Tuesday, September 18, 2007

American Voices and George Crumb

I’m trying to find some scraps of time to get back into new blog entries this week. My schedule has been extremely busy lately because of multiple performances in Dayton, but it’s been really fun to get back into the professional music-making life after a restful summer.

Last week at DPO I played some really cool American orchestral works: Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2 (The Age of Anxiety) and Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral. (Norman Krieger was the piano soloist on the Bernstein; it was quite an excellent performance.) The fall line-up at DPO is dedicated to American composers exclusively, as part of the NCR Made in America Festival (supported by NCR and the National Endowment for the Arts).

This week I am involved in a special festival performance of George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, his beautiful song cycle from 1970 (based on texts by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca). Crumb is one of America’s most treasured art-music heroes, having contributed many massive and thoroughly unique chamber ensemble masterpieces to the American repertory over the last few decades. Ancient Voices is scored for a pretty strange cast of instrumental and vocal forces: mezzo-soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, musical saw, harp, amplified piano (and toy piano), and percussion (three players).

The texts are evocative, earthy, and emotionally direct. Crumb responds to Lorca compositionally through music that is just as direct and earthy: Highly decorated melodies, a wide palette of musical colors, and special sound effects are incorporated into a sound world that seems ancient yet energetically alive and virile.

Crumb has always written well for his primary instrument, the piano, and he is one of the chief innovators of music that is played “inside” the (grand) piano. I am required to play directly on the piano strings in this piece, and I thought it would be interesting for readers if I shared a couple of these techniques through some pictures.

The photo below shows me plucking the strings (like a harp) using an upward finger gesture from the string. I should mention that this technique (and all of the others shown here) are made sonically possible only by depressing the damper pedal and allowing the strings to vibrate freely.

This next picture shows the preparation of a very cool (and extremely loud!) technique using both hands on the lowest strings of the piano. You can see that my left hand thumb is poised at the edge of the lowest bass strings (just in front of the hammers), which will perform a rapid glissando across the notes of the bass region. At the same time, my right hand will swipe some bass strings (using my fingernails) which will create a “whistling” sound. These two gestures combine to create a powerful "whoosh" that will knock you out of your seat!

Here’s what my hands look like AFTER I’ve played the gesture (notice where the hands have moved):

Finally, here is a picture of an even more strange and wonderful example of Crumb’s endless creativity in generating instrumental sound through extended techniques. This technique is called “chisel-piano”: I hold a metal chisel (precisely 5/8 inch wide) in my right hand with the point resting firmly on a specific string and produce sliding pitches by moving the chisel up and down the string. You can see that I have specific places marked with bits of masking tape. These bits of tape, which are place on the strings directly next to the ones I have to “chisel”, show me where to move the chisel to produce specific pitches. My left hand plucks the string to get it vibrating. Then I move the chisel rapidly from pitch-point to pitch-point, creating a ghostly and eerie sound completely removed from any other sound normally associated with the piano.

Yes, I know what the request will be for this post: can I please hear these effects? Well, if you can, come see the concert! This piece (as well as any of Crumb’s other compositions) needs to be experienced live to get any idea of what his music is all about. If you can’t make it, I’ve posted a video here of a portion from one of Crumb’s solo piano works. (Someday when I'm less busy I'll get the equipment/software to do my own sound files on the blog...)

Below is a video performance of a movement ("Primeval Sounds - Genesis I")from George Crumb’s solo piano masterpiece Makrokosmos I, Margaret Leng Tan performing. You can witness one of the wonderful special effects I mentioned above, the glissando effect on the strings. (Notice that there is a small chain placed on the bass strings during most of this movement; it adds a “rattling” sound to the music.)

Guest pianist Andrew Russo will be playing this work in the first half of our Wednesday night concert devoted to the music of George Crumb.


BellCollecting.com said...


Could you tell me who the musical saw player is for your 'Ancient Voices of Children', please?
I love this piece. I played the musical saw part in it with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zubin Mehta a few years ago.

All the best,


Joshua Nemith said...

Hi Natalia. Yes, I agree that it is a wonderful piece too. It's great that you got to perform "Ancient Voices" with Zubin Mehta.

The lady who played saw is Laura Hazelbaker, a Cincinnati-based violinist. She has a website: www.laurahazelbaker.com

BellCollecting.com said...

Hi Joshua,

THANK YOU for the info!
I'll ask her if she knows about the Musical Saw Players Festival in NYC - it sure would be great to meet her.

All the best,


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