Transcending Time: George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Part 3

The second decade of Vox Balaenae exhibited the most overt negative criticism of the work. Reviews and writings from the 1980s address the potential inaccessibility of the work, overexposure, and the “gimmicky” theatrical effects as the crux of this chapter in Vox Balaenae’s reception history. Regarding potential inaccessibility, William Furtwangler addressed a perceived esoteric quality in his review of a performance by Sara Stern (flute), Glenn Garlick (cello), and Lambert Orkis (piano) on May 29, 1980 in Charleston, SC at the Physicians Memorial Auditorium, a venue on the campus of the College of Charleston. He remarked, “Music of this type is championed by musical academicians and performers. They are rarely called for by audiences, unless the audiences are made up of musicians and academic composers.” This would imply that Furtwangler felt the work could not survive outside of the academic sphere, and that it was too abstruse for lay audiences.

With an upsurge in performances of Vox Balaenae in the 1970s, redundancy and tiredness from repetition also served as a point of negative criticism. The Dreamtiger ensemble, comprised of Kathryn Lukas (flute), Rohan de Saram (cello), and Douglas Young (piano), among others, presented an East-West influenced program at The Roundhouse in London on November 23, 1981. Other composers on the program included Toshiro Mayuzumi, Douglas Young, Colin McPhee, and Iannis Xenakis. In her review for Tempo, Brigitte Schiffer remarked, “Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, worn thin from over-exposure, added little to an otherwise entirely memorable evening.” It is worthy to note that a London performance of this work, as opposed to a United State performance, elicited this response from a music critic, thus demonstrating the international popularity and dissemination of Vox Balaenae within a relatively short timespan.

The contrived nature of the whale song imitations and theatrical effects were also targets of negative criticism. Marya Martin, a leading contemporary flutist, an unidentified cellist, and Marilyn Thompson (piano) included Vox Balaenae on their December 4, 1983 program in San Francisco, CA at Veteran’s Auditorium, now the Herbst Theatre of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. Despite the renown of the flutist in particular, Heuwell Tircuit of the San Francisco Chronicle was not convinced. He stated, “Like the titles, the piece itself is heavily burdened with gimmicks. Much of the opening movement is given over to the literal parody of whale song, and indeed, Crumb is uncommonly successful in this artifice. But it goes on and on.” The use of the word “parody” rather than “imitation” implies a perceived exaggeration and insincerity on Crumb’s behalf.

The necessity of the theatrical effects was also called into question during this time. In the fifth edition of New Directions in Music (1989), author David Cope asserts that the absence of the black masks and blue lights does not detract from the music on a recording, thus perpetuating other critiques of the theatrical aspects. He elaborates in explaining that “the music can easily stand alone and the visual aspects, though interesting in performance, are by no means essential to the work (i.e., the music retains its artistic identity without the visual complement).” While this statement is not blatantly negative— in fact, it can be viewed as quite the compliment to Crumb’s compositional style— it assists in substantiating other criticisms of the theatrical elements.

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