American experimental composer George Crumb, who died at the age of 92, rose to prominence in the mid-1960s with a series of groundbreaking compositions written for unusual instrumental combinations, using performance techniques then still new. One of the most notable works to emerge from these departures is the haunting Ancient Voices of Children (1970), featuring five poems by Federico García Lorca. In addition to singing, his soprano soloist is called upon to gently sing on the piano strings in order to create sympathetic vibrations; breathe and whisper through a paper funnel; and scream.
Elsewhere, Crumb required players to sing, whistle, or double to percussion, or play piano directly over the strings with trombones. In the trio Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971), the flautist sings and moans through the instrument while playing it conventionally, and the cello and piano ranges are also expanded.
Crumb was an early adopter of electronic and amplified instruments, for example in Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968), for baritone and an ensemble including electric guitar, electric bass, two amplified pianos and percussion . In Black Angels (1970) for “electric string quartet”, the instruments of the four performers are amplified, and they speak and play a small array of pitchless percussion. It marked a protest against the Vietnam War that was raging at the time, and more specifically against the use of helicopter gunships.
The use of the amplified piano, sometimes accompanied by percussion, is now recurrent in Crumb’s work, notably in the four collections of illustrative pieces inspired by the Zodiac and entitled Makrokosmos (1972-79). Its title indicated a pendant several times in the six volumes of character pieces for piano, Mikrokosmos, by Béla Bartók.
The Hungarian composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) was a formative influence, as was, on a more fundamental level, the music of the Viennese serialist Anton Webern. Indeed, Makrokosmos vol 3 (1974), subtitled Music for a Summer Evening, uses two amplified pianos and two percussionists to create its alternately hypnotic and evocative soundscapes. In his own generation, Crumb’s exploratory approach is akin to that of another Hungarian, Gyorgy Ligeti.
The amplified piano was the medium for Crumb’s last major collection, the two volumes of Metamorphoses (2015-20), 20 “fantastic pieces after famous paintings”, inspired by the works of artists ranging from Whistler and Van Gogh to Klee and Jasper Johns. His last completed composition turned out to be, typically unconventionally, a percussion quintet, Kronos-Kryptos (2019, revised 2021 after the composer recovered from a stroke).
There were almost always illustrative, dramatic, or expressive purposes behind Crumb’s mature music, whether in his many vocal cycles, such as the seven volumes of the American Songbook (2003-10) and the three of the Spanish Songbook ( 2008-12), or what turned out to be his greatest composition, the vocal and orchestral Star-Child (1977), which won the 2001 Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The recording was released in Bridge Records’ ongoing Complete Crumb Edition.
Often his music took on a mystical quality, sometimes reflected in the graphic notation of particular scores, as in the circles of Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965, completed the following spring, or the Spiral Galaxy finale of Makrokosmos vol 1, where the music is arranged in a helix.
Born into a musical family in Charleston, West Virginia, George was the son of Vivian (née Reed), cellist, and George Crumb Sr, clarinetist. His father taught him the clarinet and he started composing as a teenager.
A summer course at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, in 1947 was followed by a bachelor’s degree from Mason College of Music and Fine Arts (now part of the University of Charleston) in 1950. He earned a d other degrees from the universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1952) and Michigan (1959). Meanwhile, a Fulbright scholarship allows him to study in Berlin with Boris Blacher.
Crumb began teaching at a college in Virginia, and from 1958 at the University of Colorado, before moving in 1965 to the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained until his retirement in 1997. A Pulitzer Prize (1968) for its orchestral suite, Echoes of Time and the River, commissioned by the University of Chicago to mark its 75th anniversary in 1965, was followed by numerous other awards.
Although outwardly he was a relatively shy man, his students, including composers Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Rouse, Margaret Brouwer and Osvaldo Golijov, all spoke of his warm and gentle personality. He was able to nurture the best of everyone he worked with, including the many performers of his own works, most of which are extremely demanding. On occasion he could be candid: when asked his opinion of another American composer’s music, he would succinctly call it “bullshit.”
In 1949, he married pianist Elizabeth Brown, with whom he had three children: Ann, singer, David, also a composer, and Peter. Ann passed away in 2019 and is survived by Elizabeth, her two sons and a sister, Ruth.