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George Crumb: Echoes of Time and the River

Program Notes by Steve Bruns

George Crumb’s oeuvre includes many startlingly original achievements, but his 1967 orchestra work, Echoes of Time and the River, is surely among his most daring creations.

The piece was commissioned by the University of Chicago for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1968, before the composer had turned forty. Aspects of the work are anticipated in earlier instrumental literature, from the timbral and spatial effects in Gabrieli and Berlioz to those in Mahler, Debussy, and Bartók. Few other orchestral compositions, however, present such a dazzling array of challenges for conductor, players, and listeners alike. The composer has emphasized that, despite its title, Echoes of Time and the River has no connection with Thomas Wolfe’s novel and that it is not programmatic. Mr. Crumb “wanted to express in musical terms the various qualities of metaphysical and psychological time.” Careful study of the score reveals that the composition explores – one might even say it deconstructs – aspects of time, space, memory, and the act of musical performance.

Each movement includes processionals, during which small groups of players move in carefully choreographed step-patterns around the stage. Crumb asks performers to enter and exit the performance space in later compositions, but Echoes is by far the most elaborate instance of his experiments with spatial, theatrical effects. The score contains diagrams for the location of the performers in each of the four movements, as well as the path each processional is to follow across the concert platform.

In the first movement, Frozen Time, three of the six percussionists process from the far-right apron of the stage to the rear left-hand corner. Near the close of the movement, the mandolinist stands at center stage, and as he plays, moves to the front-left edge of the stage, eventually disappearing into the wings. Six wind players stand in a row along the rear right of the stage, where they play tuned antique cymbals, and they exit when the mandolin procession begins. The aural relationships of the various parts are thereby enriched by the shifting spatial locations of the players. For concert audiences, the effect is further enhanced by the visual choreography of the performance. In this unfamiliar context – where players move about the stage in a quasi-ritualized fashion – one also grows intensely aware of the spatial relationships of the performers who remain fixed in their stage positions. As is so often the case in Crumb’s music, the familiar begins to seem strange, and vice versa.

Resonant, ringing sonorities are everywhere in George Crumb’s music. In this work, however, the composer uses the echo as an especially potent symbol: the echo calls attention to the existence of sound in time and in space. The lingering “after-voices” of each initial sound are persistent reminders that the sound is continuing over time. The score calls for effects that are “like ghostly bells,” “distant,” or invisible (because they emanate from off-stage). At least since Ovid’s retelling of the ancient myth, the haunting voice of echo has been associated with lonely caves, woods, mountain slopes, and other natural landscapes, Indeed, the composer has often mentioned the echoing acoustic of Appalachian river valleys as a primal influence on his music. Crumb exhaustively develops the central theme of the echo, and a selective list of samples just begins to suggest the richness of this score.

The orchestra is replete with resonant, ringing instruments: from the bells, chimes, and gongs of the enormous percussion battery to characteristic inside-the-piano effects. Nearly every page of the score includes ideas that are imitated in close succession. For example, just after the opening seven percussion strokes, three offstage trombonists play barely audible low-register glissandi. Their darkly mysterious solos echo and overlap one another, evoking as they do a music that is distant both in space and time. Near the end of the first movement, the mandolin solo is twice imitated by percussionists who produce delicate mandolin-like tremolos by striking the piano strings with hard mallets. As in so many other Crumb pieces, the imitative echoes here are inexact, as if they are slightly distorted, lingering memories of a “distant music.”

At the opening of the second movement, Remembrance of Time, nine brass players are positioned along the front of the stage, where they will play “a distant wind music,” to be performed “as from afar, almost imperceptible (ghostly, hushed).” The nine players evoke a rising and falling wind sound by blowing through their instruments, and then the three trombonists whisper – in a closely-spaced, echoing sequence – a brief quotation from Federico Garcia Lorca: “Los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo” (“The broken arches where time suffers”). The second movement culminates in two complex, echoing webs of imitation in the form of Circle Music. The first Circle Music involves the three clarinets, six percussionists, and three off-stage trumpets. The second, answering Circle Music replaces the clarinets with two piccolos and a flute. In both passages, the segments for each player are notated around three circles, a notation that reinforces the aural effect of the swirling, exuberant counterpoint. As before, the imitations are fragmented and inexact. A further halo of echoes is produced here, because the onstage wind players aim their instruments as close as possible to the sympathetically vibrating piano strings.

Circle Music recurs at the end of the third movement, Collapse of Time, this time played by brass trios, and in one of the circles, by pianos, vibraphone, harp, and offstage mandolin. The fourth movement, Last Echoes of Time, opens with a multi-layered series of echoes. Crumb labels the components of one imitative series respectively as “A” Music, First Echo of “A” Music, and Second Echo of “A” Music. The “A” Music features percussion, flutes and clarinets, and piano. Simultaneously, strings, percussion, and piano play “B” Music, also with two echoes. In both the “A” and “B” music, the echoes are staggered one measure apart, at an extremely slow tempo, with five main pulses per bar. Each entrance is signaled by a player striking a perfect-fifth on the antique cymbals. The “A” Music wind players then exit the stage. Echoing sequences of “A” and “B” music happen twice more, in varied form, and we hear along the way fragmentary echoes from the three earlier movements. The composition moves gradually toward a hushed, deeply expressive simplicity, and the final imitative whistling figures seem to dissolve into the blowing wind.

Included in the rich tapestry of internal echoes are two memories from Crumb’s youth. Near the start of the piece, groups of performers whisper the state motto of West Virginia, “Montani semper liberi!” (“Mountaineers are always free!”). The motto is repeated throughout the composition, sometimes with an ironic question mark added. Echoes of Time and the River also contains the first instance of musical quotation in Crumb, an important technique in his later compositions. At the end of the third movement, the strings serenely intone muted fragments from the revival hymn, Were You There When They Crucified The Lord? Characteristically, the passage is marked “a distant music.” Both of these echoes point to places distant in time and space, memories of which linger during the musical present.

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