George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children

The year before going abroad for the first time in 1977, I had started listening to more and more 20th Century “classical” music. My interest in this music probably started with Stravinsky, spread to Bartok, and lead me to the hardcore German atonalists-Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Fancying myself on alternate days as something of an avant gardiste, an anti-bourgeoisie, and even a Dadaist, I listened to these pieces more for their philosophical and intellectual interest rather than how pleasing they sounded. This type of music became so reductionist at the end that composers often would write on a page of sheet music the instruction: “Improvise!”

Another famous composer, John Cage wrote a piece called 4′ 33″ which consisted of a pianist sitting still at a piano not playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. Around that time, I began to find modern works too taxing, and the public and composers must have dones so as well because in the past 20 years the pendulum has swung back and modern music has become much more palatable.

George Crumb, a modern composer born in 1929, hit his stride in the late 60s and early 70s and his music is about as avant garde as you can get. However, there is something about today’s piece, Ancient Voices of Children, which I instantly found alluring, and I still enjoy it today. It dates from 1970, and seems to signal the beginning of a new direction in music.

In Ancient Voices of Children, Crumb set the poetry of Federico Garcia-Lorca to music. Crumb said his goal was to create “musical images that enhance the powerful, yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca’s poetry.” To this end, Crumb employed prepared instruments–mandolins tuned out of key, pianos with pieces of junk stuck in the strings, a harp with sheets of paper woven into the strings.

Crumb also had the mezzo-soprano sing into the strings of the piano to give her voice haunting overtones. At one point, he has the oboist pull out a harmonica, and at other times the percussionist bangs on Tibetan prayer stones, Japanese temple bells and a tom tom. What always charmed and fascinated me about this piece, however, was the inclusion of a toy piano in one passage of the work. It adds a child-like quality and relief after a gripping and very serious mood. Perhaps this sums up the short poem by Lorca:

my heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies, and with bees, and I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to ask Christ the lord,
to give me back
my ancient soul of a child.

Crumb was 41 when he wrote this piece. Perhaps he was expressing the lament of every middle aged person thinking about the lost opportunities one wasted in one’s youth or the child-like wonder at the magic of life and all things new before one falls prey to cynicism as many do. Perhaps that sense of the inherent sadness of the human condition is what gives the work its depth. And for me, it still has enough mystery and beauty to it that gives it a certain staying power.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children

  1. Hi Kurt, another very interesting post, thanks. I had an opportunity to take part in a weekend of workshops and concerts celebrating John Cage a few years ago at London’s Barbican Centre when I was with the BBC Symphony Chorus. We had to do things like stand in small groups in the foyer of the theater and count in different times before singing different sequences of notes to each group – like playing tag almost. We also performed some pieces with ‘prepared piano’ which certainly was an experience I must admit. I find it difficult to engage with music that is totally off the wall, but usually make some sort of effort at least to understand what the composer is trying to say/do etc.

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    • kurtnemes says:

      Great point. In my younger days, I did listen to a lot of what back then was labelled modern music. I liked Berg and Webern, Schoenberg and even loved this George Crumb. I had to draw the line at Stockhausen and Cage though. Some of their stuff just made me physically ill and I think the centuries will prove that people deep down prefer melody. We also might be hardwired to appreciate harmony and rhythm and tone. These latte convey much emotional content in our language. Music is a nice outgrowth of that. The 20th century experiments to me seem to be interesting arrangement of sounds and chance, but they don’t satisfy emotionally. While I know life on earth might be random, that doesn’t mean I want to structure my life that way. I do find it fascinating to wonder what the experience is for the performer? Was performing Cage emotionally satisfying for you?

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      • It’s so interesting isn’t it – this preference for musical form. Is it nature or nurture? Anyway, some of the short performances I was involved in were quirky and fun, so that was fine – they were things like starting a melodic piece from a certain bar number determined by the throw of a dice and then stopping after a short time, also determined by dice. Then repeat etc. But singing a-tonal music accompanied by prepared piano? That’s certainly something that left me cold. The pianist took it extremely seriously I remember. Perhaps that was to stop herself from running screaming from the building…..

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