George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

George Crumb: Jumping Off The Page to Become Sound

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting because there’s an area that you haven’t explored in your music or at least in any of the stuff that’s been published and is out there and it was certainly a very big undercurrent when you rose to prominence in the 1960s and that’s the whole field of electronic music. I mean, you’ve certainly amplified instruments and I think you’ve even used an electric guitar here and there. But you’ve never really plunged into work on synthesizers or wrote tape pieces or computer music. That somehow stayed outside your work.

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, yes. I think because I need the human element underscored in my music, but even there I’d have to say that electronic music, the advent of that music, has had an enormous effect on all music today, including my music very much. I think probably we will hear Mozart differently because of this. Our ears are turned. And as a matter of fact, it started before the first synthesized sound; it started when records were first being made. Our hearing was already changing with the very earliest recordings. It gave us a different sense of sound and so forth. The microphone placed a little different, you know, or bringing out certain partials or qualities of attack or decay. Our hearing is totally changed and I’ve never been as attracted to the pure form of it. I mean, I can’t admire the machine. I think music depends on the bravurial amount and we depend on performers to convey that element of excitement and the machine itself can’t convey it excitement unless it’s compositional.

FRANK J. OTERI: So then, the future of this music?

GEORGE CRUMB: Mmhmm. Who knows? I would say that it’s limitless. It could go in any direction, but I suspect it’s going to be rather totally, involving the total musical culture.

FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of music that’s evolved in the recording studio, using electronics, is not notatable and as a result doesn’t exist on the page. You might have people improvising in the studio or creating in the studio or shaping sounds in the studio. Brian Eno, who began his career making rock albums, once famously said his instrument is the recording studio, and this is true for many of today’s composers including Paul Lansky and Virgil Moorefield whom we featured in NewMusicBox a few months ago.

GEORGE CRUMB: That makes sense. You know, in the sense that I think too, you know, it’s not a detriment that it’s can’t be really notated conveniently, because jazz would have the same objection… Look, Gunther Schuller in his big book on jazz was trying to notate some of that stuff. It looked impossible in the actual, you know, you’re getting into proportions and complex things, but it made what seemed simple by ear, a very complex, unnatural thing on paper. It wasn’t invented for paper.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now in terms of the future of music, your son is a composer.

GEORGE CRUMB: Yes, uh-huh.

FRANK J. OTERI: Your daughter is a jazz vocalist and also a musical theater and classical vocalist. You’ve taught for many years, and you’ve talked about practicalities. What else should younger composers and musicians be thinking about?

GEORGE CRUMB: Well, I suppose that you could tell students a lot of things. One of the safest things to tell them is to really, what the bottom line is, is discovering their own persona. Who are they? There’s nothing new about that. That’s what the old Greeks talked about too, you know. Who am I? All about discovering yourself. And that’s not so much in your control. You can just get at it obliquely, you know, and hope that it develops. But there are so many things that choke music. You mentioned the period of the ’50s or the ’60s that carried over where there was a sense that there was an international style that was kind of, you could describe it as either post-Schoenberg, or post-Webern. It choked the life out of a lot of composers because everybody was trying to do a style that was, first of all, done better already by those people. You know, you can’t re-write that music and make it better. It had a lot to do with canceling out personality. I think it did incalculable damage. I was so happy when the idea became more prevalent that this is just a man-made definition of musical style. There could be a thousand styles…There may have been a very few composers, my colleague George Rochberg, I think, was the absolute master of the post-Schoenberg style. He did better than anybody else, in his early music when he was involved in that, it didn’t dampen his energies as a composer and his personality came through very strongly in those early works.

FRANK J. OTERI: But then he certainly turned around.

GEORGE CRUMB: Oh, yeah. Then he did a complete about-face. Yeah. That’s just an example of how some people can overcome that kind of suppressing effect that—it may be the idea that there is only one way. I always hated that idea…

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s funny. I’m finding out that even in my own music. When I was in college in the very early-’80s it was the very last gasp of that post-Webernian, pointillistic orthodoxy, and I did everything I could to avoid it, but now that that style has fallen from grace, I find it really interesting to listen to and perhaps even work in.

GEORGE CRUMB: I find it beautiful. I’ve always loved Webern especially and Berg! Good Heavens! What a composer! And moments in Schoenberg, so I’m not speaking against the origins of that, but it became a kind of university music…

FRANK J. OTERI: Are there any composers or styles of music that you are not at all interested in?

GEORGE CRUMB: It’s hard to think of any that don’t have something in them.

FRANK J. OTERI: Today’s pop music. Do you listen to it?

GEORGE CRUMB: Oh, yes, I hear it because my son has an enormous collection of international rock. Anytime I make a trip to any country, I have to bring back what’s going on in the contemporary field. He has maybe a couple thousand CDs.


GEORGE CRUMB: And that stuff’s floating around the house.

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to look at that collection!

GEORGE CRUMB: (laughs) Yeah, you can take a peek! I can say my music has amplification too, so maybe there’s a little influence in that direction.

FRANK J. OTERI: Any thoughts on rap music?

GEORGE CRUMB: Rap? I don’t know anything about it much. I’ve heard a couple of examples. It didn’t bowl me over but maybe I’m missing something, you know.

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