Night sings naked above

Legendary American composer George Crumb records at Chico State

Chico State University received a real honor a couple of days before Thanksgiving, when George Crumb, perhaps the most famous American composer alive, visited its Performing Arts Center recording studio to cut a CD of some of his newest works.

The 73-year-old Crumb, whom critic David Burges refers to as “the best-known composer of his generation … [and as having] … won every major prize and honor” (including the Pulitzer Prize), came to town in search of Chico’s own formidable percussionist, David Colson, who joined Crumb’s entourage (soprano Tony Arnold, flutist Rachel Rudich, double bassist Stephan Tramontozzi and harpist Beverly Wesner-Hoehn) for the recording.

Crumb is a fabulously pictorial composer, so much so that even the stuffiest, opposed-to-anything-modern audience cannot help but be drawn into his world. He manipulates splotches, glissandos, twitterings and bursts of vocal and percussive sound in ways totally analogous to a more traditional composers’ manipulation of notes, so that one suddenly finds him- or herself listening to a totally engaging—if radically new—language and absolutely enjoying it.

Crumb has a delightful sense of humor (greater than that of any other composer I can call to mind), which frequently surfaces in his work—most especially in the “jewel” of his new CD, Madrigals, Books I-IV. These “madrigals” (there are 12 of them) are based on lines from the famous 20th-century Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca.

García Lorca (a non-political poet and dramatist who was nonetheless murdered during the course of the Spanish Civil War) wrote poetry filled to the brim with vivid visual and sound-enhanced images. So he and Crumb make a perfect match—both in method and, I think, in philosophy. Both tend to look at life from a slightly detached and ironically humorous perspective, a perspective that, it might be said, takes life more seriously than many of the too-serious people engaged in it.

One can see this mixture of irony, humor and visual intensity in many of the single lines on which Crumb bases his music: “The dead wear mossy wings"; “Night sings naked above the bridges of March"; “Through my hands’ violet shadow, your body was an archangel, cold.”

An example of how this works might be found in Crumb’s treatment of García Lorca’s, “La muerte entra y salida de la taberna” (Death goes in and out of the tavern). In Crumb’s arrangement, the flute does an opening-door squeal, which is followed by the jingling of beads. Then this happens again. Clearly, Death has come and gone. Has he taken someone? Has he merely dropped in for a drink? Who knows? But then, Death is like that.

Multiply this by 12, and you have some sense of Crumb’s totally engaging collection of sound-images: syllables bounced about by Ms. Arnold’s exquisitely accurate soprano voice, wood blocks galloping down to the river, a “shshsh” of wind whispered through a vibraphone of raindrops, the spooky whispering of the aforementioned “mossy wings,” a double-stopped string bass watching, like Death.

Absolutely incredible stuff! Go buy the CD when it comes out in March. And remember, it happened here.