In New York Times critic John Rockwell’s book All American Music (1983), composer George Crumb didn’t merit a single mention, despite ethereal, poetic, and utterly unclassifiable works like Ancient Voices of Children (1970) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Echoes of Time and the River (1967)–critics and audiences alike have always seemed more comfortable with Copland’s brio or even Elliott Carter’s formal punctiliousness. But Crumb, who turned 70 last October, may finally be getting his due; at any rate, this weekend’s two-concert retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art is a step in the right direction. He’s a true innovator, combining elements from antique forms, including Gregorian chants and madrigals, with modern 12-tone techniques and startling flurries of sound; he also likes to use unconventional instruments like Kabuki blocks, toy piano, banjo, and mbira. Ancient Voices, one of the pieces to be performed on Saturday, yokes together styles as disparate as flamenco and Baroque, and references to Mahler collide with hints of traditional Chinese music. It’s scored for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, electrified piano, and a complement of percussion instruments; Barbara Ann Martin, a friend of the composer for over 20 years and an important force behind this retrospective, has sung the lead in at least 65 performances of the piece–and she’ll do it again here. Like Night of the Four Moons (1969) and Madrigals, Book I (1965), two other settings of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry that Martin will perform on Friday, it asks the soprano to click, drone, and even produce choruses of echoing sympathetic tones by singing into the piano. But Crumb roots his work in emotions, so the idiosyncrasies of his style need not be alienating: 1997’s playful Mundus Canis (on Friday’s program), for instance, memorializes his beloved dogs, and he composed the oldest work on the bill, 1947’s Three Early Songs (to be performed Saturday), for his college sweetheart and future wife. With the exception of Martin, the musicians for the retrospective have been drawn from a pair of excellent local new-music consortia, Ensemble Noamnesia and Klang. James Freeman, another longtime Crumb booster, will conduct, as will the composer himself. Friday and Saturday, 8 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; 312-397-4076. A free panel discussion with Crumb, Noamnesia’s Gene Coleman, and others will be held in the MCA’s theater at 10 AM Saturday.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sabine Matthes.