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15 September 2011

George Crumb - 'Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III)' (Nonesuch)

Crumb's composition is for two amplified pianos and percussion, and it sounds very much like the stretched night sky, with twinkles of light and the occasional meteor. The structure, as Crumb writes on the cover, is five-part; 1, 3 and 5 are the main themes and the interludes (separated by instrument-type) are dream interventions. So taken as a whole, we get a grand sense of wonder - a journeyman captivated by the natural environment, and fulfilling the greatest promise of electro-acoustic music. The pianos sound like pianos, mostly, and the energy of electricity coursing through them really does "amplify" the decay and fluctuations of the notes. There's trills, dips, and dots; the integration with the various percussive tools hits it's peak on track 3, 'The Advent'. There's actually a great deal of percussion in Crumb's battery, according to the liner notes, all played by the duo of Raymond DesRoches and Richard Fitz. "Metal thunder-sheet" is clearly the screaming that comes across the sky here, but there's also some kalimbas, alto recorder, slide-whistles, and the "jawbone of an ass" (really!). So as focused as this sounds on wax, Crumb is actually drawing from a lot of different sources. It's hard to know how structured the playing is - certainly the closing 'Music of the Starry Night' with it's waves of chop-chop piano glass is tight, but 'The Advent' is fluid and improvised. Crumb does explicitly thank the performer for their "critically important role ... in the evolution of any new musical language". I've always loved electroacoustic composition from this era (this is 1975) because of the critical balance between technological know-how and pure exploratory wonder. The imagery of the night sky is surely universal, and maybe a bit easy compared to postmodern symphonic works that are inspired by rutabegas, artificial intelligence research or clam chowder -- but that universality stirs an easy soup in my soul. I remember find this record over a decade ago in a very low-quality secondhand shop that was all CDs downstairs and forgotten, mostly worthless vinyl upstairs. I spent a hot summer afternoon combing through the entire room and found this and only this to reward me, but for $1.99 it was truly a bargain.

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