Tuesday, August 16, 2011

George Crumb: Vox Balaenae, 1974

This item (a first recording!) probably won't be too popular with most of the blog listeners, but it's an old favorite that I rediscovered recently. It's a composition for flute, cello, and piano inspired by the voices of whales. It seems to me that in some circles, the focus on pure music, ("art" music as its called,) in modern classical music got obscured by a new search for new forms. Innovation became such a major measure of success in that genre that a lot of composers and listeners began to focus extensively on forms, arguably to the detriment of the music's aesthetic. The intellectual experience of the music became prized at least as much as the listening experience. In my mind, George Crumb is a composer who did not lose sight of the importance of beauty in music.

A lot of people still criticize this kind of music because they believe that as "pure" art, it is only aesthetic and little if anything lies below the surface. I don't know a lot about George Crumb other than as a composer, so I can't speak to what might have gone into this album or what he meant for listeners to take away from it, but I can tell you how much I connected with it musically the first time I heard it. Of all the modern classical composers who focus on the use of space in their music, I think that Crumb is among the most tasteful with his understanding of the balance between sound and silence. He uses them to emphasize one another without overdoing it by trying too hard to develop new forms. Listening to his music, I get the sense that he was different from many musicians of his day and the present. Where many have said that working outside conventions have freed them from forms, they actually come under pressure to devise new ones and it shows in their music. Crumb seems to really operate best by his own rules, using his freedom as a so-called avant-gardist to make music that can appeal to people who accept it for what it is without trying to challenge them too much.

What's nice about this music is that its not supposed to go over your head and you're not supposed to need much if any background knowledge to appreciate it. Whether or not this is the case in practice is another story, but I appreciate Crumb's attempt at making a universal music. Even if I'm wary of the popular claim that music is the universal language, (often substantiated by the existence various cross-cultural hybrid genres,) attempts to make something fundamentally beautiful usually come from enthusiastic, dedicated artists. Crumb may not be trying to convey an important social or philosophical message with his musical imitation of a whale's voice, and his music might not quite do it for you, but he still goes about his trade with a level of passion that would step up the game in any genre. Maybe this is the closest thing there is to a universal in music.

Vox Balaenae by EasyJams


  1. http://www.mediafire.com/?ri65vch8zfyhzh8

  2. This LP was my first Crumb recording, buying it a couple of days after seeing a performance of 'Vox Balaenae' one very cold January evening in 1976. I haven't heard it in years [my turntable died a while back] so it will be great to hear it again and compare it to my memories of that concert performance. Many thanks.