One 12 months in the past, the remaining star within the Twentieth century’s firmament of indisputably sui generis composers was extinguished: George Crumb, the final of the “Three Cs” – Cowell, Cage, Crumb – pioneers of the avant-garde piano. He was additionally a outstanding pal and mentor whom I had the privilege of working with throughout his autumnal years.
At any time when I visited George Crumb and his household, I’d say to my cousin-cum-dogsitter: “How typically are you able to say you’re going from a house with six canine to at least one with seven canine?” The Crumb members of the family are all passionate canine individuals, and this turned one of many irresistible bonds between us.
I first bought to know George across the flip of the millennium when he got here to my Makrokosmos seventieth birthday tribute for him at Merkin Live performance Corridor in New York. By the point his seventy fifth birthday rolled round in 2004 (which I celebrated with one other full efficiency of Makrokosmos I and II, this time at Carnegie’s Zankel Corridor), the Crumbs had accepted me into their family the place I had the privilege of spending all the main holidays of the 12 months. These events stay amongst my happiest reminiscences.
Margaret Leng Tan performs “The Magic Circle of Infinity” and “Twin Suns” from George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I and II
They have been idyllic occasions the place we talked about canine as a lot as we did music. Usually the kitchen was a hive of exercise the place George’s spouse Liz, their kids Ann and Peter, and I’d collect and keep on uninhibitedly animated conversations. George’s focus was spectacular. He would blithely proceed composing, unfazed and oblivious to the commotion, deep in his otherworldly universe. After retiring in 1997 from over 30 years of educating on the College of Pennsylvania, George lived in a contented bubble. After a productive morning’s work, he would be part of us within the kitchen exclaiming, “Joyful canine, glad days!”
When visiting the Crumbs, I most popular sleeping on the household room couch the place I may watch late-night motion pictures. After which I’d drift off, lulled by the chimes of the grandfather clock. Better of all, George would begin work at 5 a.m. in his converted-garage workroom. Faint tantalizing fragments of melody would seep into my slumber – mysterious and microtonal since George seldom tuned his Steinway.
At some point in 2012, which was the John Cage centenary 12 months, I occurred to say to George that, for me, his Makrokosmos sequence and Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes have been the pinnacles of Twentieth-century avant-garde piano writing. George let that sink in after which responded with, “Hmmm, perhaps I ought to write one other piano cycle.”
I used to be visiting on July 4, 2015 when George casually dropped his bombshell: “Margaret, I’m about prepared to put in writing a brand new piano cycle which I’m calling Metamorphoses, and the primary quantity can be for you.” George then proceeded to tug out a number of artwork books to point out me the assorted works he had chosen to interpret in his “Ten fantasy-pieces after celebrated work.” Forty years had elapsed since his Makrokosmos sequence of the Nineteen Seventies. This was a historic event certainly!
And so started the step-by-step creation of a composition that unfolded over the subsequent 18 months. I used to be extraordinarily gratified that George tailor-made the work to my explicit idiosyncrasies: the inclusion of the toy piano and small percussion (largely toy), utilizing my voice in uncommon methods – most strikingly, studying to caw from the numerous crows frequenting the Crumb yard, apropos of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows. Not like Makrokosmos, the place George delivered every accomplished quantity to its dedicatee, George gave me every particular person Metamorphoses motion when it was prepared. I’d work on the most recent piece, journey to his house in Media, play it, and obtain the subsequent installment. Ever modest, George would invariably say, “Let me know if that is rubbish. As of late it’s getting more durable and more durable to put in writing – perhaps I’ve mentioned all of it.”
Our work periods have been exhilarating and enjoyable. I beloved seeing George’s pleasure on listening to his music for the primary time. I’ll at all times bear in mind his delight after I performed him the opening piece of the gathering: his interpretation of Paul Klee’s Black Prince. He exclaimed, “I’ve written a superb piece – Liz, come and listen to this!”
George was at all times open to solutions. These have been normally particulars that surfaced from a performer’s perspective and fairly often he would incorporate them into the rating. Early on, I gave George an in depth diagram of the live performance Steinway inside to remind him precisely the place the crossbeams intersected the strings. This was to stop any inadvertent strums throughout strings separated by a beam, absent in his studio piano. It at all times amazed me that this logistical drawback by no means arose within the Makrokosmos items that George composed with out entry to a Steinway live performance grand. George attributed this fortuitous happenstance to pure luck!
George’s music has at all times posed unconventional challenges for the performer and is, at occasions, punishingly demanding. He asks that the pianist possess not solely extremely proficient keyboard abilities but additionally be considerably of a jack-of-all-trades – harpist, percussionist, vocalist, even an actor and athlete!
To accommodate his novel inside-piano strategies George needed to invent his personal vocabulary of notational symbols. These are an inherent characteristic of his beautifully-wrought calligraphic scores, that are really a visible delight. He jogged my memory of a medieval scribe painstakingly lettering each observe, even drawing his personal staves. George was inherently a poet as effectively; his scores embrace colourful verbal directions subsequent to the tempo indication on the high of every piece. These bon mots are a veritable treasure trove for interpretive insights e.g. “Eerily, with a way of malignant evil” or “Slowly, plaintively (like a damaged idyll).”
One night time I used to be working towards in George’s studio. Round 1 a.m., I discovered George (who was normally in mattress by 8 p.m.) on the kitchen desk jotting one thing down on an insurance coverage flyer. He had give you a toy piano melody for Chagall’s Clowns at Night time and thought it was value noting, lest it was passed by the morning. Clowns’ somber temper is symptomatic of the foreboding that permeates a lot of Metamorphoses, Guide I; Wheatfield with Crows (van Gogh) is ominously disquieting, whereas Perilous Night time (Johns) and The Blue Rider (Kandinsky) are pushed by a breathless urgency. Dalí’s The Persistence of Reminiscence, nevertheless, is translated into an elegiac ode to his youthful days rising up in Appalachia.
Margaret Leng Tan performs “The Blue Rider” from George Crumb’s Metamorphoses, Guide I
In February 2017, I used to be contacted by Chuang Xu, a younger Chinese language pupil who had chosen me to be the topic of his masters thesis in documentary filmmaking on the Faculty of Visible Arts in New York. His timing couldn’t have been extra excellent. My response was, ”Do you wish to be in on one thing historic? Then include me to Media at any time when I go to George Crumb this spring.” Chuang was thrilled to conform; all in all, Chuang and his faculty colleague Ziyu Tang captured over 16 hours of our Metamorphoses periods. This footage now resides with the George Crumb Papers on the Library of Congress.
Chuang fulfilled his masters necessities together with his documentary, Twinkle Dammit!, which follows the making of Metamorphoses Guide I, culminating in its Could 7, 2017 premiere on the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork with George in attendance. The Washington Put up hailed Metamorphoses as “a placing new work from a composer who, at 87, exhibits no signal of slowing down.” Twinkle Dammit! went on to win a number of awards at worldwide movie festivals. My phrases to Chuang on the finish of the movie have since come again to hang-out me: “In fifty years from now, you’ll be my age. I can be lifeless and gone, and George can be even longer lifeless and gone. You’ll drink a toast to us and assume again on what a particular time in your life this was.”
October 23, 2019 was the eve of George’s ninetieth birthday. I used to be in Singapore for the Asian premiere of Metamorphoses after I realized that Ann Crumb was very in poor health. I used to be lucky to get again in time to say goodbye earlier than she tragically succumbed to most cancers. Ann’s dying was a merciless blow that George by no means actually recovered from. Then in March 2020, the pandemic introduced the world to a juddering halt. George and Liz have been basically relegated to solitary confinement for the subsequent two years.
It was not till July 4, 2021 that I used to be in a position to go to George once more. George was nonetheless cellular, however frailer than he was at Ann’s memorial 18 months prior. On the final day of my go to, George introduced me with the rating of Metamorphoses, Guide II, which is devoted to the pianist Marcantonio Barone. George’s parting phrases to me have been, “I hope to listen to you play this very quickly, Margaret, and hopefully you’ll file it, too.” What a present and on the sixth anniversary of Guide I!
George by no means bought to listen to me play Guide II. The next week he suffered a stroke that affected his potential to learn and to precise himself fluently. The final time I noticed him was in September 2021, throughout a lull in Covid’s relentless mutations.
George died peacefully at house on February 6, 2022 on the age of 92 together with his beloved pitbull-mastiff Zeus protecting vigil, as he had finished with Ann. Elizabeth Crumb adopted her husband three months later. They’re buried within the cemetery close to their house of over 50 years.
As I labored on Metamorphoses, Guide II within the months following George’s dying, I may really feel his presence coursing by way of the music. Like Guide I, it’s by-and-large a darkish work. His eerie setting of Gauguin’s Spirit of the Lifeless Watching is weighted with premonition, however van Gogh’s Starry Night time, the closing chapter of George’s last composition, is luminous and transcendent. Close to the tip, there’s a elegant second the place rising fourths alternate with a ghostly “wind music.” It’s as if George himself is ascending into his infinite cosmos, guided by the wordless whisperings of angels.
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