Crumb: Makrokosmos, Volume II

(Booklet text of the CD "Portrait Erik Reischl, Volume 4")

George Crumb is one of the most important composers of our time. In 1968 his work, “Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Later he attained international recognition with “Black Angels” for electronic string quartet and this was also my first encounter with Crumb’s music. Even then the ingenious interweaving of extravagant tone colours into a carefully constructed form fascinated me.

Both volumes of Makrokosmos were written between 1972 and 1973 with each volume comprising 12 pieces, and these are again divided into 4 groups. Not only does each piece have a related sign of the zodiac, but also has the initials of a person born under this sign. The last piece of each group’s musical notation is written in a symbolic sign, such as a circle, a cross, a spiral or a peace sign.

The title is a dedication to Bartók’s “Mikrokosmos” which is a collection of 153 short piano pieces, but the formal structure of the work reflects the composers admiration for Claude Debussy who wrote 24 preludes in 2 volumes, each a collection of 12 individually titled pieces. Apart from that two other composers who influenced his work are mentioned:

“I suspect that the ‘spiritual impulse’ of my music is more akin to the darker side of Chopin, and even to the child-like fantasy of early Schumann.”

Crumb’s world of sounds is created out of the use of techniques far beyond those of conventional music. In Makrokosmos, the pianist plucks strings, mutes them, knocks on the frame, sings, whistles, whispers and shouts and with his own voice imitates instruments, such as the Indian tambora. On top of that the first pieces of the groups of 4 make use of external objects to create a particular sound. In “Morning Music” a piece of paper, exact in size, is laid on the strings to produce a metallic vibration. In the “Ghost Nocturne” two cylindrical glasses held firmly on the strings, are moved backwards and forwards to create a howling, ghost-like effect. The “Cosmic Wind” is produced by a wire brush which strokes different areas of the strings under varying pressure.

During a live performance the sound effects such as pizzicato or reverberation occur in extreme pianissimo and are therefore amplified through a microphone which is placed above the bass strings inside the piano. We decided against this as 8 microphones were in position during recording, some of them very close to the piano and it is unlikely to distort the original sound intention.

(Erik Reischl, Translation Elisabeth Ann Krüger)