George Crumb: Songs - Voices from the Heartland; Sun and Shadow / Ann Crumb, soprano; Orchestra 2001


This Bridge Records release of two books of songs by George Crumb makes for a very nice collector’s item. The songs, which have made few appearances on CD, are collected here in their entirety, and receive an elegant and thorough presentation as Volume 16 of Bridge's Complete George Crumb Edition. Among the performers are the composer’s daughter, Ann Crumb, and Orchestra 2001, the Philadelphia contemporary music ensemble that is in the process of recording all seven of Crumb’s American songbooks. Listeners who favor organization, consistency, and dedication, not to mention stellar performances, will value this addition to their collections.

Crumb is one of America’s best-known contemporary composers, famous for works like Black Angels (1970) for electric string quartet and Voice of the Whale (1971) for electric flute, electric cello, and amplified piano. In these earlier pieces, Crumb explored dark and unsettling sounds, experimented with costumes and lighting, and struck a balance between radical modernism and a sense of the familiar in music—melody and thematic development. The songs presented here show Crumb’s continued interest in creative instrumentation, but are decidedly more approachable for general audiences. Both books of songs feature theatrical shouting and noise-making by the singers and instrumentalists, and extended techniques like tapping on the body of the piano and plucking its strings. But because these songs borrow from sources like Native American chants, Crumb keeps these pieces relatively grounded, he says, in order “not to harm these wonderful melodies, to stay out of the way of those beautiful tunes.”

The Spanish Songbook II (2009) is for voice and amplified piano; American Songbook VII (2010) is scored for soprano and baritone, amplified piano, and percussion. The Spanish Songbook consists of settings of the poetry of Federico García Lorca translated to English. Images of the outdoors and feelings of longing pervade the cycle. These songs are full of life and love, a culmination of Crumb’s obsession with Lorca’s poetry that reaches back to the early 1960s. The American Songbook is more quintessentially Crumb. The percussionists provide generally sparse, eerie accompaniment to relatively straightforward folk melodies and some Sprechstimme recitation of the traditional texts. Song II, “Ghost Dance,” is a Pawnee chant that ends with aggressive, violent drumming and shouts from the percussionists as well as the singer. Song VI, “War of the Sexes,” pits Ann Crumb against baritone Patrick Mason; Crumb sings “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” while Mason sings “On Top of Old Smoky,” the two melodies clashing and weaving together.

These songs are at once exciting, odd, simple, and bizarre, and have roots in American musical traditions as old as Native American chants and as recent as contemporary classical music. The remarkable balance that Crumb achieves is befitting of the artistic stature he has enjoyed over the last half century. While collectors may relish the opportunity to obtain these two books of songs in such an authoritative and pleasing package, listeners who are just coming to know Crumb’s music will also be duly intrigued and entertained by this repertoire. This uniquely American creative voice deserves nothing less than the most faithful and spirited performances in the first complete edition of his works. Fortunately for all, that’s exactly what is available here.

George Crumb: "Black Angels" / Filarmonica Quartet