Chapter 25

Chapter 25: The Changing World of Music since 1945

Composer Biographies

George Crumb

Born: October 24, 1929, Charleston, West Virginia

In his own words . . .

"In Ancient Voices of Children, as in earlier Lorca settings, I have sought musical images that enhance and reinforce the powerful yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca's poetry. I feel that the essential meaning of this poetry is concerned with the most primary things; Life death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of the wind and the sea. These ur-concepts are embodied in a language which is primitive and stark, but which is capable of infinitely subtle nuance."

American composer and teacher. Crumb has developed a style that uses new techniques in a dramatic, narrative manner.

George Crumb's career is rather typical for American composers in the second half of the twentieth century. His training was largely in American universities (he received his Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Michigan). In turn, he has spent the majority of his career teaching composition at various universities. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, where he began teaching in 1965. He has received a number of awards (including a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his Echoes of Time and the River), as well as numerous honorary degrees.

Crumb's music is a rich blend of new and innovative techniques, often involving aspects of theater. His scores often call for unusual instrumental combinations. His Lux aeterna, for example, adds a sitar to a chamber ensemble, and his Black Angels is written for an amplified string quartet, which he calls on to play various percussion instruments as well as bowing water goblets. In addition, he asks his players and singers to use new ways of producing sounds. This is especially true of his vocal music. Here Crumb allows the singer to turn her voice into a different kind of instrument, using clicks, sighs, laughs, and yells to create dramatic effects (he also asks instrumentalists to speak, sing, or shout, often as a part of playing). Other techniques, such as singing into the piano (to produce extra resonance) or singing though a cardboard tube (to create a sense of physical and even spiritual distance) add new tonal colors to the human voice. Many of his works were written for the virtuoso singer Jan DeGaetani, and their collaborations have been a rich source of new vocal techniques.

Crumb's music also stands out for his use of theater. In Vox balanae he calls for the musicians to wear masks and to perform under a blue light. In his pieces, musicians often leave and reenter the stage, or play from offstage. The written scores also share this sense of theater and symbolism—repetitive sections, for instance, might be written on a circular staff—and his music is as visually intriguing as it is musically satisfying. The majority of his vocal pieces are settings of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and it is in these pieces that he seems to have found his most successful and immediate style. Not surprisingly, these are among his most often performed works.

Works

  • Orchestral music, including Echoes of Time and the River (1967) and A Haunted Landscape (1984)
  • Vocal music based on Lorca poetry, including Night Music I (1963); 4 books of madrigals (1965–69); Songs, Drones,and Refrains of Death (1968); Night of the Four Moons (1969); and Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
  • Chamber music, including Black Angels (for electrified string quartet, 1970), Lux aeterna (Eternal Light, for voice and chamber ensemble, including sitar, 1971), Vox balanae (The Voice of the Whales, for amplified instruments, 1971), and Quest (for guitar and chamber ensemble, 1994)
  • Music for amplified piano, including 2 volumes of Makrokosmos (1972, 1973), Music for a Summer Evening (1974), and Zeitgeist (1988)
  • Piano music, including Processional (1984)

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  • Federico García Lorca
    Much of Crumb's vocal music is based on the poetry of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (who was executed in the Spanish Civil War). This site is a good gateway to various webpages dedicated to the life and works of this great poet.

John Cage

Born: September 5, 1912, Los Angeles, California

Died: August 12, 1992, New York, New York

American composer, performer, graphic artist, poet, and writer. Expert on edible mushrooms and cofounder of the New York Mycological Society.

In an autobiographical statement, John Cage wrote: "My favorite music is the music I haven't yet heard. I don't hear the music I write: I write in order to hear the music I haven't yet heard." This desire to find new sounds and to abandon the traditional role of the composer as a controlling authority were hallmarks of John Cage's career and made him at once a revered and reviled figure in modern music.

Cage was the son of an inventor, and he had an unremarkable and generally unmusical childhood. He attended two years of college, then left to travel in Europe. When he returned to the United States, he began serious study, first with Henry Cowell and then with Arnold Schoenberg. He began writing in his own musical system, often using techniques similar to those of Schoenberg. In 1937, he moved to Seattle and took a job accompanying a dance company. From this, he began to view music as segments of time to be filled with sounds. During this period, his music is marked by strict, mathematically devised proportions of time. He filled these segments with new sounds, including different objects used as percussion instruments (brake drums, for example), electronic sounds, and prepared piano (a piano with objects placed between the strings to modify pitch and timbre).

In the 1940s, he moved to New York and joined a group of avant-garde artists, including painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage was long associated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as composer, performer, and music director. At about this same time, Cage developed an interest in Eastern religions. During this period, he continued his use of carefully structured segments of time, but began to fill them in with materials derived by chance processes (the rolling of dice, the use of the I-Ching, and other methods). In perhaps the ultimate statement of this aesthetic, he wrote 4'33", a piece of total silence on the part of the performer, into which the random sounds of the world enter. This cemented his beliefs that the goal of music was a "purposelessness," and that the role of the composer was to create situations in which sounds could "simply be." To this end, he continued to devise strategies for creating activities in which sounds could happen. The most expansive example of this is HPSCHD, created with Lejaren Hiller. The piece is written for seven harpsichordists, various other performers, and fifty-one tapes, along with multiple films, slides, and light shows. Using various activities, the basic coordination of these elements is set in motion, and the audience walks among the performers over the course of five hours.

In his later years, Cage turned to computers as an aid to his creation of pieces and became interested in theater (or in his vision, circuses). Along with his musical contributions, he left a large body of writings that explain and exemplify his aesthetic.

Works

  • Orchestral works, including Concerto (for prepared piano and chamber orchestra, 1951), Concert (for piano and orchestra, 1958), 30 Pieces for 5 Orchestras (1981), A Collection of Rocks (1984), and 101 (1989)
  • Chamber music, including Imaginary Landscape #2 (percussion, 1942), 3 Percussion Trios (1943), and String Quartet (1950)
  • Piano music, including Music of Changes (1951), Winter Music (1957), Cheap Imitation (1969), and Etudes australes (1975)
  • Music for prepared piano, including The Perilous Night (1944) and Sonatas and Interludes (1948)
  • Electronic music, including Imaginary Landscapes Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5 (1939, 1942, 1951, 1952); Fontana Mix (1958); HPSCHD (1969); and Roaratorio (1971)
  • Vocal Music, including The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), Aria (1958), and Europeras 3 & 4 (1990)
  • Music for indeterminate resources, including 4'33' (1952), Variations I–VII (1958–66), and Musicircus (1967)

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Links

  • An Autobiographical Statement
    Cage originally wrote this for his acceptance of the Kyoto Prize in 1989. While it is a straightforward narrative of his life, its presentation provides an insight into Cage's personality—his brilliant mind and gentle, self-effacing demeanor.
  • Indeterminacy
    A site true to the ideals of John Cage. Cage wrote hundreds of one-paragraph stories (anecdotes, remembrances, musings) and he would read them as parts of lectures or to accompany dances of Merce Cunningham. This site collects 186 of these stories and allows you to read them in random order. They are a wonderful way to get into the creative and surprising mind of John Cage.
  • The Merce Cunningham Page
    Cage worked with Cunningham for most of his career. This site introduces the technique and aesthetic of Cunningham's choreography.

Arvo Pärt

Born: September 11, 1935, Paide, Estonia

Estonian composer. He creates music that combines Western, medieval, and Russian Orthodox elements.

Over the last few decades, many composers have infused their music with a distinctly spiritual quality. This is often accompanied by a style that stresses a relatively tonal framework and a retreat from the complexities that have marked art music in the twentieth century. Composers such as Henryk G—recki, John Tavener, and, above all, Arvo Pärt have created a style that mixes modern musical ideas, ancient musical techniques, and a stark spirituality. This music has found a home in the complex world of the early-twenty-first century.

Pärt began his music studies in 1954 and entered the conservatory at Tallinn in 1957. At the same time, he began work at the state radio station and composed for stage and films. His early career was conducted within the oppressive atmosphere of Soviet domination in art and culture. Nonetheless, Pärt helped to pioneer the use of serial techniques in Estonia and later added the technique of collage (making use of extensive quotation of material by baroque and classical composers). After his 1968 Credo was banned, he ceased composing for a time, turning to the study of medieval music and the works of the Franco-Flemish school. He returned to composition in 1971 with his Symphony No. 3, but soon retreated again into artistic silence. By 1976, he had developed a radically new style based on simple melodies in counterpoint with drones and arpeggiated triads—a style he named tintinnabuli because of its bell-like qualities. Since finding this new compositional voice, Pärt has maintained an active and prolific compositional career. He has continued to explore this style, and since leaving Estonia in 1980, he has added the strong religious element that marks his most recent work.

Arvo Pärt's music has found a solid following in the last fifteen years. This is due in part to the clear tonal orientation of his music, which makes it easily accessible to the listener. At the same time, different qualities appeal to other audiences. The general static quality of the music, with slowly shifting harmonies and rich timbres, connects with the so-called new age style, while his use of medieval techniques has made him popular with proponents (listeners and performers) of early music. Finally, the religious quality of his music, tinged with the exotic qualities of the Russian Orthodox Church, has made his music attractive to various religious and spiritual movements. His is a popularity perfectly in sync with the eclecticism of his style.

Works

  • Orchestral works, including Cantus in memorium Benjamin Britten (string orchestra and bells, 1977), Concertos pro et contra (for cello, 1966), and Tabula rasa (for 2 violins, 1977)
  • Instrumental chamber works, including Collage sur B-A-C-H (1964) and Fratres (1977)
  • Sacred choral works, including Credo (for piano, chorus, and orchestra, 1968), Cantate Domino canticum novum (1977, rev. 1996), St. John Passion (1982), Seven Magnificat Antiphons (1988), Magnificat (1989), and Kanon Pokajanen (on Russian Orthodox texts, 1997)

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Bright Sheng

Bright ShengBorn: December 6, 1955, Shanghai, China

In his own words . . .

"Am I Chinese? Am I American? Am I Chinese-American? I have lived in the United States since my mid-twenties. The other part of me is Chinese, a person who grew up in China and whose outlook was formed there. . . . I am a mixture. Identity cannot be decided by political boundaries. . . . I enjoy the fact that I can live in and appreciate two different cultures."

Chinese-American composer. His music integrates the style and instruments of his native country within the Western idiom.

China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) created an atmosphere in which Western ideas were abandoned (often forcefully) in an attempt to return to a revolutionary purity. One of the victims of this political fundamentalism was the arts, including music. With the gradual reopening of China to the West in the later 1970s, Western-style conservatories began to reopen, leading to a flowering of Western classical music. The composer Bright Sheng's early life was shaped by the events of this period, and he is one of many in this generation to create an intriguing blend of Eastern and Western styles in his music.

Sheng was born in Shanghai and at an early age began to study piano with his mother. During the Cultural Revolution, he performed traditional Chinese music with a dance troupe in the northern province of Qinghai. With the reopening of Western-style conservatories, Sheng began his music studies at the Shanghai Conservatory (receiving a BA). He came to America for graduate study at Queens College and Columbia University, where he received is doctorate in 1993. His teachers included Chou Wen-chung and Leonard Bernstein.

Sheng's music freely mixes Chinese and Western elements, trying always to maintain the integrity of each. In his songs, he has used texts as diverse as folk songs from the Qinghai province and poems of e. e. cummings. His music has explored important political and cultural aspects of his Chinese heritage including the Cultural Revolution (in his orchestral work H'un), Jiang Qing (Mao's widow and member of the so-called "Gang of Four," in the opera Madame Mao), and the cultural dynamics of the Tibetan region (in The Song of Majnun). Most recently he as worked with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His music incorporates the styles and techniques of traditional Chinese music—mostly with Western instruments, but sometimes with Chinese instruments such as the pipa (lute) and erhu (a two-stringed fiddle).

Works

  • Symphonic works, including H'un (Lacerations: In Memoriam 1966–76, 1988), China Dreams (1995), Tibetan Swing (2002), concertos for Western and Asian instruments (Spring Dreams, for cello and Chinese orchestra, 1997), Nanking! Nanking! A Threnody (for Orchestra and Pipa, 2000), Red Silk Dance (for piano and orchestra, 2000), The Song and Dance of Tears (a quadruple concerto for cello, pipa, sheng, piano and orchestra, 2003), and Colors of Crimson (for percussion and orchestra, 2004)
  • Chamber music, including 4 string quartets and Seven Tunes Heard in China (for solo cello, 1995)
  • Operas, including The Song of Majnun (1992), The Silver River (1997), and Madame Mao (2003)
  • Vocal works, including Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty (soprano and orchestra, 1985), Three Chinese Love Songs (soprano, viola, and piano, 1988), and Two Folk Songs from Qinghai (for chorus and orchestra, 1989)

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