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Extended Instrumental Techniques in George Crumb's Music

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 4229 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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George Crumb – The use of Extended Instrumental Techniques in his music

For my essay on the composer George Crumb, I decided to take a closer look at how he uses extended instrumental and vocal techniques in his music.

George Crumb can be considered a composer who is part of the ‘timbralists’ and the ‘timbralism movement’. Oftentimes, his musical output can be identified with the school of timbralists. There were two schools of these ‘timbralists’: those who created new sounds electronically, and those who produced sounds by experimenting with existing acoustic instruments; George Crumb is most often associated with the latter category. At the time Crumb began writing in the 1960s and 70s, this approach to composition had been previously explored by composers such as Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and John Cage (1912-1992):

 “Whereas in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds.”

—John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo (1937)[1]

Crumb is a composer well known for his extensive development of extended instrumental and vocal techniques in order to achieve such new timbres in his music. Crumb was “influenced by Charles Ive’s fascination with sounds for their own sake”. [2]One example of this would be how Crumb experimented with ‘colour fingerings’, which are alternative fingerings used in succession with each other to alter the timbre and colour of a pitch slightly. We can look at these elements in more detail by examining the following works of music by Crumb: Eleven Echoes of Autumn, Vox Balaenae(Voice of the Whale), Night Music I, Music for a Summer Evening, and Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death.

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Crumb has often described himself as being a ‘post-modernist composer’. I think that in the case of Crumb as a composer, this label signifies what I think can be described as a style with more of a balance than say that of a strictly ‘modernist’ composer. With post-modernism in music, I believe there to be more of an openness and more of an embracing of the old and new.       

[3]Crumb has himself described in the past the “echoing, reverberant sounds of the West Virginia river valley” as being an “inherited acoustic that is reflected” in many of his works. It is easy for us to see this ‘inherited acoustic’ he mentions, as being a bit of a recurring characteristic or a running theme within his music. In everything from the actual sound-effects he uses, right down to the subject matter and poetry he chooses to tackle, we can observe Crumb continually attempting to replicate this acoustic throughout his pieces. I believe he tries and succeeds in doing this by way of making his works more of an almost ‘multi-sensory experience’, as opposed to simply creating audible pieces of music. He experiments with timbres never heard before and by using very non-traditional methods, for example, Crumb uses a mallet in order to play the strings on a double bass at certain points in his Madrigals, Book 1. For live performances of some of his notable works such as,Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for Three Masked Players (1971) he also incorporates dramatic performance elements in order to heighten the audience’s experience of the music.


A perfect example of this can be found in the already mentioned piece Vox Balaenae or ‘Voice of the Whale’, where the performers are instructed to wear masks as well as to perform in a dim, blue light. Combined with the extended instrumental techniques used, this makes for an engaging and unique concert experience. This work of music was “inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, which Crumb was able to hear a recording of in 1969. It is by Crumb’s use of electronic amplification of the entire ensemble: flute, cello, and piano, that allows the composer to demonstrate this great reverberant acoustic from the ensemble. Rather than literally incorporating the whale song recording, Crumb gives specific instructions for the performers to mimic and approximate these sounds acoustically through carefully notated extended techniques and timbral effects. In addition to the specificity of musical elements in Crumb’s works, Crumb often recommends several theatrical components. Crumb explains the requirements and the need for dramatic elements in his music in the form of introductory performance notes, in which he speaks of the effects he wants performers to go with. For example, when he states that all performers should wear a black half-mask in Vox Balaenae, he explains the thought behind his idea, that “by effacing a sense of human projection, it will symbolize the powerful impersonal forces of nature (nature dehumanized).”


In Crumb’s music, this repeated method of re-creating a certain type of ‘inherited acoustic’ has been realized further by means of varied instrumentation, orchestration, extended techniques, and digital manipulation. Amidst all of this, Crumb also seems to try and address ‘time’ itself in a lot of his work. He creates a sense of space and great distance in much of his music, experimenting with textures, oftentimes by being quite minimalistic in his use of accompaniment. In doing this, Crumb once again gives way to the idea of the inherited acoustic being a main feature of his music, as he leaves a lot of room for the effects to do their work in re-creating the echoes and reverberant sounds of where he came from. Examples of great spaces and minimalism can be found not only in the act of listening to Crumb’s music, but also in one’s examining of the physical notated scores of his works.

[5]As pieces by Crumb like Vox Balaenae grew in popularity and started to be performed live, the timbral effects produced by use of extended instrumental techniques in the score could hardly be defined by audiences and critics alike. Over the past 40 years, however, these timbral effects have all become more frequently used by new and starting composers. The sense of originality to be found in this piece and other areas of Crumb’s music however, is still being renewed continually with the advancements in technology, giving more people access to resources online. With these developments, more people are being given a chance to receive a more rounded and informative introduction to this composer and his music. Those who are more familiar with the Vox Balaenae have come to expect the full theatrical experience, involving the use of the masked players and blue stage lights, and some would argue since becoming familiar with this particular score, in addition to knowledge of other works by Crumb have “diminished the impact of the once groundbreaking timbral effects and compositional language exhibited in Vox Balaenae.””

When extended instrumental and vocal technique becomes prominent in a composer’s music, this creates problems regarding the musical notation of such techniques used in a piece. This is the case with many of George Crumb’s scores, which are hand-written due to his unusual performance requirements. In Eleven Echoes of Autumn, Crumb asks for several extended techniques for the piano creating rare and otherworldly sounds throughout the piece. It is in ‘Echo’ where the performer is instructed to reach inside the piano to press on specific nodes on the piano strings, allowing the 5th harmonic partial to sound out and echo. This produces what is called the “bell motif”, a quintuplet whole tone figure that is heard throughout the piece from all the instruments in one form or another. In many of the Echoes(movements of this work), Crumb uses pizzicato piano playing, a plucking of the strings with the fingertip or fingernail. Other times he asks the pianist to rub the strings on the inside of the piano with a hard piece of rubber, while whistling specific pitches e.g in Echo 2. Some of the more percussive techniques come into play in his works after a certain point in time, including the muting the strings near the pins of the piano (Echo 5) and knocking on the four inner beams of the piano (Echo 8).The use of electronic amplification in Crumb’s works serves to enhance many of these unconventional sounds and also makes a feature of the peculiar atmospheres created by him in his music. The composer also specifies that the concluding phrase of the last movement should be performed very silently in order to illustrate the effect of a musical fade out.

[6]On the conventional percussion instruments, Crumb has made use of a variety of extended and unconventional techniques in order to achieve special colours within his compositions, where all the elements are involved with enormous contrasts. For the performers, mastering these techniques is crucial to successful performances, this is due to the fact so many of the passages incorporating these techniques are within thin and exposed textures and are frequently soloistic in nature. In Night Music I (1963), the first of his chamber works to utilize the poetry of Lorca and the percussion instruments, the instrumentation is predominantly pitched. The piece is written for soprano, keyboard (piano and celesta, at times played simultaneously), and two percussionists employing glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, crotales (Crumb always refers to these as “antique cymbals” in his scores), low bell (no pitch specified), and a timpano, with an added selection of non-pitched percussion instruments including sets of cymbals, tam-tams, triangle, and several kinds of drums.

As with so many of his works to follow, all the instruments (and voice) are articulated in a great variety of conventional and unconventional ways. Most of his experimentation into extended techniques for playing the mallet keyboard instruments occurred in the first three Lorca works and recur in the later works. In Night Music 1 Crumb incorporates a few of these techniques. On the vibraphone, he calls for simultaneous “black key” and “white key” glissandi, and “dead stick” technique, achieved by pressing the mallets into the bar, producing a “dead” or short, muted effect in contrast to his more reverberant effects.


[8]In Music for a Summer Evening (1974), Crumb makes use of the same kind of vibraphone glissando and in Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968), both the vibraphone and glockenspiel play these total chromatic glissandi. In this instance, the glissandi rise and fall the full length of the instruments and are executed with wire brushes while the performers play a continuous roll. The percussionists also are instructed to simultaneously whisper part of the Lorca text in a “ritardando molto” rhythm. Crumb also calls for unusual striking implements during Night Music 1f in order to achieve extremely soft and delicate effects. In the third Nocturne, “La Luna Asoma”(The Moon Rises), the marimba player must play with his fingernails, “ppp.” At the very last section of the second song, “Gacela de la terrible presencia” (Gacela of the terrible presence), the crotales are played using a paper clip in the last three notes before the final note is played by the soprano on the finger cymbals which is marked, “ppppp (quasi niente).”

In the case of Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, the piece is in two parts, each consisting of a refrain followed by a song that is accompanied by a “Death Drone”. The music is not easily forgotten due to the sense of unease it creates from the very start, with a series of muted piano notes and almost inaudible cymbal crashes, these sounds echo in an almost deafening silence created within the backdrop of the music. By muting/covering his mouth, the baritone singer creates these half-speaking harmonics that immediately make the listener feel like something is not right. Occasional and abrupt fortissimo outbursts of banging percussion and chorus shouts break the silence by surprise. In many ways this is a good description for the work as a whole. It is a piece that is constantly “lurking within shadows only to erupt into the light unexpectedly”, with all the tricks revealed. Despite such inherent instability, the composer still manages to create a space for the baritone that is seemingly ritualistic and solemn, entirely suited to the austere content of Lorca’s poems. Often these words are not sung but spoken or whispered, in the first song (‘La Guitarra’) interspersed with cadenza-like figurations from the electric guitar; and at various points the baritone’s voice is made more distant and strange through the use of a long tube. The second song, ‘Casida de las Palomas Oscuras’ (Casida of the Dark Doves) allows the voice more scope to be lyrical, yet whispers on all sides and an emphasis on staccato notes only makes the mood more claustrophobic, as though the players felt unable or unwilling to articulate themselves with too much force.

Someone described Lorca’s poetry sometimes as sometimes being ‘feverish’, and this can certainly be said regarding the cycle of poems used for Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death. Crumb illustrates a feverish and alien atmosphere particularly when he has the solo baritone neighing and imitating the sounds of a horse in movement III. There is an overwhelming feeling of madness in this movement between the crashing percussion in the background whilst the baritone speaks of how ‘death awaits’ him:

[9]“Ay que la muerte me espera,”


Part Two plunges to the opposite extreme, immediately violent and aggressively menacing, extending the shouts and hard percussive accents glimpsed earlier. Even the nature of the drone—hitherto a disturbing unmoving presence—is thrown off-balance, emphasised by being protracted for a whole minute before the third song, ‘Canción de Jinete’ (Song of the Rider). Here, Crumb releases all the energy and force accumulated in the previous sections in an wild metronomic frenzy, the baritone continually responding to the text with wild neighs and whinnies. It climaxes in an immense cadenza for the two percussionists, the most furiously exciting pas[11]sage in the entire 30-minute work, each player hurling phrases at the other, back and forth. After such an explosion as this, the final refrain—marked ‘Pale, ghostly’—is deeply unsettling, with echoes of the piano’s opening notes answered by soft twangs from various Jew’s Harps, transitioning into the bottomless melancholy of the final song, ‘Casida del Herido por el Agua’ (Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water). This plays out slowly over low, soft oscillating pitches; but Crumb again draws on extremes, fracturing the music’s fragile temperament with brutally harsh accents and splintered high gestures, slowly building to a second great climax, a process that reduces the ensemble to an unhinged entity, splitting into parallel strands of material, played independently. Unity in the ensemble doesn’t bring resolution, though, and the work’s closing moments are very much conflicted: angry, passionate, mournful, concluding with the echoes of tinkling crystal wine glasses.

Crumb makes use of some interesting “combination sounds” to further his reverberating sound effects. He does this by having the percussion instruments played inside of the piano and with the sustain pedal depressed. When the sustain pedal on a piano is depressed, the dampers of the instrument are lifted off the strings so that they can continue to vibrate and sound after a note on the keyboard has been released. The effect of the vibrations is to give the music a fuller, warmer and more intense sound.

[12]The pianist is then instructed in the score to strike or to tap the bass strings gently with a percussion instrument, specifically a crotale (of any pitch) in the third Nocturne of Night Music I. The strings inside the piano act as vibrators and this creates a resonating chamber for several passages in Music for a Summer Evening. Crumb further heightens this sound effect with the use of electronic amplification. In the second movement, “Wanderer-Fantasy,” the two performing percussionists play slide whistles into the open-lidded pianos, allowing the strings to resonate with the pitches of the whistles. In the fourth movement, “Myth,” the two pianists are instructed to play several percussion instruments inside the amplified pianos. In a similar way to how it’s played in Night Music I, the bass strings of the piano are struck with a crotale (in this case, a G-sharp is specified) after which the player strikes the crotale in the conventional manner and then strikes a metal crossbeam with the better. This is carried out by the first piano player, who also uses a Latin-American percussion instrument called a ‘guiro’ inside the piano. For this effect, he holds the guiro against a crossbeam inside the piano as a method of sound reinforcement and scrapes the guiro in the usual manner. This is done while also speaking the phonetic syllables in the specified rhythm. The second piano player then goes on to use the “mbira,” an alto African thumb piano, in the same method using the crossbeam for “magnification of the sound”. In both cases, the pedal must be held down.

In looking at how composer George Crumb employs extended instrumental technique throughout his repertoire, one can see more clearly not only the great contrasts in his pieces, but it makes one examine how each piece can relate and what binds Crumb’s various works together. Whether one listens individually online or attends a live performance of Crumb’s music, there is truly something intriguing about his style of composition. Every piece has an atmosphere about it, sometimes maybe darker sounding than expected upon first listen, but after having examined some of his notable works a little more closely now, I feel like he always has a reason behind it and it’s never done for the sake of simply being different. There are many elements to this postmodernist composer’s music that would grab a listener’s attention and give them a reason to ask questions about it, and I firmly believe that Crumb’s continual practice and development of extended instrumental and vocal technique is one major reason to go back for more. 

Other Articles/websites and other sources:

Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion

by Judith Tick , and Paul Beaudoin


Oxford University Press USA – OSO





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