Subculture lets the dogs out with tribute to George Crumb at 85
The music of George Crumb may not feel as “out there” today as it did decades ago, but the composer remains an important figure in the American avant-garde. On Saturday night at Subculture, the contemporary performance group counter)induction reprised a program that was performed in Philadelphia to honor Crumb’s eighty-fifth birthday (October 24).
“A System of Proportions in the Service of Spiritual Impulse: George Crumb at 85” is likely the wordiest title of any New York concert this season but one can detect in it a cheeky sense of fun, as there is in much of the music of the man the program honored.
That sense of humor could be discerned in the three Crumb works that were presented, most obviously in Mundus Canis (“Dog’s World”). This set of five vignettes for guitar (Daniel Lippel) and percussion (Jeffrey Irving) presents colorful portraits of the Crumb family dogs, from the prowling “Tammy” to the spry, mischievous “Yoda,” whose antics earn a scolding “Bad dog!” from the percussionist.
Though less overtly silly, Vox Balaenae (“Voice of the Whale) has its own sense of whimsy. It opens with a wandering Vocalise for flute (Barry Crawford) that is haunting in its own right, but at the same time the technique that Crumb calls for, to have the player sing and play the flute at the same time, creates a sound that is inescapably comic. Then a set of five variations is introduced by a hilarious episode, a goofy-sounding quotation of Also sprach Zarathustra, with Crawford singing directly into his flute and pianist Ning Yu thunking away at the “timpani” part. There is nothing sly, though, in Crumb’s writing; the comedy is as earnest as the beautiful journey through time that follows in the ensuing variations, introduced with a spacious theme in the cello (Karen Ouzounian).
Curiosity is the defining characteristic of the third Crumb piece that was performed, Eleven Echoes of Autumn. There are many composers today who ask instrumentalists to employ unusual or novel techniques, but few do so with such purpose as Crumb does in this cycle. His use of extended technique is not showmanship but rather an exploration of these unusual sounds and their expressive possibilities. Crumb tries everything from having the violinist play with the bow behind her fingers, to playing with bow hair slack, to having the wind players turn and play into the body of the piano. But even in all of this, there is a sense that the instruments are constantly in communication, whether in conversation or argument.
Two pieces by counter)induction composers had their world premieres in this program’s Philadelphia incarnation. Kyle Bartlett’s Farawayhere is a set of eleven miniatures for solo piano. Its palette is varied, beginning with a one-voice cantus in the right hand interrupted by playful little appoggiaturas in the left. Bartlett’s wit comes through in a series of off-kilter rhythms before the piece closes with something almost like a chorale, reaching down finally into the furthest depths of the keyboard. The quality of playing, here as throughout the program, was superb. There is an essential element of mystery in Crumb’s work—and in the two that he inspired—but that did not keep counter)induction’s virtuosic players from communicating with clarity.
Even with all of the intriguing music on the program, the evening’s finest moment came at its beginning. Douglas Boyce’s Air and Invocation for guitar, violin, and percussion is infused with the same playful humor that can be found in Crumb’s works. It opens with a pun–the “air” of the title is not, as one might expect, a singing melody, but rather wind, represented by the light brushing of a drumskin and sul tasto playing on the violin. The joke recurs throughout the piece, framing its melodic material, which is neo-classical in character with a hint of folksy roughness. As the “invocation” draws to a close, the ticking of woodblocks and soft, chiming chords on the guitar seem to suggest the passage of time, perhaps playfully noting the dedicatee’s age.