Interview: Garrett Schumann interviews Composer George Crumb
Photo: Kronos Quartet. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
Known for its renegade spirit, the Kronos Quartet will perform two different programs on January 17 and 18, 2014 in Ann Arbor. The first program will include George Crumb’s epic work Black Angels, a response to the agony of the Vietnam War,
Our regular Lobby contributor Garrett Schumann sat down for an interview with George Crumb. Read on to learn more about the composer’s influences, his life in Ann Arbor as a doctoral student, and the debut performance of Black Angels in Rackham Auditorium.
Garrett Schumann: You describe Black Angels (1970) as a reaction to the Vietnam War, and I’m curious how the meaning of the piece to you has changed or persisted in the 43 years since you wrote it?
George Crumb: Well, Black Angels was played to pieces, as you probably deduced. It’s more than 40 years old now, but I remember that it was a very difficult piece to write. As far as it relates to the Vietnam War, I had to discover that myself because I didn’t set up to write a political piece. I think that the upset in the world found its way into the music, which happens so frequently.
There are many works throughout music history that are reactions to political events, but in this case it kind of crept up on me. At a certain point, I realized that it was becoming a reflection of a lot of the anxiety and uncertainty of those days. It was a pretty bleak period.
And that coincided with all of the protest movements around the country, which kind of led to a whole new kind of America.
GS: In 2008, the New York Times reviewed a Kronos Quartet performance of Black Angels, and commented that the piece inspired David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet violinist, to form the group. I know Kronos Quartet started playing Black Angels very soon after they formed, and they have performed the piece a lot, and will perform it as part of their upcoming performance in Ann Arbor in January. I’m curious what you think their experience with the piece brings to their performance of it.
GC: It’s interesting, the Kronos Quartet quickly became well-known, but I’ve never worked with them. Most quartets would ask me to sit in and listen to their performance. I didn’t sit in on any rehearsals before they began playing it, so what they brought to it was entirely their own. It was interesting to me to see how a group of musicians would face all of the problems in the piece without my intervention.
And by the same token, I was never been in on the recording sessions. There have been quite a number of Black Angels recordings, and I sat in on many of them, but not in this case.
So those are interesting things for me, and another thing is the way they kind of superimpose a theater gesture on top of the score itself. Their interpretation is a little freer than some of the quartets who have done the work. I think the music allows room for varied interpretation, and they bring their own thing to the music.
GS: There’s a lot of imagery built into the way you write music, so do you see a theatrical interpretation as a sort of extension from that visual aspect that’s embedded in your music?
GC: Yes, I think that sort of thing seems a natural way to approach my music. There are no instructions for that in my score of Black Angels, any kind of special theater effect, but I would like to see more of that in music generally. I’ve always felt that traditional music had that curious, almost poetic, thing built into it. And the musicians have to move. In a way, they’re dancing with their instruments. This sort of thing is part of music, so I can understand how performers sometimes might even want to accentuate that side of it.
GS: What was the impulse, early on in your career, or maybe even before you knew you wanted to compose, to manipulate instruments in unusual ways, to create different sounds?
GC: Many composers had a big influence on my music. One was Béla Bartók, I felt the real power of his influence when I, myself, was a graduate student in Ann Arbor. There’s also a little of Messiaen in my music, comes out in the cello solo part of Black Angels. There’s a little Messiaen-ic sound. It’s an unconscious borrowing, but I recognize it was a borrowing later on. It’s there.
GS: What are your recollections of being here [Ann Arbor] as a doctoral student and has your experience here influenced you at all beyond your education?
I enjoyed so much studying with Ross Lee Finney, he was my only teacher during those years. He really insisted on the clarity of notation, and I’ve never had anyone else I’ve worked with who placed as much stress on that aspect. Another good thing about it is that there were so many students in the graduate program; you learn from your classmates just as much as you do from your teachers.
GS: When you wrote Black Angels, you used folk songs, which are heavily loaded as a symbol of American identity. Do you think it’s important for American composers to address those aspects of national identity directly?
GC: Well, I think it’s a strong element in music generally, and an important thing for a composer to have. If you consider a composer like Stravinsky, all the melodic elements are derived from Hungarian folk songs. And it’s hard to think of Brahms and Beethoven without all of the built-in references to German folk songs.
Black Angels quotes other composers, and it has this quasi-antique music. It’s really a pastiche. These materials can be used by composers to add a kind of depth or perspective. It’s like two different worlds coming together.
GS: Is there something you would like people who haven’t heard Black Angels before to take with them into the concert hall?
GC: I don’t think I’m able to really verbalize that very well. And I guess what the composer should say is: Listen with open ears and try to fit it together. There are the qualities of anguish and love, even, pain; it’s a mixture of all the things our world is made of.
GS: Is there anything else you would like to add?
GC: I wanted to be sure to mention the Stanley Quartet, who did the first performance of Black Angels in Ann Arbor. I had just gotten a commission from them to do a quartet, and I said to myself, I want to write a quartet that’s unlike any other quartet. I want to do something a little original. And I didn’t realize it then how far I would push.
I think they must’ve been totally surprised when they got the score. They finished the piece, read it through. I went out to Ann Arbor a couple days early to make some explanation. They had a million questions. There were different ways of playing their instruments, there were unconventional ways they had to produce the sound.
They hadn’t played much contemporary music, so they were willing to do anything I wanted. And I ended up conducting, can you imagine? I felt like a fool conducting a string quartet, but it helped them keep it all together, and they did a marvelous performance.
There was quite an enthusiastic reception. I think they [the audience] were probably at least in their sixties, verging on seventies, so I’m sure that none of them are alive now. But they sure came through for me and they were really willing to exert themselves and put this thing together, which amazed me.
Interested in learning more? Read our interview with Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington, who describes Black Angels as the piece of music that inspired him to start the group.
Artist Interview: Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington
Photo: Kronos Quartet, with David Harrington on left. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
The Kronos Quartet performs two different programs in Ann Arbor on January 17-18 2014, as part of a special week of “renegade” performances also featuring saxophonist Colin Stetson.
We called up Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington to chat about his take on renegade music, how George Crumb’s epic Black Angels (which will be performed in Ann Arbor) inspired him to found the Quartet, and his take on artists who re-define instruments as Colin Stetson does.
UMS: Your performances in January are a part of a series of renegade performances this season, as part of which we’re presenting many different artists who break the rules in their own time. How do you feel about that term “renegade”?
David Harrington: Well I like it! Suits me just fine! I’ve always thought of the string quartet as offering composers, performers, and audiences a sonic glimpse into the inner world that we all participate in, and when someone does that, when they listen to their own voice, their inner voice, dramatic things happen because it’s not necessarily the voice that the society listens to and that conventional rules conform to. And so I think that the term renegade fits our music perfectly.
UMS: Is there anything about your history that strikes you as particularly “renegade”?
Since I was a little kid I felt that the art form as a whole needed a little kick in the butt. When I was growing up and I’d go to string quartet concerts—I always sat in the front row, by the way, it’s a great place to sit—
UMS: Why do you say that?
DH: Because you can see the action, you can hear the stringiness of the sound, you can see the rosin fly, and that tactility, that horse hair meets the string, the flesh meets the wood…I love that aspect of what we do. And when I go to a concert I like to be sure I can feel as much of that as possible.
But when I was growing up and going to string quartet concerts, I was always the youngest one at the show. Always. And usually concerts started with Haydn or Mozart and then usually there’d be an intermission and then Beethoven. That’s what the art form was to the general public at that point.
The Vietnam War was raging as well, and so how does one find a voice that feels real? And in August of 1973, on the radio one night, I heard Black Angels by George Crumb. And for a moment the world made sense. And I didn’t have really any choice but I had to start a group in order to play that piece.
UMS: We actually had the chance to speak with George Crumb about Black Angels and how that piece came together.
DH: Well, it was premiered at the University of Michigan.
UMS: Yes, it was! And he actually talked a bit about the way Kronos Quartet performs Black Angels, with theatricality.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the Stanley Quartet to get the manuscript of that piece. I wish I could have been in the room and seen their faces when they saw that.
UMS: Funnily enough, George also spoke a bit a bit how he was actually a conductor for this piece.
DH: Yes I know! He conducted the premiere.
UMS: How did you decide to approach it the way that you do?
Well first of all, I thought about the effect that the piece had on me personally. It changed my whole life. And so for me, every time we’ve ever played it I’ve been aware of its power. And I’ve hoped, all of us in Kronos have hoped to transmit that kind of visceral potentially life-altering experience.
We’ve probably played it close to 200 times, in all kinds of settings from concert halls, churches, basketball arenas, opera houses. It’s been in a lot of places.
And it took sixteen years for Kronos to record Black Angels. So we did not record it until 1989. And I’ll tell you the reason. I felt the group needed to learn more about the recording studio and how to make the sound kind of jump off the record or the CD right into the imagination of the listener.
But even more importantly, I knew that our performance of Black Angels had to be the first track on a recording. So there’s no way you could avoid it. I was hoping that listeners would basically have to confront that piece right from the very first note that they heard. It took 16 years for me to figure out what would be the second track on the album.
UMS: And how did the theatrical aspect of the live performance come to be?
When I was growing up in the early 70s, people like Pierre Boulez were saying that the string quartet was dead. Well in August of 1973 when I heard Black Angels, I knew that he was wrong. That one piece has so much power and so much presence and it requires something not only of the players, but the listeners.
Every performance that we do of Black Angels is slightly different. We’re constantly refining the way we perform the piece, and the very first time we played it is so different from the way that we do it now that you would not even recognize it. I mean, you would recognize the music of it, but you would not recognize the visual aspect of it.
And the other thing I should say about the recording is that in the recording studio you are able to have a lot of control. We followed the timings that George Crumb wrote in the score as perfectly as we possibly could and what we noticed is that Black Angels is actually a short piece. It’s very compact. It’s also not a loud piece. It has loud moments but in general it’s a very reflective piece, with these outbursts. It just so happens that it starts with an outburst.
And so that recording influenced what we wanted to do in public performance. So we didn’t set out to create a theater piece. The piece itself is theater and we just tried to make the music come alive in the best way that we could.
UMS: Colin Stetson is performing along with you as part of a week of renegade performances at UMS. Do you know his work? What do you think of his work? What makes his work stand out for you if it does?
Well, first of all, I do know Colin Stetson’s work. I’m a huge fan. It’s not often that you encounter someone who has basically redefined an instrument. And those are the people that I like to work with. And whether it’s Astor Piazzola, or it’s Tanya Tagak, the great Inuit throat singer, or Wu Man, the great Chinese pipa virtuoso, these are people who have redefined their instrument or their approach to music. I believe that Colin Stetson belongs in the same sentence. When we were on tour in New York City, I went to hear him live, and it was an amazing experience.