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.
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.
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.
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.