INSIDE Chico State
0 December 12, 2002
Volume 33 Number 8
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Renowned American Composer Rocks Our Little World

Musicians assembled for Chico recording of George Crumb's compositions

Musicians assembled for Chico recording of George Crumb's compositions: (L to R) David Colson, CSU, Chico; Stephan Tramontozzi, double bass, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; Tony Arnold, soprano, Chicago; George Crumb, composer, Philadelphia; and David Starobin, president, Bridge Records, Inc., New York City. Chico musicians not pictured: Percussionists Paul Herrick and Dan Kinkle, and pianist John Milbauer.

CSU, Chico was honored on November 22, when George Crumb, perhaps the most famous American composer alive, visited the Performing Arts Center recording studio to cut a CD of some of his newest works.

The 73-year-old Crumb, whom critic David Burges refers to as "the best-known composer of his generation … [and as having] … won every major prize and honor" (including the Pulitzer Prize), came to town in search of Chico's own formidable percussionist David Colson, who joined Crumb's entourage (soprano Tony Arnold, flutist Rachel Rudich, double bassist Stephan Tramontozzi, and harpist Beverly Wesner-Hoehn) for the recording.

Crumb is a fabulously pictorial composer, so much so that even the stuffiest, opposed-to-anything-modern audience cannot help but be drawn into his world. He manipulates splotches, glissandos, twitterings, and bursts of vocal and percussive sound in ways analogous to a more traditional composer's manipulation of notes -- so that one suddenly finds him- or herself listening to an engaging -- if radically new -- language, and absolutely enjoying it.

Crumb also has a delightful sense of humor, which surfaces frequently in his work -- most especially in the "jewel" of his new CD, Madrigals, Books I-IV. These 12 "madrigals" are based on lines from the famous 20th-century Spanish-language poet, Federico Garcia-Lorca.

Like Crumb, Garcia-Lorca (a nonpolitical poet and dramatist who was nonetheless murdered during the Spanish Civil War) wrote poetry filled to the brim with vivid visual and sound-enhanced images. So the two make a perfect match -- both in method and, I think, in philosophy. Both tend to look at life from a slightly detached and ironically humorous perspective, a perspective which, it might be said, takes life more seriously than many of the too-serious people engaged in it.

One can see this mixture of irony, humor, and visual intensity in many of the single lines on which Crumb bases his music: "The dead wear mossy wings"; "Night sings naked above the bridges of March"; "Through my hands' violet shadow, your body was an archangel, cold."

An example of how this works might be found in Crumb's treatment of Garcia-Lorca's Spanish, "La muerte entra y salida de la taberna" (Death goes in and out of the tavern). In Crumb's arrangement, the flute does an opening-door squeal, which is followed by the jingling of beads. Then this happens again. Clearly, Death has come and gone. Has he taken someone? Has he merely dropped by for a drink? Who knows? But then, Death is like that.

Multiply this by 12, and you have some sense of Crumb's totally engaging collection of sound-images: syllables bounced about by Ms. Arnold's exquisitely accurate soprano voice, wood blocks galloping down to the river, a "shshsh" of wind whispered through a vibraphone of raindrops, the spooky whispering of the aforementioned "mossy wings," a double-stopped string bass watching -- like Death.

And to add icing to the cake, the School of Humanities and Fine Arts (helped by a number of donors) managed a free (!) concert of Crumb's work the evening before the recording session, a concert so many people came to see that Crumb, Colson, and their fellow musicians played it twice.

Absolutely incredible stuff! Go buy the CD when it comes out in March. And remember, it happened here, at CSU, Chico.

Ernst Schoen-René, English
Reprinted with permission of Chico News & Review.

 

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