R.V.B. - Hello Dr. Crumb, how are you today?
G.C. - Oh fine, thank you.
R.V.B. - Thank you for taking this time with me... I am honored. I understand that you had a big birthday concert recently?
G.C. - Well there have been several concerts. That's the only nice thing about being 85. (haha) There were concerts here and there. There was just one in Russia a few days ago... in Moscow.
R.V.B. - Did you appear at any of them?
G.C. - You know, I don't travel much anymore at all. I just can't do it because I have trouble with my legs. That comes from being 85... some people escape it, but I didn't escape it. I had an X-ray recently and I think it comes from bad hip joints... I'm told. It's pretty nasty. A lot of doctors wouldn't even touch somebody 85 years old. I rely on Aleve pills. (haha)
R.V.B. - Well as long as you can make it to the composition table. (haha)
G.C. - Yeah, I'm still able do that. (haha)
R.V.B. - That's important. Did you appear at the local concert for you?
G.C. - There was one here at the University of Pennsylvania. I used to teach there and they did a couple of pieces on mine at that concert, which was about 2 or 3 weeks ago. I did get down to that one.
R.V.B. - How was it? Was it a nice event?
G.C. - Yes, it was a good performance. They did "Black Angels"... my quartet. They did a little suite for Christmas. That was an earlier Cantor work. Yes it was nice. My colleague Richard Wernick is having his 80th birthday, and he had to work on the same program. So it was a dual celebration. Wernick at 80 and Crumb at 85 years old. (haha)
R.V.B. - That's a lot of years of experience. So starting from the beginning, when you were a very young child, what was some of the first music that you were exposed to around your house?
G.C. - My father was a clarinetist and he conducted a Masonic band. My mother was a cellist, so there was quite a lot of music going on. They played in the local orchestra and there was a chamber music society. This was in Charleston West Virginia.
G.C. - It was a small city. There was no more than about 60 or 70 thousand people. It is the Capital of West Virginia. It's not a big city so I never that that experience when I was young. They had a local orchestra.
R.V.B. - Did you live in the city or were you on the outskirts?
G.C. - We were right in the city itself.
R.V.B. - What did you do for fun as a kid?
G.C. - We were very close to the hillside. We were about 3 blocks from the hill in one direction, and in the other direction, we were 3 blocks from the Kanawha river. It's a rather large river that runs right through the city. A lot of my activities had to do with climbing that hill...(haha) throwing rocks in the river.
R.V.B. - Did you go fishing?
G.C. - No, I was never into fishing as I was into music quite early. My mother started me out on the clarinet. I was playing a little E-flat 5 because my hands were too small for the regular adult size B-flat clarinet. I was playing piano for about a year in that same period. I must have been about 6-7-8 years old.
R.V.B. - I gather you had a lot of instruments lying around the house. Did you have any formal lessons or did your mother teach you at first?
G.C. - My father taught me clarinet and I had some formal piano lessons when I was around 10 or 11. They ended when the teacher moved to another place. I didn't pick up the lessons again until the last year of junior high school. I was playing by ear a lot.
R.V.B. - What type of songs were you tackling at that time?
G.C. - I was playing classical things like preludes by Bach and some easier Chopin pieces... when I found a teacher that carried me through high school.
R.V.B. - Were you involved with a music program in high school?
G.C. - I played for a while in the orchestra but it was quite a small orchestra. There was a shortage of young string players in a place like Charleston. I met my wife in a harmony class. We actually had a harmony class in high school, and not every high school had that.
R.V.B. - So your wife is a high school sweetheart.
G.C. - She is... yes. She's the one... you've heard her voice when you she picked up the phone.
G.C. - We got married when I was 19 so it's been quite a while. (haha)
R.V.B. - That's a great accomplishment in itself.
G.C. - I guess... (haha) now-a-days it might be exceptional, but perhaps not so much for my generation.
R.V.B. - Was there any traveling shows or orchestras around the city?
G.C. - Yes, there was a community orchestra. It wasn't top notch of course, but they did some standard pieces. Most of the Beethoven symphonies... Shubert tone poems... things of that kind... Mozart occasionally. My father played the Mozart concerto with the orchestra once. I realized it wasn't a top notch orchestra because we would get the New York Philharmonic on the radio on Sundays... in those days. You could hear the difference of course, but it was a good experience growing up with some kind of live music.
R.V.B. - Was there any particular artist at that time that you locked into where you said "let me look into studying this person" or did that come later in college?
G.C. - I guess the first strong influence I had outside the classic romantic period would have been Claude Debussy. When I was in high school, my teacher put me on to some of the Debussy preludes. That really opened up my mind to a lot of things. I didn't realize music like that was possible. In a couple of years, I guess I was on to some of the Bartok, micro-cosmos pieces. Later, when I was in graduate school, Bartok became a dominate influence on my music. I still love his music very much.
R.V.B. - He seemed to touch a lot of people. He was very innovative and very creative.
G.C. - Yes, he was a marvelous composer. Later on, I got to know the string quartets very well. Incidentally, my father had a rather extensive collection of miniature scores. Most of them were Eulenburg scores, but he had a few more recent pieces. I really didn't get to see the scores of the Bartok quartets until I was about 21 or so.
R.V.B. - Were there local music stores where you could purchase these scores?
G.C. - No, they didn't stock things like this. There were a few scores in the local library, but my father probably had around 300 scores. His sister studied in Europe and bought these things during the big depression over there. You could get them for next to nothing. This was the way he built up this big library.
R.V.B. - Did you have a record collection in your house also?
G.C. - Just a few... records were pretty expensive in those days of the old 78's. My father probably had about 40 of them. A couple of Beethoven symphonies... a couple of Tchaikovski symphonies. There was a lot of music involving clarinet, like the Brahms quintet... The Mozart quintet.
R.V.B. - My daughter played the clarinet. I love the sound of the clarinet.
G.C. - Yes, it is a beautiful instrument. My father was really quite a virtuoso... it seems funny to say that because he was in a relatively small place. He was trained in Cincinnati but he liked the smaller cities, and his performance was much better than his opportunity. My mother was a decent cellist but not quite at the level of my father's playing.
R.V.B. - You went to a local college correct?
G.C. - Yeah, it was a little school called "Mason College of Music and Fine Arts". I had a good teacher at piano there... Arthur Mchoul. We worked on several rather large pieces. I liked the 8th Beethoven sonata... the A-flat sonata. I played one of Mozart. Those 2 works were included in my final recital. There was nobody equipped to do composition lessons there. I was always writing on my own.
R.V.B. - Was that your first major recital or did you have some performances prior to that?
G.C. - Oh yes, there were some performances even back in late junior high school, with the earlier teacher I had. His name was Charles Greybill. He was the first teacher I had that had a big influence on my playing. He was also a church organist, so I think some of the first recitals were in the rooms at the Sunday School at the church.
R.V.B. - You moved on to get your Masters at the University of Illinois... is there any reason why you chose that school?
G.C. - I had attended Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, when I was just out of high school. I met a person there and who remained friends with me. He said "Why don't you come out to Illinois? There's all kinds of exciting things happening out there". Stravinsky's son taught piano there... Soulima Stravinsky. The old man would occasionally visit there. John Cage had a stay there in one period. I saw some of these people who came through like Ralph Vaughan Williams. Elliot Carter came through with his 1st string quartet, because it was commissioned by the resident quartet of that University. It was called "The Walden String Quartet". I was very impressed by that work... his early work.
R.V.B. - So all of this information and knowledge started sinking in, and your music started taking shape as to what direction you wanted to pursue?
G.C. - Well I got a much wider sense of what music was at that time in the world. Before that, my experience was rather limited. I had little glimpses here and there. A few Bartok pieces, as I mentioned, and late Debussy pieces. I have to confess, I wasn't even acquainted with Mahler's music until I was about 25 years old. Then that really hit me hard, and he became one of my favorite composers. That was all before Bernstein popularized Mahler. There were not many works of Mahler that was still in the repertoire at that time. So I went to the music school record library and I found in most cases, very poor recordings of some of the off symphonies that were never played in the west anymore... like # 6 or # 3 and so forth. I fell in love with that stuff, and I'm proud that I was ahead of the Mahler hysteria. My classmates and my teachers thought I was crazy. They said "What are you looking at this overblown stuff for?" I sensed there was something in there and it still remains with me. Those were composers that were big influences... Debussy...Bartok... Mahler... and later Charles Ives. I found him later late also.
R.V.B. - I wanted to just ask a general question about West Virginia in that time... did you take in any of the local country music that was going on?
G.C. - Oh sure, you couldn't avoid it, because it was always on the radio in the area. As a matter of fact, Charleston West Virginia was like a smaller Nashville. There was an awful lot of activity in that music genre. It was on the radio just as much as the swing period.
R.V.B. - What did you concentrate on in your graduate studies?
G.C. - By the time I was in the Masters program, I was studying composition. I also studied piano but I didn't do a recital. My composition teacher was Eugene Weigel. He was a former member of that resident quartet. He broke away from that and wanted to get into composition. He was an important influence in the two years that I was there.
R.V.B. - And to complete your studies, I see that you went to Berlin for a short period of time.
G.C. - Yes, but before that I had 2 years at Ann Arbor Michigan. Then I went to Berlin... mainly just to sample the opera there. It was before the wall and the best opera was in East Berlin.
R.V.B. - What kind of Operas did you see there. It must have been exciting.
G.C. - They played things like Wozzeck, and beautiful performances of the classical opera repertoire. Everything was just so well done. It would cost almost nothing in those days. We got 4 West Marks on our dollar, and we got 4 East marks for our West marks. I studied with Boris Blacher when I was in Berlin but I didn't get much out of that. I think he had too many students and I was kind of tired of studying at that point. I think I was doing too much studying of composition and not getting out enough on my own.
R.V.B. - Did you compose any pieces in school that remain in your repertoire ?
G.C. - I think I have quite a few pieces that I don't think that I want anybody to hear.
R.V.B. - (haha)
G.C. - It was just a process of learning. I was writing music from about 11 years old. My first pieces were kind of in the style of Mozart. I felt that was contemporary music at that time.
R.V.B. - It had a flighty... bouncy feel?
G.C. - Oh yeah, they were really stealth. (haha) I wonder how many composers have gone through that process? I started with Mozart... I worked my way through Beethoven... and quazi Debussy... and of course I wrote a lot of in the box style pieces.
G.C. - My first job was a lead position in a school down in Virginia. It was called "Hollins College". It was a very small department and I was just mostly teaching music appreciation and a little bit of theory. My next teaching job was at the University of Colorado. It seemed like there weren't that many jobs for composers in those few years. I was on the piano faculty out there. After a year or two they let me do some classes in contemporary music. I even took on a couple of composition students. Finally, I felt that I had to come east because the opportunities there were kind of sowed up in the departments.
R.V.B. - Was the area beautiful out there?
G.C. - Yes, we loved the place but it was a dead end in the piano department. I wasn't a real virtuoso... I was taking a lot of secondary students. At least it was a job... that was the main thing.
R.V.B. - Is that when you landed at the University of Pennsylvania?
G.C. - Yes, I had met George Rochberg, who brought me to Penn. and offered me the job later, but I first met him when I was teaching college classes at Interlochen... for two or three years. He visited there for some reason. I think I showed him my compositional thesis at that time. The piece was called "Variazioni". It's been recorded. It's partly my own music with a mixture of all of the music that I loved at the time. (haha) That was my dissertation in Ann Arbor. He kind of liked the piece... it hadn't been played yet but he looked at the score, and later offered me a job to come to Penn. I was eager to find a position in my own field and that's why I came east.
R.V.B. - Apparently you enjoyed the position because you had a long successful tenure there.
R.V.B. - I gather that was in the mid 60's. How did you find time to compose when you had your occupation as a college professor?
G.C. - That was another nice thing about Penn... my schedule wasn't that heavy. There was a lot of time for my own work. I did several works also in Boulder. "Five Pieces for Piano" I did in Boulder. I also did "Four Nocturnes" for piano and violin. "Night Music 1", which was the 1st work I did in Boulder. I picked up momentum when I moved to Penn. I began to find my own way more and more precisely. So much of composition is just groping. It's something that you don't do immediately, but you try to find a way to do it... to bring it out.
R.V.B. - Obviously you went into the avant garde a little. Was there anything that triggered that? Such as asking the players to wear masks.
G.C. - I guess I was just becoming more familiar with a lot of music, including European music. I met Stackhausen... he came out on a visit to Boulder. The composition department there wasn't having much to do with any of the visitors. We had him over our house, and my wife made him a nice dinner. David Burge was there... he played my early piano music. He seemed enthusiastic about my piano piece called "Five Pieces for Piano". Then we had a visit by Olivier Messiaen. A lot of people came through there, and that sort of expanded my sense of what music was all about.
R.V.B. - You mentioned "Five Pieces for Piano" The composition "Vox Balaene" has a lot of unusual things on that one... prepared piano... the vocalist was singing through a flute.
G.C. - You know, really the 1st piece that's kind of more like I did at a later time, was "Eleven Echoes of Autumn". I wrote that within the first or second year that I came to Penn. That is more typical of my later music than anything that I had done before. I discovered the whole timbrel side of music was going to be an important element for me. Some of the other things that you mentioned... certain theatrical elements are in the music there too.
R.V.B. - You seem to push the envelope on certain instruments, such as getting harmonics on stringed instruments, putting a paper clip on a piano.
G.C. - Yes, I was exploring the sound possibilities. When I first got into this, I had not heard a note of John Cage. I knew there were composers like Cage who experimented with extended sounds of the piano. I worked on my own and I had no immediate influence, except that things had been explored a little bit.
R.V.B. - Did you have a lab... so to speak... where you tried out some of these techniques before you wrote it down or did you imagine these techniques and then try them out?
R.V.B. - I understand you compose from a room in your house.
G.C. - Yes, that's it.
R.V.B. - What do you have, as far as instruments in that room?
G.C. - I only have a small Steinway grand piano. That's what I had in recent years. I had a different grand piano. We bought a piano at a little place here in our area. I can't even remember the name of it. It wasn't a famous make of piano. I think it was a German "Moerer" or something. I wanted a grand piano.
R.V.B. There was a time where everyone was making pianos. It's a shame it's still not that way.
G.C. - That's right. Good heavens, there must have been a hundred piano manufactures at least, in the United States.
R.V.B. - You still run across them in Salvation Army's... these really odd names.
G.C. - The list is unending of the makers. (haha) I think there are only 3 left.
R.V.B. - Well you have Steinway over by me... here in New York.
G.C. - You have Steinway, Baldwin, and Cunningham, I think that still make them.
R.V.B. - You don't get the acoustical effects with electronic pianos like the hammer hitting the strings, the creaking, the mechanism of the pedal making sounds. Getting back to my question... did you try out various techniques?
G.C. - Yes, I would introduce a foreign object like a metal chain... paper on the strings, for a certain effect... but the fingers alone can produce a lot of these special sounds. There are harmonics or various partials that I use a lot. The piano can become a chamber of bell sounds.
R.V.B. - Very interesting.
G.C. - There are many beautiful colorations that can come that way. Then you have the plucked effect with a fingernail or in some cases I use a guitar plectrum for a little stronger plucked effect.
R.V.B. - Some of the other instruments that you have experimented with techniques. Do you alter stringed instruments or did you ever alter a harp?
G.C. - Yes I have, but in most cases I borrowed techniques from Carlos Salzado, like threading paper between the strings of the harp, which I used in "Ancient Voices of Children". It gives a very special bite to the plucked string... when there's paper there. I've used other things like pedal glissandos. Carlos used that a lot in his compositions. He influenced the way I think about the harp.
R.V.B. - You had mentioned earlier "Black Angels". I see in that song, that you employed crystal glasses.
G.C. - Yes... I just love that sound. It's a pure sound. We used to amuse ourselves around the dinner table. We have a few pieces or really fine crystal that really makes a beautiful musical tone.
G.C. - Well It's part of our environment. I used to have a theory that composers grew up in a certain environment and their music reflects that. The train sound is pretty far away from my music. Honegger used it in a piece about a locomotive. I was thinking of the echoing effect of a train in my home town. I once wrote that I inherited that acoustic. It was an echoing acoustic. There was a river there, and the sounds from the river would ricochet off the hill. That stuck in my mind as a natural acoustic. In an article once, I even said maybe all composers have a natural acoustic. If they grew up on a sea shore... in a desert... in a big city... there are all of these different sounds that probably find their way into their music.
R.V.B. - Right... one way or another. Whether it's a dynamic or emulating the sound itself. Let's say that you go to sleep and you dream something. Does that ever come out into your music?
G.C. - I think most of my ideas actually come when I sit down to work and probe on possibilities. I do a lot of sketching... I have sketch books. I'm a very slow composer and I have to do a lot of pre-sketching. I have to admit... to me, composing is a little like pulling teeth. It's a very exhausting process. I've always admired those composers who can do it easily. Like Mozart.
R.V.B. - How about Bach? Didn't he kick em' out? How many pieces did he do?
G.C. - Yes... oh Lord. (haha)
R.V.B. - What was your process in the 60's and 70's, when you were moving along at a prolific rate, of finding someone to perform your pieces.
G.C. - That developed sort of by itself. I didn't look for people. I think it first started with David Burge. He died just a couple of years ago. He was a big influence on me, because he performed my "Five Pieces for Piano" in many cities around the country. He commissioned my "Makrokosmos Volume 1". He recorded that and played that all over. It was then picked up by other pianists. The later piano works were also played quite a bit.
R.V.B. - Did you travel the world a lot?
G.C. - After my stay in Europe as a Fulbright student for that year, I don't think I traveled again for almost about 15 years. I've made so many trips back. I think I made at least 40 trips back to Europe... a couple of trips to Australia... 3 trips to the Orient. We were even in Africa twice.
R.V.B. - Were these trips to see performances of your works?
G.C. - Yes... either that or lectures.
R.V.B. - Let's pick Africa... What did you do over there?
G.C. - My piece "Voice of the Wale" was performed there in Cape Town. My wife and I went there twice actually. There were a couple of works that were performed there. They were performed in a recital hall in a university.
R.V.B. - When you traveled to these cities did you take in the sights, culture, and museums?
G.C. - Well not so much museums, but we sampled some of the music. We picked up a little of the music... which is interesting. The big thing we did in touring was visit a big animal park... Kruger National park. We were there 3 days. It was incredible seeing elephants and giraffes out in the fields. It was quite an experience.
R.V.B. - With all of the work you have done, there are some personal rewards such as your music being performed by top notch musicians. You also receive awards such as the Pulitzer. How was the feeling for you to receive that honor?
G.C. - It's always exciting for a composer to win an award like that, but it's a little distracting too. Suddenly you're besieged by more invitations than you should accept. For a couple of years, you're trying to find your way back into a more stable way of thinking about your own work. Your trying to defend yourself against too many invitations where people want you to speak. I'm not a very good speaker about my music. I don't like to do that very much.
G.C. - I went down there for that. Actually, I was the only classical composer. (haha) The rest of them there were what we were talking about, "country music". I think there were a couple of jazz people there. There were mostly performers in these more popular fields. That was interesting. The sounds with some of these back woods Appalachian singers... you'd think you were listening to Chinese opera sometimes... metallic and raucous.
R.V.B. - Each little village and it's environment breeds its own style of music. Like the Carter family... they were isolated and discovered, luckily for us.
G.C. - I'm sure you know the Library of Congress took field trips to find these people and record them. There was a lot of that going on.
R.V.B. - The exploration needed to be done back then. It's all fantastic discoveries.
G.C. - That's all important. I think it's part of my music. In recent years I've done some American songbook pieces... folk songs scores. A lot of those things I remember about performances came back to me in my own scoring.
R.V.B. - You did a series of them right?
G.C. - There's over 7 works with 5 hours of music all tolled. They are rather long compositions. Some of them approach 50 minutes. My daughter got me into that. She's a Broadway singer. She has done jazz, and has always loved folk music... Ann Crumb. Recently, she's been singing not only these folk songs but also some of my more contemporary pieces.
R.V.B. - I understand your son is into music also.
G.C. - My older son is a composer... David. He teaches out in Oregon, at the university there.
R.V.B. - It had to be rewarding... as I mentioned that top notch musicians played your music, but you also taught a lot of students that went on to successful careers. How does it feel to know that you helped shape other talented people in music?
G.C. - I've always enjoyed teaching. I know that some composers don't really like it that much. I've never had schedules that were too oppressive. We had some wonderful students at Penn. Many of them were from other countries. It was really rewarding.
G.C. - It's a piece that's not played as much as my others... it's called "Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death". It's one of the larger works in my Lorca Cycle. That was written in 1968. It was written mostly during the summer. I was teaching at Harvard University in Cambridge. I was teaching a summer course in contemporary music and I had an office with an instrument. I had a good place to work there. As I said. it's not played as much as "Ancient Voices" or "Apparition", but I've always liked "Songs and Drones".
R.V.B. - What do you have going on these days... are you working on anything?
G.C. - Yes, I'm close to finishing a piece for percussion alone. It's a quintet for 5 percussionists. It's a work in 3 movements, which I call "Xylophoney". I may have coined a word there. (haha) It's a little like "Voice of the Whale" or "An Idyll for the Misbegotten". There's a little concern for what's happening to the planet Earth. "Xylophoney" is really what I call "The Music of the Forest". It's a hymn of praise to the forest.
R.V.B. - Do you have the xylophone in there?
G.C. - Oh yeah, I have the xylophone... 2 marimbas... in fact the wooden instruments kind of take the lead, but I couldn't restrict myself to just the wooden instruments. It's too staccato. (haha) So you need a vibraphone... tubular bells... and so forth.
G.C. - Not really. When I scored for a special instrument like the banjo... I don't know how many composers write for the banjo... I bought my own banjos so I could explore a little bit of the possibilities. I played a tiny bit of viola in my younger days, so I could move my fingers on the strings. The thing with the sitar... I scored that in one work called "Lux Aeterna". I did the same thing, so I could probe the possibilities.
R.V.B. - There has to be a lot of possibilities for that instrument.
G.C. - It's a beautiful instrument. My brother "William" played flute. He loaned me his flute when I was planning to do the "Vox Balaenae", I experimented with that a little. Of course, I played the clarinet... I could do the breathing stuff. I wanted to experiment with singing and playing at the same time... that I used in that work... certain effects of deadening the sound.
R.V.B. - You used a soprano singer
G.C. - Jan DeGaetani. She was one of the great singers of contemporary music that ever lived. Not only for me but for so many other composers. She was just the tops.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet her?
G.C. - She did the first performances of my "Madrigals Book 1 & 2", which was in Washington DC. She was in the Arthur Weisberg Ensemble. The next thing Jan did of mine was "Book 3 &4". Then she did "Ancient Voices of Children" which I wrote specifically for her. That was also with the Arthur Weisberg Ensemble out of New York City. I did some later pieces for her also. She was just spectacular.
R.V.B. - She did have a nice voice. I sampled some of her work.
G.C. - Yes, she had a beautiful voice. I hadn't heard her voice until she did my first 2 "Books of Madrigal's". What amazed me was her precision and her incredible range of coloration that she can give to her singing. She could do anything that you could imagine. If you would ask for white tone, she would give you a known vibrato like you've never heard. Her intonation was incredible. She did not have absolute pitch but she had the most dependable relative pitch of any singer I've ever met.
R.V.B. - Do you have perfect pitch?
G.C. - No, I do not. I was measured once and I was close to it but it wouldn't qualify as real perfect pitch.
R.V.B. - Well it sounds like career is still going strong, and you still have lots of creativity ahead of you. We are all eager to hear more.
G.C. - Well, who knows? You never know. You always feel "Is this piece any good?" I have doubts about every piece I write, until it gets through my ear and hearing it... and it can prove itself and is worth somebody else hearing.
R.V.B. - I guess you don't realize how good your work is until somebody else tells you?
G.C. (Haha) Well, of course I love it if somebody really likes a piece. It will make me feel that it's worth while writing music.
R.V.B. - The music community is proud of your accomplishments and I'm sure you and your family are also. Congratulations on your career.
G.C. - Thank you very much. It's been very nice chatting with you.
Interview conducted 12/10/14 by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information visit George Crumb's website www.georgecrumb.net/
Thanks to Bridge Records Inc. www.bridgerecords.com
Photo credits Becky Starobin
For More information or to advertise on this site contact musicguy247(at)aol(dot)com
Musicguy247 has thousands of rare music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items