Given the amount of recognition that composer George Crumb has received in the form of prizes and awards, it is a bit surprising that the attention he has received here in San Francisco has been decidedly sparse, only with the notable exception of that given by the Kronos Quartet to his highly political “Black Angels.” This afternoon pianist Victoria Neve took a step towards righting that balance at San Francisco State University, where she is a Professor in the School of Music and Dance in the College of Creative Arts. Over the course of one hour, she offered a performance of the twelve “fantasy-pieces after the Zodiac” in the first volume of Crumb’s Makrokosmos, preceded by a brief explanation of each of the compositions and enlarged displays of the three image-based “SYMBOL” score pages.
In its entirety Makrokosmos comprises four volumes. This first volume was composed in 1972 for the pianist David Burge, who first performed it at Colorado College in Colorado Springs on February 8, 1973. I first heard it towards the end of that same year when Burge gave a recital at the University of Pennsylvania, where Crumb was in the Music Department. Until today, I had not heard that music a second time, either in performance or on recording.
I was pretty rebellious back in 1973. My initial reaction to Makrokosmos was that Crumb had appropriated a vast repertoire of devices that had become popular among the “bad boys” of the avant-garde of that time and, by virtue of the Pulitzer Prize he had been awarded in 1968, given all those outrageous effects a patina of respectability. After listening to Neve’s background lecture, I am willing to withdraw that harsh judgment; but I am not sure that the alternative is any more gentle. It now strikes me that Crumb did not appropriate these techniques because he did not know they existed, whether they came from Henry Cowell, John Cage, David Tudor, or any of the European experimentalists such as Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Pierre Schaeffer. (Actually, Stockhausen may be the one exception, since I remember his making a visit to Philadelphia.) In other words Crumb was the product of an extensive education, all of which comes to the surface of a broad piece of work like Makrokosmos; but it was also an education with some rather rigidly constraining boundaries.
At the very least Makrokosmos is true to its name, which is a deliberate play on the Mikrokosmos volumes of Béla Bartók. It provided the twentieth-century pianist with a series of technical studies that embrace a variety of techniques that were beyond the limits of conception in earlier generations (including Bartók’s). Put another way, both Mikrokosmos and Makrokosmos were Clavier-Übungen for their respective times, following dutifully in the footsteps of both Johann Sebastian Bach and Ferruccio Busoni.
However, while the spirit behind Makrokosmos could not have been more willing, in this, my second (and far less rebellious) listening experience, I could not help but wonder if the flesh was more than a little weak. It is music that straddles the gulf between the pedagogical traditions of music theory and composition, exemplified by institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania (which was also home to George Rochberg), and the iconoclasm of those bad boys of the avant-garde. However, following those lines from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Makrokosmos risks drowning in that gulf:
Thou has neither youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both.
There is too much of that “after dinner sleep” in these twelve fantasy-pieces and not enough to engage the listener through either the shock of youth or the elegance of age.
Whatever the shortcomings of this music, however, one cannot fault Neve’s efforts to provide it with a solid presentation. It was clear from her opening remarks that she put a lot of work into understanding the motives behind each of these relatively short pieces, and her execution was always confident. However, it was not particularly compelling; and I do not think that this was a problem with her approach to performance. Rather, this is music that can go only so far in providing a serious listening experience. Neve took it that distance; but, now that it is 2011, rather than 1972, we tend to expect a work of this magnitude to go further.