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Distinctly America! George Crumb at the Library of Congress

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The following is a guest post from Senior Producer in the Concert Office Anne McLean.

A page from George Crumb’s score for “Makrokosmos, Volume II”, 1973.

A new music mini-series, Distinctly America!, brings a fascinating sampling of American composers–established and emerging–to the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium this spring (for a complete lineup of events, visit the Concerts from the Library of Congress website).  George Crumb, Sebastian Currier and Stephen Hartke (both unveiling new Library commissions,) Missy Mazzoli and Judd Greenstein speak to introduce their work in a series of MusicTalks, informal conversations slated to appear on the LC websites.

Opening the series on April 28, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs selections from George Crumb’s epic 7-volume song cycle, American Songbooks. Baritone Thomas Hampson takes on an unusual ensemble role for this stunningly evocative work–shimmering transformations of America’s folk song heritage, woven into a tapestry threaded with cowboy tunes, hymns, revival songs, Appalachian ballads and African American spirituals. Onstage, a percussion-packed battery of instruments: Chinese opera and temple gongs, an African talking drum, tamtams and tomtoms, Tibetan prayer stones, a musical saw and quite a few items you might have around the house, like a jug, a heavy metal chain, and a sink (full of water.)  They’ll be played by what Mr. Crumb calls an “orchestra” of four percussionists (for this occasion, members of the New York Philharmonic), and a keyboardist at an amplified piano.

One of the nation’s pre-eminent composers, George Crumb is a now close-to-iconic figure, known for capturing an indefinable essence, a glimpse of our Americanness (“George Crumb hears the heartbeat of America,” writes the L.A. Times).  He will discuss the American Songbooks cycle in a special, intimate pre-concert conversation in the Whittall Pavilion at 6:15 p.m., talking with a longtime friend, Bridge Records producer David Starobin.

“In undertaking this task I was, in a sense, returning to my Appalachian roots,” the composer says.  More than a decade ago, a suggestion from his daughter Ann turned his attention to American folk music “and in particular those haunting tunes associated with Appalachia.” Ghosts of many songs appear in the cycle, shapeshifting fragments conjuring musical memory–including Sit Down, Sister, Shall We Gather at the River, Sometimes I Feel Like  a Motherless Child, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, and Black, Black, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair. With “a wide range of instrumental colors and textures… extended chromaticism and occasionally unusual rhythmic patterns,” Mr. Crumb stated this week, “I have attempted to bring out the psychological depth and mysticism and also the humor (both whimsical and ironic) inherent in the American folk idiom.”

George Crumb’s long and cordial relationship with the Library of Congress began with the commission of his landmark work, Ancient Voices of Children, in 1970, one of the most notable compositions in the distinguished roster of Coolidge Foundation commissions. Contemporary music lovers will smile to learn that Gilbert Kalish, the pianist for the Ancient Voices premiere forty years ago, will be performing in the American Songbooks concert on April 28. The evening will be a most appropriate occasion for Mr. Crumb’s announcement that he intends his papers to become part of the collections of the Library of Congress.


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