George Crumb; Makrokosmos

George CrumbMakrokosmos I & II;
24 fantasy pieces after the Zodiac for amplified piano
Margaret Leng Tan [amplified piano] – Alex Nowitz [whistling]
Mode Records mode 142 [also available on DVD]
Duration: 63:06


part one
01. Primeval Sounds (Genesis I) [4:07]
02. Proteus [1:16]
03. Pastorale (from the Kingdom of Atlantis, ca. 10,000 B.C.) [1:56]
04. Cricifixus [Symbol] [2:55]

part two
05. The Phantom Gondolier [2:49]
06. Night-Spell I [3:45]
07. Music of Shadows (for Aeolian Harp) [2:09]
08. The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto perpetuo) [Symbol] [2:04]

part three
09. The Abyss of Time [2:41]
10. Spring-Fire [1:38]
11. Dream Images (Love-Death Music) [4:18]
12. Spiral Galaxy [Symbol] [2:43]


part one
13. Morning Music (Genesis II) [2:32]
14. The Mystic Chord [2:17]
15. Rain-death Variations [1:36]
16. Twin Suns (Doppelgänger aus der Ewigkeit) [Symbol] [3:09]

part two
17. Ghost-Nocturne: for the Druids of Stonehenge (Night-Spell II) [4:07]
18. Gargoyles [1:20]
19. Tora! Tora! Tora! (Cadenza Apocalittica) [1:58]
20. A Prophecy of Nostradamus [Symbol] [4:07]

part three
21. Cosmic Wind [2:11]
22. Voices from "Corona Borealis" [3:27]
23. Litany of the Galactic Bells [2:33]
24. Agnus Dei [Symbol] [4:13]

George Crumb wrote Makrokosmos in 1972 and 1973. These pieces constitute a massive and detailed exploration of the sounding possibilities of the piano. In one of his jotted-down notes Crumb says that his intention was to write ”an all-inclusive technical work for piano [using] all conceivable techniques”. This may seem a mighty task, but solely the honest intention of achieving something like that is bound to reach far, and far he has reached.

The manner of going about his chore reminds one of earlier attempts at writing full-fledged piano works – which also succeeded brilliantly, in their time – for example Johan Sebastian Bach’s
Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Frédéric Chopin’s Etudes & Preludes, Franz Liszt’s Trancendental Etudes, Dmitry Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues etcetera. Naturally, Crumb’s attempt is a modernistic one, using amplification and all sorts of performance methods that belong in a new era, an era of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The apparent ease of the flow of events in
Makrokosmos may persuade one of an improvisational approach, but this is belied by the comprehensive sketches, with planning of the over-arching intent as well as the minute details.

In George Crumb’s
Makrokosmos, the two sections are divided into three parts each, themselves sectioned into four parts that are to be played without interruption. Crumb has designed the last of the four parts of the three divisions of the two sections as a symbol, thus in Volume 1 presenting piece number 4 as a cross, number 8 as circle and number 12 as a spiral.

As can be viewed above, Crumb also had an affinity for fantasy-evoking titles! Some of these do remind me not so little of Terry Riley's habit of giving his pieces beautiful and thought-provoking titles, like on his album
Harp of New Albion (piano in just intonation) and Salome Dances for Peace (String Quartet)

Crumb has connected this musical venture with the star signs of the Zodiac. I suppose most of us thereby associate to Stockhausen and his rightly famous
Tierkreis, which has been recorded innumerable times in different instrumentations, starting with Stockhausen’s original concept for music boxes – which can still be ordered from Stockhausen-Verlag! Crumb’s Zodiac adventure as presented here has also been the focus of many a recording!
Crumb has exemplified the characters of the Zodiac with the initials of specified persons born under those signs, like Lorca and Brahms, to mention a couple. Crumb composed
Volume I in memory of Béla Bartók and Volume II in memory of Gustav Mahler.

George Crumb, ca. 1968
(Photo: Bridge Records)

As the booklet text by Steven Bruns (which to a high degree constitutes the source for these comments) states, one of the more important aspects of Makrokosmos is the exploration of timbres, innumerable variations on nuances of timbres. This is a true listening adventure for the clean-eared!
Of course, many un-orthodox playing practices are exercised by the brilliant pianist Margaret Leng Tan, like plucking strings inside the piano, playing glissandi across strings, sliding a scrape along a string and so forth – and the truly extraneous sound appears in whistles and vocal utterances…
This reveals a peculiar, childish, humoristic whim, not unlike the counting and whistling in some Stockhausen pieces, or the bird whistles in some Cage works.

The Cage analogy is reinforced by Crumb’s insertion of objects between the strings, thus preparing the piano. However, these objects do not, as with Cage, stay put during performance, but are inserted and removed by the performer during playing.

Some of Crumb’s indications go far beyond what is traditional in musical scores, exactly pointing out what he is after: ”incisive, clear; serene, hauntingly; echoing; languidly, as from afar; very slow; like chanting; tender; wistful; like a vision; as if suspended in endless time.”

From a listener’s viewpoint – which viewpoint can be better concerning music! – this work is a deep adventure through sound, through a wondrous display of light and space and timbres, seemingly everlasting, eternally emitting from some kind of core of creativity and ingenuity which is the origin and true home of being.

What better way to start a work of music than with a piece entitled
Primeval Sounds? Anyway, that is, of course, how Crumb begins Makrokosmos, in deep murmurs, slowly turning out there in the darkness… like time rustling in eternity – but then; an explosion of sharp incisions clustered and tight – followed by those characteristic bamboo-sounding Cage-type preparations… until the sound grows into majestic proportions, swelling over the topography like overwhelming thoughts blown out of proportions by anxiety… but then slowly sinking back into calmer, more restrained sections, only to swell again, yes, like slow, relentless and anonymous waves of darkness through the music and the emotions.

Proteus is quite different; fast, rippling beads of tones, ebony and ivory necklaces, glittering and shining ’round the neck of someone beautiful and desirable! Yes, a long neck, a proud look, a fantastic hairdo! This music is new and old; a remembrance of past eras in this new rippling of fast moving fingers up and down the keyboard! Ah, it’s so short – and then gone… A glimpse, barely a glimpse…

Pastorale (from the Kingdom of Atlantis) is rinsed romanticism, somehow – a very short, beautiful pianistic bagatelle: a little child jumping about in the pasture, golden locks in golden sunlight – a serious playfulness…

Crucifixus fetches its breath way down in La Monte Youngish realms (Well-Tuned Piano dark spots!) – but with insertions of preparations… and then, without warning; a violently close vocal exclamation, again Stockhausenesque, like his ”Salve Satanelli” – but here: Christe!
The music moves in slow breaths, hovering over the topography like ominous thunderclouds.

Yes, and this was just part 1 of
Volume 1, and the rest of the set is just as varied; madly changing appearance, in a hall of mirrors of timbres and whimsical ideas, carefully executed by Margaret Leng Tan.

The Phantom Gondolier of part 2 of Volume 1 amounts to an intensive display of alternative ringing and rustling piano practices and the added pleasure (?) of Leng Tan’s moaning aaahs…

This marvelous playing doesn’t end until the music is played through, and then it remains in your head and mind for a long while, even coloring your dreams (the reviewer’s experience!)

The music is exciting, the playing is marvelous –
Mode has produced another great disc.

And please meet Mr. Chopin on track 11!