George Crumb, prolific avant-garde composer, dies at 92
George Crumb, the prolific avant-garde composer, died today at his home. Bridge Records – who have released numerous Crumb records throughout their career, including the 2021 Marcantonio Barone collaboration Metamorphoses, Books I & II—confirmed the news, noting that his wife and sons were with him when he died. He was 92 years old.
Crumb, who spent 30 years teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, won a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his play Echoes of time and the river in 1967 and a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for his piece child star in 2011. Born into a musical family in West Virginia, Crumb’s work has explored the intersection of nature and sound, particularly with respect to timbre. One of his most famous pieces, “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)”, incorporated whale calls.
Crumb received his master’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1953 and his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1959. Later in life, he spoke of finding the college environment creatively stifling. “The problem is that everyone was forced to adopt this academic way of writing from European modernism. To me, it seemed like a very effective way to produce a lot of off-keys,” he said in 2009. “It became a versatile technique that destroyed many people’s creative personality.
Among Crumb’s most famous compositions were his graphic sheet music, hand-drawn on oversized sheets and taking the form of elaborate shapes and spirals. “I don’t have any artistic skills outside of musical calligraphy,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I just think music should sound like it sounds.”
He based many of his compositions and other projects on the writing of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, including his 1970 song cycle Old children’s voices. In a 1992 interview at the George Crumb Festival in Boulder, Colorado, the composer admitted that he was never sure how these specific pieces would be received. “Many years ago I received a letter from Lorca’s brother saying he liked my settings of Lorca’s poetry,” he said.
A busy composer in the 60s and 70s, Crumb became less prolific over the next two decades, but returned with a series of American songbooks beginning in the 2000s. Recordings of his music have been released in the series by Bridge Records George Crumb’s Complete Edition. Find the complete list of his recordings here.
Despite its avant-garde nature, Crumb’s work has influenced a number of artists such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and David Bowie. In 2003, Bowie listed Crumb’s 1972 LP The dark angels, composed during the dark days of the Vietnam War, as one of his all-time favorite albums. “I first heard this piece in the darkest time of my 70s, and it scared the bejabbers out of me,” Bowie said of Black Angels in an article for vanity lounge. “It’s always hard for me to hear this piece without a sense of foreboding. Really, sometimes it looks like the work of the devil.