Music can express only itself, said Stravinsky, and considered from a purely logical point of view it is difficult to argue against him. But this has hardly stopped many of the greatest musical minds, Bach and Messiaen amongst them, from attempting to express grand, cosmological ideas through music. It is a conundrum without resolution. Perhaps it is the very abstractness of music which attracts the expression of metaphysical concepts, the only medium, in fact, which may attempt to do so without appearing ridiculous. George Crumb, the now-octogenarian American composer, is one of those who hears his music as something more than just a succession of sounds. To what extent, if any, his intended messages can be perceived by the listener is debatable, but when listening to Crumb it is handy to know that he wants his music to mean something beyond itself.
In the mid-70s George Crumb envisaged a series of pieces encompassing nothing less than the evolution of human culture and our place in the universe. The result was Makrokosmos, a series of ‘12 Fantasy Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano’. The number 12 keeps popping up in musical literature, often, though not always, due to the fact that there are 12 notes in the equal-tempered scale. We have Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (multiples of 12), Corelli’s and Handel’s sets of 12 concerti grossi, Chopin’s two sets of 12 etudes, Debussy’s set of 12 etudes, and so on. When Crumb assigned a zodiac sign to each piece in the Makrokosmos he was knowingly giving a new slant to a long musical association with the number 12. But Makrokosmos is about far more than just numbers. Crumb starts his cosmic journey with Primeval Sounds, progresses through the evolution of life in Proteus and continues through the rise of civilisations and religions.
It might all have ended up as pretentious nonsense were it not for the beauty of the result. An adept pianist – his first professional post was teaching piano at the University of Colorado – Crumb chose the instrument he knew most intimately as his medium in his grand scheme. But the pianist who attempts Makrokosmos must do more than simply manipulate the keys and work the pedals. They must also be part actor, percussionist and conjurer to release the cornucopia of sounds Crumb’s meticulously notated score, a piece of calligraphic art in its own right, requires. I suppose Crumb was hardly the first to whistle into the cavity of a piano, but he was the first to notate it and turn it into unforgettable music. In many of his effects, Crumb is indebted to the prepared piano works of John Cage, but unlike Cage, there is nothing accidental or improvised in Makrokosmos; every note, every starlike cluster and shattering chord is precisely notated. Even the pauses are timed, right to the very second. Crumb knew exactly what he wanted, and heard exactly what he was writing.
Having completed the first volume of Makrokosmos he set to work on another, once again allowing his imagination to roam freely through mythology, the cosmos and religion and once again discovering a treasure trove of exquisite sounds. This time, however, he firmly asserted his own place in the musical lineage, quoting Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata in the 11th piece, Litany of the Galactic Bells. Quoting another composer, especially an acknowledged giant, is always a dangerous gambit. The inserted quote can threaten to expose the music surrounding it as inferior and unworthy of sharing the same platform. But Crumb weaves in his snippet of Beethoven so seamlessly that its appearance and eventual exit seem logical, even inevitable. Other composers are also present, as Crumb acknowledges in his preface to the first volume, citing a debt to Bartók and Debussy in his overall structure but adding, even more importantly, a spiritual impulse “more akin to the darker side of Chopin, and even to the child-like fantasy of early Schumann.”
Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen is one of the few virtuosi whose world includes Beethoven (he is currently recording all the sonatas for Ondine) and Crumb. If anyone can join the dots between these two visionaries, he can. Just as Beethoven’s last sonatas seem to reach beyond the capabilities of the instrument, so does Makrokosmos. Ever searching, Crumb went on to add two further volumes to the cycle, Music for a Summer Evening and Celestial Mechanics, this time adding actual percussion to the mix. In May, Jumppanen will collaborate with ANAM Musicians in this pairing of two musical searchers.
Words by Phil Lambert
BEETHOVEN & CRUMB 1
FRI 13 MAY 11am
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata no. 29 in B-flat major op. 106 Hammerklavier IV
CRUMB Zeitgeist: III Monochord
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major op. 109
CRUMB Makrokosmos, Part I: VI Night-Spell I (Sagittarius)
CRUMB Celestial Mechanics: Part IV: III Gamma Draconis
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata no. 31 in A-flat major op. 110
CRUMB Makrokosmos, Part I: I Primeval Sounds (Cancer)
BEETHOVEN Sonata no. 32 in C minor op. 111
Paavali Jumppanen piano/director
Complimentary morning tea will be served following the performance along with the opportunity to meet some of the artists
BEETHOVEN & CRUMB 2
SAT 14 MAY 7pm
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73 Emperor
CRUMB Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening