Monday, February 7, 2011

The Eternal Silence of Infinite Space

The great world or universe; the universe considered as a whole (opposed to microcosm).

Trust me—I know how hackneyed it is to start something out with a definition. But don’t worry, this shouldn’t turn out like the stale political speeches that usually do.
           But this peculiar noun has a meaning, one that applies directly to an equally peculiar work.
George Crumb, the odd technique-driven, avant-garde composer from Virginia, is known for his unusual timbres and pieces for prepared/amplified instruments. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his piece “Echoes of Time and the River.” Crumb certainly has a specific aesthetic that follows his pieces, and his brainchild in the world of piano is “Makrokosmos,” specifically "Makrokosmos, Volume I" (macrocosms in German).
George Crumb

        Hm, you think, that title sounds familiar. Perhaps you have heard this mind-boggling body of works before, or maybe you have heard Béla Bartók’s pieces “Mikrokosmos” for piano, the work that inspired Crumb's title. The group of works is no ordinary repertoire member, however. “Makrokosmos, Vol. I” calls for string-plucking, whistling, shouting and moaning, and an unexpected cameo from Chopin.
       The work is subtitled “Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac” after Crumb’s mission to align each of the 12 pieces with the signs of the zodiac.  Along with being influenced by Bartók, Crumb attributes some of the inspiration to Claude Debussy as well—Debussy composed “24 Preludes,” and Crumb (after completing the second volume of “Makrokosmos”) composed 24 “fantasy-pieces.” The German words "Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit. Wir alle fallen. Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält" ("And in the nights the heavy earth is falling from all the stars down into loneliness. We are all falling. And yet there is One who holds this falling endlessly gently in his hands"), written by Rilke, are said to have kept emerging in Crumb's mind, manipulating these compositions.
One of the best recordings of “Makrokosmos, Vol. I” is by Margaret Leng Tan, the Singaporean toy-pianist who worked with John Cage for 11 years. Her playing is consistent in emotion, and she is able to phrase the plucking of a piano string beautifully, something that one wouldn’t normally describe with that adjective. She plays the traditional-technique passages with a pianistic touch—quietly but with waves of energy and anticipation. The diminished triads and arpeggios glimmer in her hands even when they are made of immediately unrecognizable chords. She willingly utters, shouts, and moans the taciturn vocal components, holding the “s’s” devilishly.
Margaret Leng Tan
“Makrokosmos, Vol. I” is organized into three parts, which are then divided into four pieces. The first piece of “Makrokosmos, Vol. I,” “Primeval Sounds (Genesis I),” begins with dribbles of painfully low combinations of notes, a sort of modest segue to the celestial and amorphous sounds to come. The second piece, “Proteus,” begins with Crumb-ized virtuosic-like playing, with fast trembling passages. The beginning of part two begins with Leng Tan shouting "Christe!" and playing the prepared piano (which I assume has a piece of metal on the upper register strings)—it rattles and vibrates after the notes are struck.  Also in part two, Crumb titles one of the pieces “Music of Shadows (for Aeolian Harp),” not actually played by Aeolian harp, but mostly on the strings of the piano. Crumb also pays homage to Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” his popular piano piece, by including exact copies of passages from this piece in his part three piece, “Dream Images (Love-Death Music).” It combines this unexpected, harmonious component with classic Crumb, alien-esque parts seamlessly.

“Makrokosmos, Vol. I” also has a detective element to it. When the scores themselves of the last pieces of each part are combine, they make symbols, such as a cross or a spiral.
Crumb set out to expand the technical range of one of the most widely played instruments, the piano, and he certainly accomplished it. But he also accomplished the revolution of the “piano piece” itself—the music doesn’t have to be a straight staff, and it’s alright for the scores to create shapes. Shouting gibberish is okay, and it’s allowed for one work to have a collective of 13 titles.
Like Pascal said and George Crumb was inspired by, "The eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me.” But it fascinates me, too.

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