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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

Two collageurs of the 1960s did begin to prefigure postmodernist ideas and values, however. One was George Crumb (b. 1929), a colleague of Rochberg's (from 1965) at the University of Pennsylvania, who between 1963 and 1970 composed eight works to texts by the Spanish surrealist poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936): Night Music (1963); four books of madrigals (actually settings for solo soprano and chamber ensemble, composed between 1965 and 1969); Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968); Night of the Four Moons (1969, inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing that year); and Ancient Voices of Children (1970).

Collage as Theater

fig. 9-1 George Crumb in his garden, 1987.

Like almost all American composers of his generation, Crumb was trained in the academic modernist styles of the time. One of his early works, Variazioni per orchestra (1959), contains an homage-quotation from Berg's Lyric Suite (as the Lyric Suite had contained one from Tristan und Isolde), and his Sonata for solo cello (1955), one of his most widely performed compositions, is much indebted to Bartók. Dealing with Lorca's shocking imagery, full of nightmare visions and wild contrasts, aroused in Crumb “an urge to fuse various unrelated stylistic elements” so as to achieve similarly incongruous juxtapositions in his music.

Quotation of existing music was only one of the means Crumb employed to gain this breadth of reference. Strains of Bach and Chopin, particularly, waft through some of these pieces. Often, like Rochberg's quotations, they are etherealized: in Ancient Voices of Children the pianist plays an excerpt from Bach's “Notebook for Anna Magdalena” on a toy piano, and at the very end the oboist wanders slowly offstage while playing the “Farewell” motif from Mahler's Song of the Earth. But a more frequent source of disorienting imagery comes from the use of incongruously mixed timbres, often altered after the fashion of Cage's prepared piano.

A native of West Virginia, Crumb drew on youthful memories for some of these effects: banjo in Night of the Four Moons; electric guitar played “bottle-neck style” by sliding a glass rod over the frets hillbilly-fashion in Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death; mandolin, harmonica, and “musical saw” (a carpenter's saw set in vibration by a violin bow while being bent against the player's knee) in Ancient Voices of Children. These sounds of the American countryside are regularly combined with those of recognizably Asian percussion instruments like Tibetan tuned “prayer stones,” or Japanese “temple bells.” Altered timbres are obtained by sliding a chisel on piano strings, threading paper between the strings of a harp, fingering a violin or cello tremolo while wearing thimbles, tuning the unison strings on a mandolin a quarter tone apart, blowing into a flute while also singing, dipping a gong into a tub of water. Instrumentalists are required to sing, singers to play instruments.

Crumb's eclecticism was far more extreme than Rochberg's or Zimmermann's; but the difference was not just quantitative. It was different in quality as well, because its heterogeneous sources were not implicitly arranged in a time continuum. The ingredients in Crumb's collages were chosen not as representatives of styles but as expressive symbols of “timeless” content. Quoting Bach and Mahler in the context of Lorca was not an exercise in incongruity, but an affirmation of the relevance of all to all. There is no need for the sort of harmonizing or reconciling gestures Rochberg employed in Music for the Magic Theater, because the quotations were not jarring intrusions to begin with.

Nor were the heterogeneous timbres necessarily evocative of their specific origins. Nor were they mere atmospheric colors. Crumb was one of the first composers (in the 1980s their number would multiply) to make timbre his primary creative preoccupation, varying and nuancing it with great subtlety and resourcefulness while reducing the music's formal structure to simple repetitive or strophic designs and stripping its sound surface down to bare monodic or heterophonic textures. Critics marveled at the way in which timbre, often thought a decorative “nonessential,” could successfully replace the more “substantial” elements of music—the elements out of which most of the standard techniques in the modernist arsenal were assembled. Where the music of Rochberg, Zimmermann, and Brant seemed as much burdened by a sense of history as that of any modernist, Crumb's seemed virtually amnesiac, drawing on the music of all times and places as if it were all part of one undifferentiated “now” (as, thanks to recording technology, it had in fact become).

On top of this, Crumb joined with other composers of the 1960s and 1970s in introducing elements of theater or ritualized movement not only into vocal but even into instrumental compositions. As a result, his music became something of a fad with choreographers, whose efforts popularized it far beyond the usual reach of avant-garde music. Ancient Voices of Children joined the repertoires of four ballet companies—three in America, one in Lisbon—during the first two years of its existence. By 1985, Crumb's works had received more than fifty choreographic treatments.

Black Angels (1970) for amplified string quartet, in which the players wear masks and are asked to chant meaningless syllables and numbers in various languages and lend a hand as percussionists on maracas, tam-tam, and tuned water goblets, was the most celebrated instance of Crumb's instrumental theatrics and became perhaps the most imitated composition of its decade. It was composed at the height of the Vietnam war and its rituals—including a snatch of Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” Quartet played with a bizarre technique (bowing above the left hand with reversed fingering) that produces a weirdly strangled timbre—enact a kind of surrealistic funeral to protest the killing.

“Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle,” the third movement of Ancient Voices of Children (Fig. 9-2), embodies most of Crumb's distinctive gestures. The music is scored for a soprano or mezzo-soprano, an offstage boy soprano, an oboist, a harpist, an amplified pianist, a mandolinist, and three percussionists. It unfolds in two notated systems. The first consists entirely of an introduction for the woman singer, vocalizing into the piano to produce an eerie resonance. Her cry, “Mi niño!” sets the Dance, entirely notated on the second system, in motion.

The percussionists, notated across the bottom of the page, now enter, performing an ostinato pattern borrowed from Ravel's 1928 ballet, Boléro. Their crescendo-decrescendo pattern lends to the music whatever overall shape it possesses. Meanwhile, the setting of the poem, a question-and-answer dialogue between a mother and her unborn child, is notated in a literally circular form to symbolize the “life cycle” which birth initiates. The basic dialogue of mother and child, represented by the letter A, is performed by the two singers using Schoenberg's “sprechstimme” technique. The chief dance melody, for oboe, is represented by the letter B. The mother's refrain, “Let the branches ruffle in the sun and the fountains leap all around,” sung in a wild melisma by the soprano accompanied by a jangle of papered harp and quarter-toned mandolin, is represented by the letter C. Letter D denotes the two longest speeches in the poem, one for the child and one for the mother, unset by the composer, but to be performed with the same kind of exaggerated contour as the Sprechstimme; and E is a closing phrase for the electric piano.

The parts so designated overlap in a threefold cursus, A1-B1-C1-D1-E1||A2-B2-C2-D2-E2||A3-B3-C3, followed by a “cadence” (notated at the lower right), consisting of a shriek (or the instrumental equivalent) for all participants.

Collage as Theater

fig. 9-2 Crumb, Ancient Voices of Children (1970): no. 3, “Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle.”

Unusual layouts and graphics, like the circular notation of the Dance, were another of Crumb's signature devices. Some works of his are notated on circular staves, others on spirals, still others in the shape of crosses. But the intention, as Crumb has explained it, is not only symbolic (as in the Augenmusik or “eye music” of old). Circular staves can represent all kinds of mystical notions, it is true, but they are also the most efficient way of notating a moto perpetuo (and were used for that purpose since the early fifteenth century). The look of the page in Fig. 9-2, reminiscent of the old choir-book format, visually reinforces the idea of collage—an assemblage rather than an organic unity. Layouts that avoid the usual alignment of parts have the further advantage of freeing performers from their habits: “I suppose I could have written it out straight,” Crumb told an interviewer, “but I wanted to get the performers away from thinking vertically—I didn't want them too conscious of the vertical relationship of the parts,”24 which would have led (he feared) to a too-literal coordination with the incessant metrical pulse.

The striking thing about Crumb's collages is their uncomplicated form and spare texture—utterly unlike Brant's or Zimmermann's saturated glut and clutter—and the loving way in which they gather up so much that had been expressly targeted for modernist exclusion. There is considerable sentimentality and nostalgia in the music: not so much a nostalgia for familiar or comforting music as a longing for a lost directness of expression. That directness could be disconcerting. Reviewing Ancient Voices of Children, Andrew Porter (Carter's advocate) admitted good-naturedly that “any tough, suspicious old critic thinks that he is being got at, and worked over emotionally by a battery of tearjerking devices such as Puccini himself might envy.”25 But Puccini-loving audiences responded to it without distrust, placing Crumb's output in the same paradoxical category as the minimalists’: certifiably avant-garde-sounding music that (for a while, anyway) attracted a genuine popular following. During a rough decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Crumb was the most frequently and widely performed of living American composers.

But possibly because Crumb's gestures and sound-shapes were closer than the minimalists’ to the going avant-garde styles of the time, his music has not worn as well as theirs. Some of his onetime promoters have looked back on the Crumb-boom with a certain squeamishness. “The rituals were always a little silly—earnest academics wearing party masks and parading about solemnly while whacking percussion,”26 John Rockwell wrote in perhaps not altogether candid retrospect. “The drama was a little shallow; the succession of spooky motives led to a patchy continuity, the chanting of numbers and foreign words was meaninglessly portentous, and much of the interest relied on timbres whose novelty did not last long,”27 wrote Kyle Gann from an end-of-century vantage point. That Crumb retained a modernist addiction to novelty may have exacted another sort of price as well. In the mid-1980s he fell silent, unable to keep the new timbres coming.

Quite a different trajectory was set in motion by Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), a piece of angry chamber music–theater by the English composer Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934) that had a lot outwardly in common with the gentler work Crumb was doing at about the same time. It was composed for a group called the Pierrot Players, which had been cofounded in 1967 by Davies and his friend Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934). The two had been fellow students at the University of Manchester; Davies had gone on from there to Princeton, where from 1962 to 1965 he received a thorough grounding in academic modernism, American style. The Pierrot Players, as the name advertised, was founded in tribute to Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire. The membership consisted of virtuoso performers on the instruments required by the Schoenberg composition, plus a percussionist. Their concerts featured performances of Pierrot lunaire that sought to re-create its original character as a piece of outlandish music theater, with a singer costumed as a commedia dell'arte character and the instrumentalists concealed behind a screen, followed by similarly theatrical chamber works by the group's founders.

Eight Songs for a Mad King was the fourth of five resolutely shocking Davies compositions first performed by the Pierrot Players that sought to revive the effects, and to an extent the techniques, of German expressionism. In the first, Revelation and Fall, a nun in a blood-red habit shouted obscenities through a public-address system. In the second, L'homme armé (based on Davies's completion of an anonymous fragmentary fifteenth-century Mass), a female singer dressed as a Catholic priest enthusiastically orates in Latin St. Luke's account of Judas's betrayal of Christ. The third, Vesalii icones (named after the anatomical drawings of the sixteenth-century physician Andreas Vesalius), featured a naked dancer who sits at an out-of-tune piano and plays a staid Victorian anthem before gyrating lewdly about a cellist clad in a choirboy robe.

Composed to a text by the Australian poet Randolph Stow based on contemporary memoirs of King George III of England, Eight Songs for a Mad King draws on the old convention of the “mad scene,” an operatic mainstay since the seventeenth century, to depict the mental agonies of the unfortunate monarch who in the years following the ruinous American Revolution succumbed to raving fits. The dramatic premise was supplied by an old anecdote according to which the mad old king spent endless days seated at a little mechanical organ teaching his pet bullfinches to sing. Four members of the Pierrot Players—the flutist, clarinetist, violinist, and cellist—performed inside big plastic “birdcages,” while the singer-actor playing the king ran amok in their midst. Since depicting madness can “rationalize” any irrationality, it served here to justify bizarre parodies of old music. In the seventh song, “Country Dance (Scotch Bonnett),” the ironic object of the farce is “Comfort Ye, My People,” the opening tenor recitative in Handel's Messiah (Ex. 9-2).

Collage as TheaterCollage as Theater

ex. 9-2 Peter Maxwell Davies, Eight Songs for a Mad King, VII (“Country Dance”)

Defacing old music venerated by tradition with incongruous performance styles (here, “smoochy” ragtime and Victorian hymnody) and “extended” vocal technique was nothing new, but in this case the avant-garde elements seem to be as much the butt of the unfriendly humor as the hallowed original. One critic, David Paul, has suggested that in the context of the 1960s, the figure of the mad king, a once-powerful figure rendered impotent, might stand not only (a bit wishfully, perhaps) for the period's social upheavals, but might also be a metaphor for the dogmatic inelasticity of modernism, rendered impotent and irrelevant in the face of the egalitarian plurality of styles that was ineluctably emerging in the wake of the sixties.28

Whether or not that was Maxwell Davies's intention, he received a lesson in the impotence of modernism when the piece was performed, and its final gesture—the smashing of the violinist's instrument by the singer-actor portraying the deranged king—failed to shock the royally entertained audience, long inured to whatever jolts a modernist might try to administer. In any case, Eight Songs and Vesalii icones were a turning point for the composer, who turned his back on avant-gardism, embraced an increasingly non- or pre- if not postmodernist approach, and embarked on a career path increasingly reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's: residence in the country (in Maxwell Davies's case, the Orkney Islands), engagement with the surrounding community, composition of “useful” music including operas and concertos for young performers, unironic rapprochement with traditional genres and conventional styles.

Nobody could have foreseen in 1969 that between 1975 and 1996 this composer, of all people, would write six proper symphonies cast deliberately in a line with those of Sibelius, long a favorite with British audiences. The only shocking aspect of Maxwell Davies's later career was his defection from the company of shockers (and his severing of ties to his former modernist comrades, including the unreformed Birtwistle).


(24) Donal Henahan, “Crumb, the Tone Poet,” New York Times Magazine, 11 May 1975, p. 50.

(25) Andrew Porter, A Musical Season (New York: The Viking Press, 1974), p. 125.

(26) John Rockwell, All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 78.

(27) Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Schirmer, 1997), p. 226.

(28) David Paul, “Three Critics and a Mad King,” University of California at Berkeley seminar paper, December 2000.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009005.xml