition in Berlin.

Steven Bruns is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is completing a comprehensive critical study of George Crumb's music. His most recent work on Crumb appears in George Crumb and the Alchemy of Sound: Essays on His music, co-edited by Bruns, Ofer Ben Amots, and Michael Grace (Colorado College Music Press, 2004).