This CD, the newest release in the Naxos "American Classics" series, includes two eerily beautiful pieces for small ensemble by the contemporary American composer, George Crumb (b. 1929) performed by members of the Ensemble New Art conducted by Fuat Kent. Crumb is a "minimalist" composer with a terse and intense musical language. He is generally a miniaturist who writes works with a programmatic character. He tends to use unusual instruments and combinations, including folk instruments and electric instruments, or to use familiar instruments, such as the piano, in an unusual way. His music has strong mystical, religious overtones. In listening to this CD, Crumb's music struck me as similar in spiritual theme and outlook to the music of the American composer Alan Hovhaness, but with a great deal more musical rigor and complexity.
The first work on this CD, "Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death", first performed in 1969, is one of several of the composer's works setting poetry by Frederico Garcia Lorca. This work sets four Lorca poems in sections surrounded by chorus-like sections titled "refrains" and "drones". The work is scored for baritone soloist, performed on this CD by Nicholas Isherwood, electric guitar, electric double bass, and percussion. Crumb's music is strange and disquieting, but yet compelling. The vocal line in this music runs a tortuous course, moving from long sections of declamation, shouting, and speech, to moments of lyricism. The tone ranges from sardonic to passionate. The vocal part in this work is, essentially, treated instrumentally. There are sudden shifts of mood and accompaniment in this piece, again ranging from soft plucked chords in the guitar, to insistent drum-beating from the two percussionists. The instrumentalists frequently turn into a chorus by lending wordless shouts to their playing or to the baritone. The music is both dramatic and stark.
The second work on this CD, "Quest" was first performed in 1994. It is an instrumental piece arranged similarly to the prior work, with various "refrain" sections punctuating longer, more descriptive sections. The work is scored for acoustic guitar, soprano saxophone, piano and electric harpsichord, harp, and percussion. (A variety of percussion instruments are used including the hammered dulcimer and the African talking drum.) Crumb originally thought of writing this work as a guitar solo before deciding to write for this small ensemble. The guitar has the most prominent part, but the soprano saxophone also has long solo sections. The second movement, titled "Dark Paths" and the finale, "Nocturnal" quote from the hymn "Amazing Grace" in a way that reminded me of Charles Ives. The music is mystical and reflective, particularly the lengthy concluding section. The use of the varied percussion section, together with the shifting instrumental ensembles add to the visionary, strange character of this work.
This music is spare, odd, and beautiful. The CD is budget priced and include's Crumb's own descriptions of the two pieces. I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear these works and look forward to exploring further the works of this American composer.