Transcending Time: George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Part 4

Documented performances of Vox Balaenae sharply declined in the 1990s only to experience a swift resurgence at the turn of the 21st century. By 2008, critics regarded Vox Balaenae as an “avant-garde classic.” With an increase in performances of this work came a new wave of criticism that explored the overall transcendent experience of the piece. A prevalent extra-musical concern emerged from the criticism of the early 21st century, and this can perhaps be attributed to more widespread familiarity with the techniques and timbres in the score. The development of a universal language for the discussion of the musical elements in Vox Balaenae eradicated the need for attempted personal descriptions, and thus allowed audiences to focus on the presentation of the piece as a whole. This shift in critical commentary could also be attributed to the fading novelty of the compositional techniques used in the piece while the theatrical elements remained an uncommon practice, therefore satisfying audiences’ desires for reinvented newness in performances of this work.

In 2004, contemporary classical music ensemble eighth blackbird released Beginnings: an album devoted to Daniel Kellogg’s Divinum Mysterium and Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. Alan Kozinn reviewed the album for the New York Times, and his discussion of Vox Balaenae contains a plethora of metaphorical and extra-musical language. He cites the “explosive Vocalise… representing the creation of the universe,” a “sublimely meditative Messiaenesque Nocturne,” and evocations of whale song in “eerily glassy cello slides,” and though he emphasizes the risk that “theatricality and pictorialism will overshadow the inventiveness” of the composition, he asserts that that “while the players here draw the pictures and create the contrasts the composers demand, it is their superb musicality and interpretive vigor that bring these pieces to life.” The imagery of the performers bringing these scores to life, through an audio recording no less, creates an experience to which musicians and non-musicians alike feel connected.

George Crumb

George Crumb

On November 15, 2005, Toshiko Kohno (flute), David Hardy (cello), and Lambert Orkis (piano) presented Vox Balaenae in the Terrace Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. on a program that also included Mozart’s Trio in C, K. 548 and Franck’s Piano Quintet. Joe Banno’s review of this concert in the Washington Post draws compelling parallels to music of the past and the present while attempting to describe this seemingly contradictory other-worldly experience:

The resulting soundscape evokes everything from Balinese gamelan to 1960s audio-tape experiments, from Meredith Monk’s extended vocal techniques to Harry Partch’s homemade instruments — all filtered through a haunting, meditative, decidedly aquatic sensibility.

Performing under the deep-blue stage lights the composer requests for the piece, Orkis, Hardy and flutist Toshiko Kohno were clearly working hard to fulfill the score’s unconventional demands. But they were so in touch with the composer’s idiom that any focus on the mechanics of music-making was soon replaced by the wonder of hearing instrumental textures that sounded at once ancient and new-minted, nature-generated and startlingly human.

In likening Vox Balaenae both to music which preceded it and music which followed it simultaneously, Banno marks the entire existence of the work, as opposed to isolated performances of it, as transcendent.

George Crumb-- Photo by Sarah Shatz

George Crumb– Photo by Sarah Shatz

Beginning with its inception in 2005, the rise of YouTube provides a previously unavailable global reception history tool through its “Comments” feature. On September 26, 2008, the Dolce Suono Trio, comprised of Mimi Stillman (flute), Yumi Kendall (cello), and Charles Abramovic (piano) uploaded a performance of Vox Balaenae to YouTube. The video was from a recording session at Haverford College (Haverford, PA) in October 2007. While the performers are wearing masks in this video, they chose not to utilize the optional blue stage lighting. The comments attached to this video demonstrate the audience expectation of this optional feature in order to complete the full transcendent experience:

One of the great 20thc. masterpieces of Art Music. It’s a shame it wasn’t performed in the proper setting. The hall is to be totally darkened, with the performers illuminated by blue lighting. Crumb suggests that it takes the human element from the performance, allowing the audience to be focused on the sounds only.

I performed this piece 20 years ago- it was a transcendental experience.

its supposed to be dark on the stage with a blue light

This piece is more evocative (must be a little misterious) played with blue lights, as the original score.. anyway, very difficult for the performers, especially the flautist

BTW, it’s a fine performance, but the mask stuff is silly with street clothes, and where’s the blue light?

American composer, conductor, and educator Russell Steinberg recalls “‘It’ll never last’” was what I was told in a composition seminar during the 70’s on the topic of George Crumb’s 1971 trio for electric flute, cello, and piano titled Vox Balaenae.” Not only has this work lasted, but it has thrived. Examining these three chapters in the reception history of Vox Balaenae illuminates the ever-evolving language used to describe not only the work itself but also the experience of attending a performance. In the years following the premiere, the theatrical elements enhanced the musical components, but the unique timbral effects were the most compelling factor. These previously-criticized theatrical effects, however, are now expected from audiences in order to perpetuate the newness of the experiential whole. From attempted descriptions of the timbral effects in the 1970s to the negative criticism of the 1980s to the metaphorical and extra-musical descriptions of a complete transcendent experience in the 21st century, Vox Balaenae has challenged audiences and critics alike to reinvent the vocabulary used to discuss this work just as these same audiences and critics have demanded reinvented novelty from performers.


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