Word 87 (Clarities)
I am engaged in a late-game effort to learn George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn for a concert October 12-13. There are the usual interior and exterior piano techniques, muting, harmonics, pencil erasers, whistling, chanting, et cetera. I showed someone one of the spirally pages. “Play anything!” she said. “Who will know?!”
This might feel true, to someone seeing or hearing Crumb for the first time, but it’s not. Crumb has his own dialect with its own rules. It’s incredibly logical, once you get into it. I’m not one of those people who can juggle pitch-sets in his ear while listening to Boulez or Carter; I’m not talking about mysticism or witchcraft here. Quite the opposite: the compositional means are pretty specific, maybe even too specific. Sometimes I feel like he wrote the piece immediately after walking out of the final exam for a set-theory class.
So, I can’t just play anything. If I played “The Girl from Ipanema,” they would know. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. If I started playing the national anthem, or “What a Fool Believes,” or the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, they would know. Especially after it went on for a while.
I wrote a few undergraduate pieces that tried to rip off Crumb, Webern, Bartok in his night-music mode. This, as it turns out, is hard. It’s hard to write something that precisely spooky (Crumb), that wild-mercury (Webern), that serenely unsettling (Bartok). It’s hard to execute bombast like Beethoven or unpredictability like Cage. I once sat through a concert of piano works by Ferneyhough and a bunch of Ferneyhough-adjacent composers. All of the music thought it was intense and bewildering, but only the Ferneyhough piece actually hit that bar.
Anytime you’re accusing a composer of being too overt, maybe what they’re actually doing is being clear with their intentions.
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