Transcending Time: George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Part 1

Throughout the history of Western art music, large-scale developmental trends have continually been defined by the composers who broke the rules, so to speak. The outliers have come to shape the retrospectively-crafted musicological narrative arc, a story that relies on experimentation, novelty, and change. Based on observations of these trends, the two parameters that seem to demand continual reevaluation and expansion are form and timbre, yet the application of these parameters has also shifted over time. Timbre in particular has been realized by means of tuning systems, instrumentation, orchestration, extended techniques, and digital manipulation. George Crumb (b. 1929, Charleston, WV) often explores new sounds and timbres for conventional instruments in his works, an approach to composition previously explored by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and John Cage (1912-1992). A self-described post-modernist composer, Crumb cites the echoing, reverberant sounds of the West Virginia river valley as an inherited acoustic that is reflected in many of his works. The use of electronic amplification in Crumb’s works serves to enhance these unconventional sounds while highlighting the evocative and often haunting nature of his music.

A prime example of this aesthetic is Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for Three Masked Players (1971). This work was “inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a recording of which the composer heard in 1969,” and provides commentary on both the lifespan of the earth and man’s relationship with nature. Vox Balaenae also exhibits Crumb’s reverberant acoustic through electronic amplification of the entire ensemble: flute, cello, and piano. Rather than literally incorporating the whale song recording that served as the raison d’être for this piece, Crumb requires 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 this work, Crumb also recommends several theatrical components. In the introductory performance notes, he states that all performers should wear a black half-mask, which “by effacing a sense of human projection, will symbolize the powerful impersonal forces of nature (nature dehumanized).” He also suggests that if desired, Vox Balaenae may be performed under deep-blue stage lighting to further enhance the theatrical effect. Finally, he specifies that the concluding phrase should be performed silently in pantomime to create the effect of a fade out.

Ensemble ACJW performs Vox Balaenae

Ensemble ACJW performs Vox Balaenae

In the early years of Vox Balaenae’s performance history, the timbral effects produced by the extended 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 rather commonplace, yet audiences still crave a renewed sense of novelty from this seminal work. Those acquainted with the piece have come to expect the full theatrical package of the masked players and blue stage lights since familiarity 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. Using reception history as a historiographical lens for examining this work demonstrates the ever-evolving perceptions of audience members through time as the vocabulary in critiques has shifted from primarily musical in the early years to increasingly extra-musical in the 21st century. Using attempted descriptions of the timbral effects from the earliest performances in the 1970s, overt negative criticism of the 1980s, and emphasis on creating a transcendent experience in the 2000s, this essay will attempt to demonstrate the developmental arc of critical language used to describe performances of this work.

The formal structure of Vox Balaenae presents in three parts: “Vocalise (…for the beginning of time),” “Variations on Sea-Time,” and “Sea-Nocturne (…for the end of time).”  The opening “Vocalise” (marked in the score as “wildly fantastic, grotesque”) is a cadenza for the flutist that exhibits the most overt references to the singing of the humpback whale. Crumb accomplishes this likeness by requiring the flutist to sing and play at the same time. Perhaps the most “whale-sounding” effect occurs in passages where the flutist must cover the embouchure hole with their mouth so that the sung tone is projected through the tube of the flute. Fingering changes are specifically notated for these tones sung through the flute that produce a shimmering sound. The “Vocalise” concludes with a parody quotation from Johann Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra which concerns the role of man on earth. Following the Strauss quotation, the cello introduces the sea theme (“solemn, with calm majesty”). Crumb labels the ensuing “Variations on Sea-Time” using geological time periods: “Archeozoic,” in which only single-cell organism life existed, “Proterozoic,” in which oxygen accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere and multi-cell organisms emerged, “Paleozoic,” in which life forms transitioned from the ocean to the land, “Mesozoic,” the “age of reptiles,” and “Cenozoic,” the “age of mammals” and the arrival of man (marked “with an imminent sense of destiny”). Crumb signals this arrival of man with a restatement of the Zarathustra quotation before the return of the sea theme in the Sea-Nocturne (“serene, pure, transfigured”). Crumb remarks that this concluding passage is “couched in the ‘luminous’ tonality of B major and there are shimmering sounds of antique cymbals…I wanted to suggest ‘a larger rhythm of nature’ and a sense of suspension in time.”

Vox Balaenae techniques


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