George Crumb, the prolific avant-garde composer, died at his home today. Bridge Records—which released many records by Crumb across his career including the 2021 Marcantonio Barone collaboration Metamorphoses, Books I & II—confirmed the news, noting his wife and sons were with Crumb when he died. He was 92 years old.
Crumb, who spent 30 years teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, won a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his piece Echoes of Time and the River in 1967 and a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for his piece Star-Child in 2011. Born to a musical family in West Virginia, Crumb’s work explored the intersection of nature and sound, especially when it came to timbre. One of his more famous pieces, “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale),” incorporated whale-calls.
Crumb earned his master’s degree at the University of Illinois in 1953 and his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1959. Later in life, he spoke about finding the academic environment creatively stifling. “The trouble was that everybody was forced into this academic way of writing that came out of European modernism. To me it just seemed a very efficient way of producing lots of wrong notes,” he said in 2009. “It became an all-purpose technique that destroyed the creative persona of many people.”
Among Crumb’s most famous compositions were his graphic scores, which were hand-drawn on oversized sheets and took the form of elaborate shapes and spirals. “I don’t have any artistic skills outside of musical calligraphy,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I just think the music should look the way it sounds.”
He based several of his compositions and other projects on the writing of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, including his 1970 song cycle Ancient Voices of Children. In a 1992 interview at the George Crumb Festival in Boulder, Colorado, the composer admitted he was never sure how those specific pieces would be received. “I once many years ago had a letter from Lorca’s brother who said he liked my settings of Lorca’s poetry,” he said.
A busy composer during the 1960s and ’70s, Crumb became less prolific in the subsequent two decades, but he returned with a series of American Songbooks beginning in the 2000s. Recordings of his music have been released in Bridge Records’ series Complete George Crumb Edition. Find a full list of his recordings here.
Despite its avant-garde nature, Crumb’s work was influential to a number of artists such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and David Bowie. In 2003, Bowie listed Crumb’s 1972 LP Black Angels, composed during the bleak days of the Vietnam War, as one of his favorite albums of all time. “I heard this piece for the first time in the darkest time of my own 70s, and it scared the bejabbers out of me,” Bowie said of Black Angels in an article for Vanity Fair. “It’s still hard for me to hear this piece without a sense of foreboding. Truly, at times, it sounds like the devil’s own work.”
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