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Influential American composer George Crumb died on Sunday at the age of 92. While audiences might find some of her music off-putting or opaque, she often tapped into a deeply felt, uniquely American vein of emotion.
His death was announced by his longtime record label, Bridge Records, which said he died at his home in Media, Pennsylvania, with his family by his side. No cause was given.
Crumb’s Howl, historical work from 1970 Black Angels (Thirteen Pictures from Darkland) (Pictures I) was a protest against the horrors of the Vietnam War that used the spoken word, bent water glasses and electronics. Violinist David Harrington was so inspired after hearing The dark angels that in 1973 he founded the famous Kronos Quartet to explore new music and new sounds for the traditional string quartet.
Decades later, David Bowie said the original recording of The dark angels being one of his favorite albums of all time, writing, “It’s a study in spiritual annihilation…it scared me bejabbers.” (An excerpt from the piece was also part of the soundtrack of The Exorcist.)
Political division and the anxieties of war were a subject Crumb returned to in his 2004 work Winds of Fate, for which he arranged songs from the Civil War era. In 2011, director Peter Sellars staged the work, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw with amplified piano and a percussion quartet.
In a 2011 interview with All things Considered, Sellars observed how Crumb had tapped into still unresolved elements of American history. “There’s the same loneliness, bitterness, sourness that these songs reflect from the Civil War period,” Sellars said. “These are American songs from a time when the country was torn apart, and they reflect the kind of emotional intensity of division and also the desire to come together. So the material goes very deep into a still unhealed wound in the American psyche.”
In his later years, Crumb frequently returned to American hymns and spirituals as inspiration: in the 2000s he published more than a dozen arrangements of old American folk material which he grouped under the title More large American songbookincluding Winds of Fate.
He also found inspiration in many other diverse sources, including the colors and timbres of Debussy’s music, the poetry of Federica García Lorca, and the calls of humpback whales in his 1971 Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)written for electric flute, electric cello and amplified piano.
Curtis Institute of Music
He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his work Echoes of time and the river and a 2001 Grammy Award for his 1977 play child starfor soprano, children’s choir, speaking men’s choir, bell ringers and large orchestra.
Crumb was born on October 24, 1929, in Charleston, W.Va. His parents were both professional musicians: his father was a clarinetist and his mother played the cello. He graduated from Mason College of Music and Fine Arts in his hometown (which later became part of the University of Charleston), and earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before traveling to study at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar. He received his doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan in 1959.
Crumb was famous for his notated scores – so visually beautiful that some have been featured in museum exhibits. The score written for a piece from his 1973 collection for solo piano, Makrokosmos II, in the shape of a symbol of peace. In a 2002 interview with All things Considered, Crumb said that such non-standard notation, which he used in much of his music, was liberating – not just for him, but for the musicians who played his work. “They don’t think about aligning the pieces vertically,” he said. “They float away from it.”
Crumb attracted a legion of students, both private and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1965 to 1995. Many of his students went on to become influential composers in their own right, including Jennifer Higdon, Osvaldo Golijov, Melinda Wagner and Christopher Rouse.