George Crumb, Eclectic Composer Who Searched for Sounds, Dies at 92

George Crumb, a composer who filled his works with a magpie array of instrumental and human sounds and drew on the traditions of Asia and his native Appalachia to create music of startling effect, died on Sunday at his home in Media, Pa. He was 92.

His death was announced by Bridge Records, his record label.

While rejecting the sometimes arid 12-tone technique of Modernists, Mr. Crumb beguiled audiences with his own musical language, composing colorful and concise works that range in mood from peaceful to nightmarish.

Mr. Crumb looking over one of his compositions in 2019.  “I love sounds that seem to hang in the air, and you can’t tell exactly where they’re coming from,” he once said. Credit…Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

He continued to compose late in life. His 90th birthday was celebrated by organizations including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which presented the premiere of a new piece for percussion quintet. “The apocalypse itself seemed to be evoked in the new Kronos-Kryptos piece, whose third movement has four bass drums going full tilt at the same time,” the critic David Patrick Stearns wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Black Angels” (1970), one of Mr. Crumb’s best-known works and a reaction to the Vietnam War, was an early example of his imaginative eclecticism. It is scored for an amplified string quartet and features techniques such as tapping the strings with thimbles. A mournful fragment from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is interrupted by fierce bow strokes and human shouts.

The grimly claustrophobic music of the first movement, “Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects,” was deemed sufficiently scary to be used on the soundtrack for the horror film “The Exorcist.”

Mr. Crumb described the piece as “a kind of parable onour troubled contemporary world.”

The members of the Stanley Quartet, which premiered the work in 1970, were baffled by some of the unusual requirements and not necessarily happy to play them. Nevertheless, they went along.

In 2014 Mr. Crumb, who guided their first performance, said: “They hadn’t played much contemporary music, so they were willing to do anything I wanted. And I ended up conducting, can you imagine? I felt like a fool conducting a string quartet, but it helped them keep it all together.”

The piece has since entered the repertory and been championed by prominent ensembles like the Kronos Quartet.

Other pieces were equally theatrical and sometimes featured ritualistic elements. A recording of whale songs made by a marine scientist inspired his “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)” for electric flute, cello and amplified piano (1971). The performers wear black half-masks; Mr. Crumb also specified that (where possible) the performance take place under blue lighting. He used various extended techniques, like strumming the piano strings with a paper clip, to create eerie sonorities.

Each movement of his orchestral piece “Echoes of Time and the River” (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968) features processionals in which small groups of musicians move around the stage in patterns and directions specified in the score — requirements Mr. Crumb later acknowledged were rather impractical.

Practicality usually wasn’t one of his primary concerns, however. As in Charles Ives’s massive Symphony No. 4, multiple conductors preside over Mr. Crumb’s “Star-Child” (1977), a major work set to Latin texts for soprano, solo trombone, children’s choir and large orchestra. A recording of the work, one of his few forays into orchestral repertory, won a Grammy in 2001.

Mr. Crumb’s fascination with Federico García Lorca led to other major works. Lorca’s poetry “somehow reconciled the joyous and the tragic,” the composer said, and he set Lorca’s verse to music in four books of madrigals for soprano and various instruments in the 1960s, and later in several song cycles including “Ancient Voices of Children” (1970).

Given its premiere by the mezzo soprano Jan DeGaetani, Mr. Crumb’s frequent collaborator and muse, “Ancient Voices” features a range of haunting vocal effects, sinewy oboe lines and spare sounds coaxed from Japanese temple bells, Tibetan prayer stones, mandolin, harp and toy piano.

He was less prolific in the 1980s and 1990s, when he suffered a creative block, but found renewed energy after 2000. He created a series of American Songbooks, collections of arrangements of hymns, popular tunes and African American spirituals. The gentle melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for example, is punctuated by uneasy percussive interjections and an array of shimmering sonorities.

Mr. Crumb’s repertory for piano includes four books called “Makrokosmos,” the title inspired by Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos,” an influential series of student works of varying difficulty. The pianist is instructed to sing, shout and moan at various points in the series by Mr. Crumb.

He wrote many of his works in an elaborately creative and nontraditional format. The score of “Makrokosmos II” (1973), for example, is notated in the shape of a peace sign.

Mr. Crumb eschewed computer notation and even drew his own staves. The flutist Tara Helen O’Connor described Crumb’s idiosyncratic scores as “his way of expressing how the music flows through space,” adding that it “also leaves some of the magic and creativity up to the performer.”

Detractors sometimes called him New Age-y or beholden to sound effects.

The New York Times critic John Rockwell found fault with Mr. Crumb for at times failing to put his borrowings from other composers into a natural-sounding context, or to integrate them into his own style, or for not expressing more clearly his higher meanings.

“What makes all this so frustrating is the sheer beauty and originality of so much of Mr. Crumb’s music,” he wrote in a 1983 review. “Hearing it is like trying to bask outdoors on a partially cloudy day: the sun feels wonderful when it breaks through, but it is too often obscured.”

One of Mr. Crumb’s works was inspired by a recording of whale songs. The performers wore black half-masks, and he specified that (where possible) the performance take place under blue lighting.Credit…Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

George Henry Crumb Jr. was born on Oct. 24, 1929, in Charleston, W.Va., to George Henry Crumb, a clarinetist, and Vivian (Reed) Crumb, a cellist. Both were professional musicians who played in a local orchestra; his father taught him the clarinet.

Like Ives, Mr. Crumb, who began composing around age 10, was exposed to eclectic musical styles growing up, including gospel, country, folk and pop. He was also fascinated by the sounds of the forest near his home. “I love sounds that seem to hang in the air, and you can’t tell exactly where they’re coming from,” he told The London Telegraph in 2009.

He received his bachelor’s degree in 1950 from the Mason College of Music in Charleston and a master’s degree two years later from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Mr. Crumb received his doctorate in composition in 1959 from the University of Michigan, where he studied with the composer Ross Lee Finney. Mr. Crumb’s student works reflected his burgeoning interests in combining unusual sounds: he meshed Appalachian folk songs and instruments like the harmonica and musical saw with Asian influences. Mahler, Bartok and Debussy — whose use of color and timbre fascinated Mr. Crumb — were other important compositional influences.

Mr. Crumb, a prominent teacher whose students included Christopher Rouse, Osvaldo Golijov and Jennifer Higdon, all successful composers, taught early in his career at the University of Colorado and at the University of Pennsylvania from 1965 to 1995. His works have been performed alongside those of his son David Crumb, a composer who teaches at the University of Oregon.

Besides his son David, Mr. Crumb is survived by his wife, Elizabeth May (Brown) Crumb, a violinist; another son, Peter; and a sister, Ruth Crumb. His daughter, the actress and singer Ann Crumb, died of cancer in 2019.

When asked in 1988 if he liked his own music, Mr. Crumb responded: “I think most composers like their own music. 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.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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