Composer  George  Crumb
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Some names, even in contemporary classical music, are well-known or even important to everyone.  Others are significant mainly to those who are in the business or have a specific love for the narrow field.  George Crumb is one of those who is gaining general acceptance but has always been a major figure within the community of new-music aficionados.

As part of my long-running series on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I interviewed many people involved in various aspects of keeping music alive in the twentieth century, and Crumb was near the top of the list.  It pleased me that he responded to my invitation right away, and we set up a time to speak on the telephone.

He was sitting outside his home during our chat and there were a few distractions including airplanes (which he did not like) and cicadas (which he seemed to enjoy).
  At one point, the Crumb family dogs could be heard in the background and I assured my guest that it was OK since there were dogs and cats at the radio station where I worked.  And yes, they could occasionally be heard behind the announcers when we were making live announcements such as intros, news, or advertisements.  Incidentally, it was with mixed feelings that when our station was sold and changed format in 2001, there were many calls offering to take care of the animals but no such offers to the announcing staff . . . (!)   For more about the station, see my website which contains articles and photos.

Here is what was said that balmy August afternoon in 1988 . . .

Bruce Duffie:    One of the things that has struck me in listening to your pieces is that you use everything.  There are so many different sounds that emerge from your music!  Is this a conscious effort on your part to find new things?

George Crumb:    I guess I would have to speak about my influences, and an important one would be Debussy.  My interest in color and timbre and so forth, I think, really comes from his music as much as anybody’s music.

BD:    Are you trying to emulate his music or continue his music?

GC:    No, I think his music was just in my ear very early on.  As a kid, I played some of the piano things, and I sensed then, but it became much more obvious later, that Debussy really was one of the first composers to make the sheer sound a very special aspect of the music.  There were others, of course, but I think he was one of the very first to do this, and I suppose my music is very much influenced by his music.

crumb BD:    In thinking about composing, is there anything in the realm of sound that you would not want to include in a piece of your music at some point?

GC:    I think virtually everything is useable, everything in sound is useable if it’s justified in the music itself.

BD:    What makes it justified?

GC:    [Laughs] I’m not sure I could pin that down.  I’ve never thought of special sounds as being gratuitous, but as having to be in that piece of music.  It’s a very subjective thing, you know.  It amounts to the composer’s taste as to what would be authentic in a piece of music in terms of sound.  All of the sounds that I’ve borrowed from eastern music, Asian music, and so forth, are sounds that are in my ear.  Our world has expanded so much in terms of sound not only for myself, but for composers generally.

BD:    Are you constantly discovering new sounds?

GC:    Oh, yes.  I hear new things constantly, and I suppose only a very few eventually end up in my music.  [Laughs] I won’t live that long, I’m sure.

BD:    There are too many sounds?

GC:    There are.  Yes, there are, indeed!

BD:    When you’re getting an idea for a composition, do you hear the sound in your head, then try to recreate it and direct the performers to recreate it?  Or do you hear the sound as it’s been created, and then incorporate that into the score?

GC:    I think both.  The inner imagination, I think, can lead you to certain things.  Or, your memory may be functioning and you may recall the certain sound that you’ve heard in, say, some ethnic music.  This sticks in your mind and seems appropriate to the sense of the moment, you see.

BD:    Mm-hm, sure.  Now, when you’re working on a piece of music, how do you know when you’ve come to the end?  How do you know when to put the pencil down, and say, “It’s done.”?

GC:    Well, sometimes one doesn’t, I guess.  But ideally, I suppose, when you cannot add a further note, or subtract a note, then the piece, for better or worse, seems to fulfill itself with that given number of notes.

BD:    Do you ever go back and tinker with scores, once they’ve been out, given to the public?

GC:    Yes, sometimes I do when there’s some conceptual thing that didn’t really work, or if there’s a miscalculation in a technical matter or in sheer sound.  It may be a question of balance or quality.  All of these things can happen.  With a few works I’ve done a kind of an overhaul of the composition.

BD:    When you do overhaul a composition, are you actually changing the concept, or are you trying to communicate the original concept in a better way?

GC:    I think the latter.  The seeds of a composition
the original impulse — that’s what you’re trying to carry out in your writing of the piece, and sometimes you betray that.  Sometimes you’re not up to realizing that germinal thing, though you’re trying.  I think probably all composers are involved with this, and probably most of the work you produce over the years misfires to some degree.  It’s always a question of how close you can get to that original insight that prompts the composition.

BD:    Have you ever hit it right on the nose?

GC:    No, I don’t think I have! [Laughs]  I admire certain composers who I think did that on a routine basis, but that’s something.  You can try hard, but you don’t always do it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re also a professor of music, a teacher of composition?

GC:    Yes.

BD:    How do you divide your time between the teaching and your own composing?

GC:    My schedule isn’t so heavy, so that’s not so much of an intrusion on my time.  And I genuinely enjoy the teaching.

BD:    Do you ever find that a student’s work will suddenly inspire you in your own composition?

score GC:    I think it’s useful to always stay in touch with what young people are thinking.  It may be that a certain fleeting idea in a piece may reflect in something that I would be doing, but usually the students are looking to their teachers for this same sort of thing.  So maybe it’s only fair if it can be mutual at times.

BD:    Do they ever rip you off?

GC:    [Laughs] Well, I suppose that’s one natural thing that happens when you’ve been writing music for a long time.  Other people steal, and I’m sure I steal, too.

BD:    Let me ask the big philosophical question:  what is the purpose of music in society?

GC:    Well, [laughs] I’m not sure that I know, really!   And I’m not sure that composers involve themselves so much with these very far-reaching questions.  Usually it’s a matter of wanting to get something out of your system.  You’re just trying to do this, and you hope people like your music when the piece is finished, but that’s out of your hands.

BD:    Then what do you expect of the public when they come to hear a piece of yours?

GC:    Well, one hopes that everybody listens with open ears; one hopes that the sense of the piece will communicate and that whatever personal stylistic quirks are there won’t interfere with that.  It’s natural, as a composer and a human being, to do your own music, and it sometimes takes a while before audiences can get beyond the personal idiosyncrasies and get to what the composer is saying, or trying to say.

BD:    Do you feel that your music communicates particularly well?

GC:    Some of it probably does.  I imagine that there would be some pieces, though, that would maybe not communicate as much.  It all depends, I guess, on the particular piece.

BD:    Are there some particular pieces of yours that tend to communicate with audiences better than others on a regular basis?

GC:    There are probably, half a dozen pieces that seem to immediately communicate.  I’m not sure that these are necessarily the best pieces. [Laughs] Maybe they are; I don’t know.  Maybe for that reason they might be the best pieces, but I don’t know.  I think it’s impossible for the composer to have any kind of perspective about his own music.

BD:    Well, who should decide which piece by George Crumb is the best?  Is it you, is it the public, is it critics, is it history?

GC:    I think the public, ultimately, but I don’t think the public right at the moment.  I think that’s a rather lengthy process.  It involves, perhaps, decades, and it’s out of one’s control.  And there’s no guarantee that any of our music could possibly speak to another time.  When you’re alive, people play your music; you’re there and the music is played.  You’re writing new works.  I may be a little fatalistic, but I think I’m realistic at the same time, when I say that only time can determine what has any kind of a lasting power of communication.  But again, one can’t even dwell on that.  That’s out of one’s hands, I guess.

BD:    So then you’re really writing music that you expect to last for generations?

GC:    I think every composer, hopefully, is trying to write his very best music.  I think every composer, unconsciously, is trying to write a masterpiece, and that simply translates into the very best you can do.  And so what if it isn’t, or if it’s rarely, of a very high quality?

BD:    What are some of the traits that contribute to making a piece of music a masterpiece?

GC:    I wish I could articulate those because I can recognize such things in traditional works, but analysis doesn’t have the power to isolate these factors.  I think it would be an incredibly subtle problem, and nobody to my satisfaction has pinned it down.  It’s perhaps because it’s a spiritual quality or a quality of life that inhabits certain works, and other works are clearly inert.  And I think this defies analysis.  Sophisticated construction is not the same thing; that can be a very common thing.  The other thing is, I think, a little more rare, and I wish I knew what it was or how to account for it.

BD:    You say you hear it in music of the past.  Do you hear it in your own music?

GC:    No.  Again, I would not have a perspective on this, but statistically the odds are against any composer, I think.  One works on faith — I guess that’s what I’m saying.  You write your music and then that’s it.  It’s out of your hands.

BD:    Well, either in general concert music or your own music in particular, where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

GC:    That’s another difficult question.  I’ve never understood, really, the sense of what’s purely entertainment because I think very good music can also be entertaining.  It keeps one involved.  I suppose maybe artistic achievement might indicate something that goes a little beyond pure entertainment.

BD:    I assume, then, you feel there’s a place for both?

GC:    Oh, yes, yes indeed!  And some very good music can have high entertainment qualities, too, I suppose.  There must be a lot of music of this kind.  Some of Tchaikowsky, for example, is on a very high artistic level, and certain other pieces might be more entertainment than artistic achievement.  It’s a mixture, too; it’s not always so clear.  One speaks of Beethoven’s last quartets as being an artistic achievement.  Maybe, in many people’s minds they would be one of the highest achievements of music; and it is, you know.  I think, goes beyond entertainment.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, for whom do you write?

crumb GC:    Well, as I mentioned before, I think you’re trying to get something out of your system.  For the composer in his workshop, it’s a question of making something come out right, and to get out what you want to say.  In fact the composer is serving as his own audience during the process of writing music, and then once the piece is completed, you hope that it does project to other people.   But I really don’t think that this is pervading your mind at each step of composing a work.  To me, this would be psychologically impossible.  You’re involved in the problems of the piece.  I can understand the source of the point, I suppose, if audiences are reacting against a kind of scholastic music, academic music that perhaps is kind of cold and does not engage people on any kind of a human plane.  But otherwise, I really don’t understand that question so much, because I think the composer, in writing a piece of music, is functioning as a human being, primarily, and therefore he is representative, as one person of the audience, in writing the piece.

BD:    Earlier we were talking about the difference between the noise of the cicadas and the noise of the airplanes
one being natural and one being man-made.  Is music natural, or is music man-made?

GC:    I think it’s natural, but of course it depends on a rather sophisticated technology. The piano may consist of smelted ore and wood, but it demanded advanced knowledge of physics and so forth; high tension stringing and so forth, all those things.  Even the mechanism is relatively sophisticated.  So it’s a mixture, really.  But the actual music, apart from the instruments, should be in touch with natural things.  I think probably music started that way.  There are all the analogs in nature, all the voices that you hear on this summer evening, as I’m hearing now.  And more than that, there’s the sense of rhythm in all of nature, a more abstract thing such as the tides and the wind; the pulse beat of the living animals.  All of that is part of music, I think.

BD:    Once you set down your ideas on the paper, how much leeway do you allow for interpretation on the part of the performer?

GC:    Quite a bit.  Everything is written out, in the sense that a Chopin piece would be written out.  But I am not doctrinaire about any kind of accuracy because I don’t believe in that.  Ultimate accuracy, like metronome points that go down into fractions, I just don’t believe in that sort of approach; or dynamics that are absolutely objective.  I’ve never understood this because the hall is always changing, the time of year is different, the mood in audience is different.  There are variables for the music; any performer would know what I’m talking about, and I think that keeps the music alive.  It’s reborn with each performance, and that performance is conditioned by the psychology of the audience and all the other factors I’ve mentioned.  It’s unique to that time, and those are variables that are going to change.  To be more specific, in my own music I would allow the traditional latitude and tempo rubato, nuances of tempo and dynamics and all of that.  It’s quite traditional that way.

BD:    Are there ever cases where performers or interpreters discover things in your scores that you didn’t even know you had put there?

GC:    Yes.  That can happen.

BD:    Is that a good feeling?

GC:    It is.  I think it means that they’re finding something that enlarges the possibilities in terms of a performance, and in recreation, the piece will sound a little different from somebody’s personal insights.  Don’t you think that happens traditionally, too?  That’s part of music, I think.

BD:    Do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?

GC:    I like all of the traditional music, and I think I like most music generally — all the eastern musics and the folk musics and the ethnic musics.  I like jazz and some rock.  I like very early music, western music, pre-baroque music.  There’s not much music I don’t like.  In terms of direct lineage, I mentioned Debussy, but the line might be amplified, and you can speak of Bartók as coming after, inheriting from Debussy.  And perhaps you could point to Chopin as being the first contemporary composer.  He was kind of a maverick who was a little bit out of the mainstream.  Even when he was the German-Central-European mainstream of music, Chopin was on the periphery.  And I think one can trace a direct line through Chopin and the earlier Russian composers, Mussorgsky, Debussy and then Bartók.  This maybe would be the important second stream, as opposed to what was thought of as the German’s — I think of their music as being the mainstream, with justification, in the nineteenth century.  But in our own times, it’s clear that in western music there are at least these, and there are probably many more by now.  But anyway, I tap into all this.  I can feel a certain provenance from that line.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You say you like all of these various types of music.  Do you also like the music by others who are writing today?

GC:    Certain composers, uh-huh, impress me.  I’ve always liked Berio’s music and certain things of Messiaen, and I think I’ve been influenced by Ives.  Of course, he’s not writing today [laughs], but I hear, occasionally, pieces by my American contemporaries; I’m sure I steal little things from them, too.  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]

Finney BD:    Where does Ross Lee Finney fit into that?

    [Photo at left:  Ross Lee Finney]

GC:    Ross, of course, was my teacher.  That’s why you’re asking the question, I’m sure.

BD:    Yes.  He’s also a personal favorite of mine.  I did an interview with him and then I presented an eightieth birthday program for him on the radio.  [See my Interview with Ross Lee Finney.]

GC:    Good!  I like many of Ross’s things very much, but curiously I didn’t come on to my own personal style until after my student days.  Or maybe that isn’t so curious; composers tend to develop rather later nowadays.  We’re not like the nineteenth century in that respect.  But I owe very much to Ross in the area of technique and the discrimination of the ear.  All those things that are so important to writing music.

BD:    Where is the balance between the inspiration and the technique?

GC:    Well, it should be synthesized, sort of.  Both things are operating all the time.  I’m not ashamed to say that such a thing exists as inspiration.  It might be a dirty word in some corridors, but I think it has to be there.  But I don’t know whether it’s ideally two percent of a piece of music, or five percent or whatever.  The work is there; there’s no question.  As to the actual labor, you’re exerting your craft constantly to try to make the ideas work in a piece.

BD:    Let me come back to the idea of liking various musics.  You say you like the old music and you like the new music.  Do you like the music that you write?

GC:    Yes, uh-huh.  I think most composers like their own music! [Laughs] But I’m aware at the same time that in my opinion I haven’t fully realized a piece.  In other words, I haven’t yet written the kind of music I would like to write in my heart of hearts.  I sense that maybe that’s the human condition; maybe one never does, in fact.

BD:    What is blocking you from that?

GC:    I don’t know.  I don’t know.  If I knew, I guess I could come closer.  But maybe that’s what keeps a person always trying.  You know you’re not satisfied yet, and you’re trying again.

BD:    Do you feel that all the music you are writing are individual pieces, or are they all parts of one large piece of George Crumb?

GC:    I think they’re all organically related.  I’m that type of a composer, rather than the type that would, so to speak, reinvent music with each work.  And again, that may be part of that tradition I referred to.  I think Debussy and Mahler are other examples of composers who have these cross-references through their life’s work, really.  Rather than a specific symphony of Mahler, there’s like one symphony, one larger symphony of Mahler.  He laid out his territory in the first symphony and I think was elaborating on that the rest of his life.

BD:    Did you lay out your territory already, and have you been elaborating?

GC:    [Laughs] Not consciously, but I’m sure that I got on to my own way of writing in the early sixties.  I sense a connection with all the music since then.  That may be bad, I don’t know, but there is that.  It does exist.

BD:    It seems like an awful large responsibility to put on young shoulders, to lay out the territory of a lifetime when you’re twenty-five or thirty years old.

GC:    I don’t think it’s a conscious thing.  I think if you write your own music, it’s perhaps out of your control as to your fertility, your inventing in the sense of basic types.  Of course, Beethoven is the extreme form of that.  In discussions, I always used to say that Beethoven should have been about fifty people, psychologically speaking.  There’s no accounting him; there’s no parallel for it in the history of music.  When I spoke of recreating music with each work, this guy is uncanny.  I think he must have been an extraterrestrial or something.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works over the years?

GC:    Oh, yes.  There have been many excellent performances.  Sometimes even very young performers will do fine performances.  Sometimes the performance is not so good, but then that’s par for the course, right?

cd BD:    What about the recordings?  Many of your works have been recorded; are you basically pleased with these?  

GC:    Oh, yes.  In fact, many of the recording sessions I have been involved in, so there’s that sense of really being there and being able to get the fine points.

BD:    To get it right?

GC:    Yes, according to my own conception.

BD:    Is there just one right way to play your music.

GC:    No!  No, but since I was on hand for the recording session, the performers seemed to expect that I should make a choice between two ways of doing something.  I was sometimes in on the editing sessions, too, and it’s an outright choice to decide which take you like best! [Both laugh]  But of course, that doesn’t deny what I was referring to earlier, that music is reborn with different performers.  I’m sure it is a very good thing that the composer isn’t always around, you know.  Maybe some of the best performances of Beethoven he never heard because he was dead already.  But who knows?

BD:    You don’t feel he’s listening to them still?

GC:    [Laughs] Maybe he is!

BD:    Then let’s look in the other direction.  Where is music going these days?

GC:    I don’t know.  I sense that so far in the twentieth century, synthesis seems to be the big thing.  Composers like Mahler, Debussy and Ives were all involved with combining things.  They were anti-purists, in a sense.  They were combining all the music they ever knew, or music that meant something to them, and they would put it in the same piece.  And that process is still going on.  Of course, we still have the purist approach, too, that exists or co-exists.  But I rather believe that the world is, in a way, coming together, in the sense that all the musics might influence a composer, even if he lives in Media, Pennsylvania.  It’s possible that music all the way around the world can influence his own music.

BD:    So then you’re optimistic about the future of music?

GC:    Oh, indeed!  I am optimistic, and if I ever get pessimistic, I know that there are young composers that are coming along that will keep it going.  It’s bound to evolve, I think.

BD:    Is there any chance that there are too many people writing music?

GC:    Well, no, I don’t think so, really, ideally.  Maybe professionally there aren’t enough commissions for all those people, but there seem to be more commissions and prizes and all that sort of thing, too.  In certain periods of the past, in any cross-section of the baroque period of a certain year, there must have been just hundreds and hundreds of composers writing music.  I don’t know how this would all compare.  Our population is so much huger now.  But allowing for that, in vigorous periods there probably was an enormous quantity of production in music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned awards and commissions.  What was the impact upon you, either personally or musically, of winning the Pulitzer Prize?

GC:    Well, it’s always fun to win any kind of a prize, of course.  I think, ultimately, that prizes probably are not so important, but that doesn’t take the fun out of occasionally winning something! [Both laugh]

BD:    Is it like a universal recognition?

cd GC:    At least it’s recognition by whoever happened to be on the panel that awarded you that prize!

BD:    But that didn’t change your life in any way?

GC:    No, I don’t think too much, no.  I think if you win the Pulitzer Prize, probably for a couple of years, anyway, people are talking a little more about your music.  It might be reflected for a while in your royalty checks, but I don’t think that it probably can influence much your development as a composer in the real sense.

BD:    Is a prize like that something you should strive for, or should it just be like manna from heaven when it drops into your lap?

GC:    I don’t think one should become obsessed with winning prizes, and in fact as a student I hardly won anything at all; my classmates were winning all kinds of things.

BD:    Does it give you any sense of satisfaction to know that they are, perhaps, more obscure, and you are more glorified world-wide?

GC:    [Laughs] No, I don’t think so because, in fact, some of my classmates are doing all right, too.  I take a philosophical view that in line with what I already mentioned, you simply write what you have to write and that’s all you can do.  There ain’t no more that can be done, you see!

BD:    Are most of the pieces you write on commission?

GC:    Well, yes.  Sometimes they’re informal ones, like a friend will ask me to write a piece.  But yes, most of them are.

BD:    When someone comes to you with a commission, how do you decide if you’ll accept it or put it off or just decline it?

GC:    I invariably decline because I suppose every week that I get two or three letters asking if I’d be interested in writing a piece!  Since my production of music has averaged about one work a year, obviously I can’t accept much.

BD:    Then how do you decide which is the one you will accept?

GC:    It usually involves a friend or somebody I’ve worked with, and you really want to do a piece for that person.  I wish we were all Mozarts and could really fulfill all those requests that come in!  But I don’t think there are any Mozarts around.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece of music, are you conscious of the amount of time it will take in performance?

GC:    Yes, pretty much
at least the psychological time; perhaps not the actual clock timing.  The pace of a work, I think, is a very important thing in music.

BD:    Is composing fun?

CD GC:    It’s work!  It’s fun when you are finishing a piece and you say you’re relatively happy with it; it’s come together.  But starting a new work I wouldn’t describe quite as fun.  It’s kind of a searching process.  I’m more impressed with the kind of work aspect of it!  But isn’t that true of everything in life, that fun is relative?  Maybe fun is not the right word.  I suppose it’s kind of a thralldom.

BD:    I assume that you get a satisfaction out of the writing?

GC:    Yes, eventually if a piece seems to work and if you manage to get out something that you wanted to say.

BD:    Do you have a special time that you work
always in the morning or always in the evening?

GC:    Usually morning and early afternoon, uh-huh.

BD:    Have you ever gotten one of those fictionalized ideals where you wake up in the middle of the night with a slam-bang idea that has to be done?

GC:    No, I tend to get my ideas when I’m at my work table!

BD:    So you don’t get them strolling through the park or playing with your dog?

GC:    Well, sometimes I guess you may have a kind of an idea, but those are usually fleeting and are not precise enough to be workable.  That’s it.  The whole world is around us and yet you can say only so little in your music, really.  You’re drawing on your experience which is open to so many things, and yet [pause] to even write one piece of music has to be circumscribed in a way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We talked earlier about composing.  What advice do you have for performers?

GC:    You mean in reference to new music, or just general?

BD:    In general, and then with reference to new music, and then in reference to your music particularly.  Turn it into a three-part question.

crumb GC:    Well, I haven’t thought about that.  I guess to a performer I would say — extrapolating from what I tell my composition students — is that you should have enough technique to realize your ideas, but then the essential thing is something beyond technique.  I think that holds for performance just as much as for the conceptual thing in composition.  I mention that only because sometimes you do hear performances that are technically astounding, but maybe a little cold and lacking in kind of that human thing.  So the ideal would be a combination of the two.  Technique is important, too.  Now as regards contemporary music, I think that performers should maybe realize that when they are able to play new music well; this lends something to even their performance of traditional music.  It sharpens the ear; it sharpens their technique; it enlarges the possibilities.  So in playing any new work really well, I think you would play Beethoven better.  It enlarges your sound sense and I think it enlarges your imaginative powers that befit the special instrument you’re involved with.

BD:    Do they play your music better if they play Beethoven better?

GC:    I think so, yes.  I think, really, the best performers of my music are those who are also experienced in the traditional music.  I think that’s so.

BD:     Do you ever have a shortage of people wanting to play your music?

GC:    I can’t complain, I guess, about that aspect.  There have been very many excellent performers.

BD:    I was just thinking that maybe we’ve stumbled on a way to con more people into playing your music.  Tell them that learning your music will get them to play Beethoven better, when in reality they play Beethoven better so they’ll do your music better! [Both laugh]

GC:    Right.  I don’t know.  I really see music as a larger thing, one thing and not broken into little compartments.  I think this is a healthy thing for both performers and composers.

BD:    What about the third part of the equation
— what advice do you have for the audience?

GC:    [Pause] I would say allow for bad acoustics because so many of the halls we hear music in are not so good.  I wish we had better halls in this country.  And to realize, too, that a live performance is not a recording that’s synthetic and pasted together.  It’s a live, living organism.  Beyond that, in reference to my own music, listen to the sound, to be sure, but also to other things.  People do talk about sound in my music, but I think other elements are important, too.  Rhythm is critical and the structure, the form, should be important, always.  So, in other words, for a listener I wouldn’t just say, “Go take a sound bath,” but look for the rather traditional aspects of my music which, I think, has something to do with at least a struggle towards form.   I’m concerned about all those things, too
thematics, for example.  It’s just different sound, although sound is also important in my music.

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BD:    What is it that you are currently working on?  What is on your desk right now?

GC:    I’ve been sketching a little guitar piece for David Starobin, who I’ve known for many, many years.  He wants a piece for guitar and ensemble, but which would make guitar prominent.  And this would be acoustic guitar, rather than electric guitar.

BD:    Do you have any plans after that, or do you just wait until the one is done before you look for the next project?

GC:    Well, I better not speak of further things, because sometimes my pieces undergo transformations.

BD:    I understand.  Not specifically, but have you got an idea for the piece after this and maybe the one down the road?

GC:    Oh, I have several ideas in my sketchbook, pieces I’d like to do one day.  But until the work actually exists, it would be futile to speak about it.  But just generally speaking, I would love to get back to orchestra at some point, although most of my music has been chamber.

BD:    So if you have a bunch of commissions, if one of them is for an orchestral work you’ll look more kindly upon that?

GC:    Well, I just want to get back to that, because my last orchestral piece was Haunted Landscape.  That goes back about three years or so, already.  I need to allow a little space in between, you know.  Orchestra isn’t the most natural medium for me, I suppose.  It’s always an especially difficult thing to grapple with, and I need a little space between, I suppose, each time.

BD:    Exactly.  You’ve been most generous to spend a little time with me this evening.  I appreciate very much being able to probe your mind.

GC:    Yes, I’ve enjoyed chatting with you! 

George Crumb's reputation as a composer of hauntingly beautiful scores has made him one of the most frequently performed composers in today's musical world. From Los Angeles to Moscow, and from Scandinavia to South America, festivals devoted to the music of George Crumb have sprung up like wildflowers. Now approaching his 75th birthday year, Crumb, the winner of a 2001 Grammy Award and the 1968 Pulitzer Prize in Music, continues to compose new scores that enrich the musical lives of those who come in contact with his profoundly humanistic art.

crumb George Henry Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia on 24 October 1929. He studied at the Mason College of Music in Charleston and received the Bachelor's degree in 1950. Thereafter he studied for the Master's degree at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana under Eugene Weigel. He continued his studies under Boris Blacher at the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin from 1954-1955. He received the D.M.A. in 1959 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor after studying with Ross Lee Finney.

George Crumb's music often juxtaposes contrasting musical styles. The references range from music of the western art-music tradition, to hymns and folk music, to non-Western musics. Many of Crumb's works include programmatic, symbolic, mystical and theatrical elements, which are often reflected in his beautiful and meticulously notated scores. A shy, yet warmly eloquent personality, Crumb retired from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania after more than 30 years of service.

Awarded honorary doctorates by numerous universities and the recipient of dozens of awards and prizes, Crumb makes his home in Pennsylvania, in the same house where he and his wife of more than 50 years raised their three children. George Crumb's music is published by C.F. Peters and the ongoing series of "Complete Crumb" recordings, supervised by the composer, is being issued on Bridge Records.

George Crumb is the recipient of numerous awards:

    * Elizabeth Croft fellowship for study, Berkshire Music Centre, 1955.
    * Fulbright Scholarship, 1955-6.
    * BMI student award, 1956.
    * Rockefeller grant, 1964.
    * National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1967.
    * Guggenheim grant, 1967, 1973.
    * Pulitzer Prize (for Echoes of Time and the River), 1968.
    * UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers Award, 1971.
    * Koussevitzky Recording Award, 1971.
    * Fromm grant, 1973.
    * Member, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975.
    * Ford grant, 1976.
    * Prince Pierre de Monaco Gold Medal, 1989.
    * Brandeis University Creative Arts Award.
    * Honorary member, Deutsche Akademie der Kunste.
    * Honorary member, International Cultural Society of Korea.
    * 6 honorary degrees.
    * 1998 Cannes Classical Award: Best CD of a Living Composer (BRIDGE 9069)
    * 2001 Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition (Star-Child)
    * 2004 Musical American "Composer of the Year"

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 27, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, 1994 and 1999.  The transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website in December of that year. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.