Thursday, September 10, 2009

George Crumb and The Bad Plus

Yesterday I was at the George Crumb lecture in CU Boulder, involving him speaking in a panel with several of his former students. Here are a few thoughts from his lecture: Crumb mentioned his main influences being Debussy, Mahler, Ives and Bartok. What he mentioned brought all these composer's together was their use of quotations, their pluralism, and their organic magick. It seems to me the common bond is that all of these composers use folk materials from other geographical areas, and were stretching the forms and what had been done up until their time. At this point Crumb mentioned to the composers out there, to use everything that they are hearing, all the devices they know of, and not focus on just one technique. There is a book I need to get titled "George Crumb: Alchemy of Sound." Crumb when talking about Asian music says that what is going on is a suspension in time, with a minimal idea and/or texture. The Asian idea is that the ideas are not narratives like in western art music, but more of a sounds tapestry.

I apologize for jumping all over the place describing the lecture, but I am trying to put all my thoughts out there from what I heard him say. When talking about music he mentioned that music doesn't consist of always equal parts. There are certain times when a piece focuses solely on rhythm, other times the focus is on melody, and other times only on strong harmony. Another Crumb piece I need to check out is "Five pieces for piano," a piece that became one of his earliest musical fingerprints, and was influenced by John Cage visiting his school, and becoming influenced by his philosophy, which he thinks Cage's philosophy is the most important element of 20th century music! It was interesting to note that Crumb talked about writing for inside the piano, but how he does not like to prepare the piano, but use what is naturally there inside of it. There are some pieces he wrote for his daughter based off of Appalachian music, which I never heard the name of the pieces, but will look into. "Zeitgeist" was another piece that was performed yesterday and talked about in the lecture that I need to find a recording of. He mentioned his music sometimes has a "daytime version" and a "dream" version within the same piece. "Music has to connect the composer to the area in which they were born," and he was adamant about this thought. On post modern music, he said that it is music mostly freed from politics and agendas, an interesting note. On electronic music he said "It is hard to admire the bravura of a machine!" On why he uses graphic notation, "I don't know, just something I did, and other composers around me were doing." Several of his students at this point talked about it for him, saying that it gives you a visual representation of how the music in the big picture is supposed to come out, be it a long arch, or a circle, or a cross. The original version of his "Night music one" had a fully improvised section, but after some bad performances of it, he changed it to being fully composed, not being happy with the improvisations. On Bach, he said, Bach's fugues were metaphysical, and he never had wasted a note. On the direction music is heading in the future, "Music is going inside, inside yourself, more composers are reaching inward than looking outward, which helps in identifying with your personal musical fingerprint." Crumb did talk more about the importance of the philosophy of Cage, but then mentioned the spiritual importance and dedication of the composer Messiaen. The last notes I wrote out were of Crumb saying you cannot quantify timbre like you can other musical elements. Also there was a mention of electronic music never being able to fully emulate the complex sounds of acoustic instruments, the example being of an oboe.

The only downside of the lecture was some older, presumably musicologist, that made a comment about how nothing is happening at all in the music composition in the past thirty years. The panelist deflected the question well, coming back to the idea of personal statements and musical fingerprints. Somewhere later in the lecture, the youngest panelist mentioned working with a synthesis of genres with musicians in New York, and this same old musicologist interrupted him by shouting, "Nothing new is happening!" Luckily, this man got nothing but death stares and dagger eyes from everyone else. Luckily George Crumb was the least pretension person in the lecture hall as well. This musicologist just goes to show that the older generation will continue to decry that the younger generation isn't contributing, and that music isn't like what it was back in the old days, an age old argument of the conservative vs. the youth. I was blown away, simply thinking about the breakthroughs that have happened in the past thirty years in the downtown New York scene, samplers/turntables/electronic music, the availability of music from all over the world, and the hybridization of all the different genres forming new syntheses. Oh well, a good lecture, and there always are a few bad apples in the crowd. I also can not help but laugh at different "questions" that arise in lectures like that, where the person with the question name drops several composers and their pieces, uses high academic language, and asks incredibly shallow things. Again, oh well, it happens, fact of life, but Crumb was a beautiful person to hear speak of music, and I can't wait to see the performances tonight!

After the lecture the group of people that I was with decided to hang out in Boulder, buy some vinyl and catch The Bad Plus at the Boulder Theatre. The saxophone professor from UNC went down to the show, and told me he knew Reid Anderson, the bassist of the group fairly well, and that he would introduce us. The show was great, chocked full of originals, several that haven't been recorded on a record yet. The "covers" of the night were Ornette's "Song X," Stravinsky's "Apollo," David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and the jazz standard "Have you met Miss Jones." Have you met Miss Jones started out normal, but kept slowing down and speeding up throughout the performance. It was a funny take of the tune, and seemed to be poking fun at the idea of playing a jazz standard.

After an incredible and inspiring show we were able to meet Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson. Reid Anderson spoke of the cult following of his record the Vastness of Space, and how currently he isn't practicing much anymore. He told me that he worked really hard for over ten years practicing, but because he gigs so much now he stays in shape. Reid was also saying he no longer flys with his bass, and gets a bass provided by the venue. He has had two very bad bass experiences flying where his bass was destroyed, the neck completely broken. I asked him about practing arco after being done with school, (Reid studied at the Curtis Institute) and he said he rarely played with it after that. He did however mention that if I did work on practicing with a bow to practice scales, with the metronome at 40 bpm, playing eight beats to a single note.
I spoke to Ethan Iverson for a minute after meeting Reid, and mentioned that I had sent him my blog post on Charlie Haden for his blog contest. He immediately remembered me, and told me that he had forwarded my paper to Charlie Haden himself. Ethan said he never heard back from Haden about it, that he is bad with responding to calls or emails, but that he had it. He then recommended I see the documentary on Haden that was coming out soon. It was an incredible evening, and tonight I go back to Boulder to catch several premiere's of George Crumb's pieces.

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