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Friday, September 5, 2014

Old Is New Again: George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children

By Robert Wood

On Thursday, September 11, soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gilbert Kalish come to BAM to perform George Crumb's milestone composition Ancient Voices of Children as part of Nonesuch Records at BAM. Here's a brief introduction to the work in ten parts. 

1. Hauntingly evocative and brimming with unconventional textures, George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children (1970) transforms the mystical poetry of Federico García Lorca into an incantatory musical seance. It is scored for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, harp, amplified piano, toy piano, mandolin, and various percussion, including prayer stones and Japanese temple bells.

2. Crumb was attracted to what García Lorca referred to as duende—"all that has dark sounds." "This 'mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained' is in fact the spirit of the earth," García Lorca writes. "All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned."

3. Crumb's own duende might belie his folksy southern roots. He was born in West Virginia and has the lovely drawl to prove it.

4. Pianist Gilbert Kalish, who will accompany Dawn Upshaw at BAM, performed on the original recording of the work with soprano Jan DeGaetani. The recording sold over 70,000 copies, an unheard-of feat for a piece of esoteric experimental music.

A Nonesuch original: Gilbert Kalish performing with Dawn Upshaw

5. DeGaetani's performance of Ancient Voices of Children inspired Dawn Upshaw to pursue new music. DeGaetani also eventually became the younger soprano's teacher. Here she is singing the third movement:

6. The score is unconventionally notated. In the third movement (score below, audio above), "Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle," the circular middle section symbolizes its subject matter. The layout also makes performers—to paraphrase Crumb—depart from thinking about the vertical relationship between their parts.

7. Instruments are also treated unconventionally; the mandolin is tuned in quarter tones (i.e. pitches that lie between the notes on the piano), the harpist plays with paper between his/her strings, and the singers are required to sing (or yell) into the piano while the pianist holds down the pedals, resulting in ghostly reverberations of sound (see below).

8. Actual words come late in Ancient Voices of Children. They emerge gradually only after the singers have performed a long stretch of purely phonetic vocal acrobatics elaborated in all manner of melismas, trills, yelps, yaps, and other manipulations. The title of the first movement, “El niño busca su voz” (The little boy was looking for his voice), provides a clue as to why. But one thing is certain: the ancient voice must emerge from one even more ancient: pure sound yet to be parsed into articulation. Listen to the opening:

9. Crumb was fond of musical quotation, and Ancient Voices of Children is rife with nods to composer-heroes of yore. The oboe melody at the beginning of "Dances of the Ancient Earth," for example, recalls the beginning of the oboe part opening the final movement of Gustav Mahler's similarly terrestrial The Song of the Earth. What in Mahler's hands is a stoic, resigned appeal to death becomes for Crumb a manic expression of the undiluted, electric present. More duende?

10. Crumb's initial inspiration for the work was a bit of García Lorca's poetry that would become the very last line of the work: "... and I will go very far ... to ask Christ the lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child."

Hear Dawn Upshaw perform Ancient Voices of Children and more with Gilbert Kalish on Thursday, September 11 at 7:30 at the BAM Harvey Theater, and stay afterward to hear them and accompanying cellist Fred Sherry talk with Nonesuch President Bob Hurwitz.

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