Transcending Time: George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Part 2

In the reception history of this work, the decade following the premiere was largely marked by attempts to decipher Crumb’s timbral effects and intentions. The New York Camerata premiered Vox Balaenae on March 17, 1972 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.. Varying accounts of the first performance from music critics and audiences members demonstrates the unfamiliarity with extended techniques and the resulting need to develop a vocabulary for discussing subsequent performances. Due to this critical emphasis on describing the unique sonic experience of this work, comments regarding the theatrical aspects of the performance seem merely tangental that they simply served to enhance the musical experience.

Flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, cellist Charles Forbes, and pianist Glenn Jacobsen formed the New York Camerata in 1963. All graduates of the Manhattan School of Music, the trio had been hailed for their “sensitive polished chamber music playing.” By the time of the 1972 Library of Congress concert, Paula Hatcher had replaced Jayn Rosenfeld as the flutist of the ensemble. Other works on the March 17th program included Trio for flute, violincello, and piano by Bohuslav Martinů, Trio in F Major by Joseph Haydn, Sonatine (arranged by the New York Camerata) by Maurice Ravel, and Adagio, Variations, and Rondo on “Schöne Minka,” Op. 78 by Johan Nepomuk Hummel. Though these other works the comprised the remainder of the program traversed a wide variety of styles ranging from the German classical tradition to French impressionism and Czech nationalism, they were all written in conventional notation that did not require techniques and timbres beyond the standard expectation for the three instrumentalists.

Joan Reinthaler reviewed this concert for the Washington Post and claimed, “There are very few pieces of new music to which I would be willing to commit myself without reservation… but I heard one last night.” Despite the lack of conventional tonality as a guide, it appears that the perceived formal structure of the work was clear to at least this particular reviewer based on her description of the work as being in three parts with variations labeled for geological ages. The most revealing excerpt from Reinthaler’s review, however, is her attempted descriptions of the timbral effects and extended techniques used in this work. She states that “the flute vocalise resembles Indian flute music for bamboo flute in its evocatively human sounds. Paula Hatcher may have been singing into the instrument at times. I am not sure.”

George Crumb-- Photo by Co Broerse

George Crumb– Photo by Co Broerse

This statement would imply a lack of understanding of Crumb’s intent for these flute effects to mimic the singing of the humpback whale, hence the programatic title Voice of the Whale. By citing Indian flute music, bamboo flutes, and human sounds, one could easily blame the reviewer for the missed connection between the title and the acoustically approximated whale song in the flute “Vocalise.” Poor execution of the demanding extended techniques, however, may have actually been to blame. American composer James Marshall (b. 1949, Dallas, TX) also attended the premiere of this work and recalled his experience as such:

Crumb was extremely popular in DC and praised highly by music critic Paul Hume. I had just moved to DC to serve with the USAF Band and had contacted Crumb for some private study…the opening vocalize was not performed effectively then or on the initial recording which made the piece difficult to understand…The performers seemed a bit awkward with the “mood” aspect being NY [concert] musicians. The Library of Congress recital hall is not a modern venue. The performance was exact, but did not really set the evocative mood needed. Of course I only know this after hearing the piece many times and in several different venues. My praise to performers of this work with the difficult scordatura, and other unusual requirements for performance. At the end Crumb turned around and looked at me (the hall was not full) sitting several rows back. I think to see my reaction to the closing beautiful Debussy like music. Music of this type was uncommon in those days. All contemporary music was mechanical, serial like, with little beauty or emotion. I had not heard of George or his music until I arrived in DC having earned a BM in composition from SMU! It was the treat of a life time to know him and hear [his] music my 4 years in DC.

Regarding the theatrical components of the premiere, Reinthaler cited masks and black robes worn by the performers (as opposed to merely the requested masks), and she concluded that these wardrobe choices kept the performers’ personalities and the formal concert context from “intruding on the music.” Lawrence Sears also reviewed this performance for the Evening Star and the Washington Daily News and did not view the theatrical components as necessary. While Reinthaler implied that the masks and robes enhanced the musical experience, Sears was left with the impression that the music itself could stand alone. His review emphatically claimed, “Even if future performances are played in the nude, or wrapped in tin foil, Crumb’s score will remain a powerful evocation, filled with pools of lyric inspiration to delight chamber music lovers for some time to come.”

After the premiere, audiences became quickly acquainted with the premise of Vox Balaenae. Though many reviews cite the theatrical components as effective, the majority of the writings on this work focus on developing concrete descriptions of Crumb’s unique timbres and techniques. Examining several other newspaper reviews from 1972-1973 reveals this grappling for vocabulary in order to properly describe performances of this work. The Aeolian Chamber Players were one of the first performing ensembles other than the New York Camerata to program Vox Balaenae. On October 10, 1972, Erich Graf (flute), Jerry Grossman (cello), and Walter Ponce (piano) presented Vox Balaenae at The Town Hall (New York, NY). This was one of the first New York City performances of the work following the Washington, D.C. premiere seven months prior. Donal Henahan’s review in the New York Times on October 12, 1972 demonstrates the same uncertainty displayed in Reinthaler’s review of the premiere. While he does acknowledge that the ensemble imitated the recently-released recordings of whale songs with “eerie precision,” he also perceived unintended non-oceanic references such as a “drone rather like that of an Indian tabla from the strummed piano strings, or melisma that might have come from a Moorish throat.”

A curious study in the maturation of critical language and development of vocabulary for the purposes of discussing Vox Balaenae emerges from looking at reviews by the same critic. Donal Henahan also reviewed a performance by the New York Camerata at Alice Tully Hall (New York, NY) on April 5, 1973. Not only did Henahan have six months between reviews to become more familiar with the score, but the New York Camerata also conceivably had time to become more familiar with the demands of this piece in order to present a more convincing performance. Henahan remarked that with the hall darkened, the “theatrical device worked extremely well, forcing concentration on his fragile harmonics, prepared-piano, jinglings, and other half-heard sonorities, to achieve an aural poetry of the sort to be found in any Crumb work.” The specific mentions of harmonics, prepared piano, and additional sonorities shows tremendous development in the language used to discuss this piece as it is more musically descriptive and less metaphorical in nature.

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