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In the extraordinary scores of George Crumb, the mind of a composer and the hand of a poet

The avant-garde composer, who died Feb. 6 at age 92, created scores that captured the sound and vision of his music

Composer George Crumb died Feb. 6 at his Pennsylvania home. (Rob Starobin)

I would love to tell you what the music of George Crumb sounds like, but you’d save some time just by opening a window.

Crumb, a native of Charleston, W.Va., who died Sunday at his home in Media, Pa., at age 92, was a celebrated composer who specialized in conjuring unexpected yet strangely familiar sonorities: the clang of a hammer, the creep of a mosquito, the ting of a crystal tumbler, the hover of helicopters.

George Crumb, quintessential composer of the avant-garde, dies at 92

The music of Crumb, a true avant-gardist in an era with scarcely any avant left to garde, dispensed with classical conventions but also embraced beauty, the natural world and the unreachable realms beyond it. Through amplification and alteration, he transformed the raw materials of the orchestra — a piano prepared with paper clips, a double bass played with a mallet — to create music as concerned with the churn of the cosmos as with the knurling of a thimble.

I could detail the clangorous ritualism of “Echoes of Time and the River,” Crumb’s orchestral suite that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and that directs its players to move about in a choreography of slow processionals. I could pull apart the strands of Debussy and Bartók that he coiled into amplified piano wire in his four-book suite based on the Zodiac, “Makrokosmos” (1972-1979). I could try to convey the shadows of Schubert that barely color “Black Angels” — Crumb’s 1970 piece (marked in tempore belli, i.e., in time of war) for amplified string quartet, tam tam gongs and bowed crystal goblets. Or I could try to reduce the sound of his 1977 “Star-Child” (orchestrated for 47 players and two choirs and requiring four conductors) to little marks on paper, which can do only so much.

But when I learned of his death — announced by his label, Bridge Records, now some 20 volumes into its “Complete Crumb” series — I found that my memories of the composer weren’t so much led by the particular and peculiar sounds of his music as by his unique vision of it — his scores, which I can only describe as music for the eyes.

Crumb considered the art of musical notation his sole parallel talent to composing, referring to it as “musical calligraphy.”

“I just think music should look the way it sounds,” he told an interviewer in 2016.

Crumb’s scores, meticulously hand-drawn on oversize sheets of paper, might come off at first as representative of a wave of adventurous “graphic notation” that swept through experimental music circles through the middle of the 20th century, and was practiced by such composers as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Iannis Xenakis and Cathy Berberian.

And while any musical score makes for a curious document — part manual of a piece’s inner workings, part map of its terrain — Crumb’s were uniquely idiosyncratic, immediately identifiable as his. Not just because their staves swirl into dizzying spirals, assume runic shapes and radiate from the center of the page like sound itself, but because of their hand-hewn humanity.

Various movements of the sprawling “Makrokosmos” take seemingly impossible shapes — “Spiral Galaxy” from Book I curls into a nautilus of notes, and “Agnus Dei” from Book II famously takes the form of a peace sign. “Ancient Voices of Children,” a 1970 orchestral work based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca, sprawls across the page like the schematics of a futurist machine. The opening pages of “Black Angels” resemble a row of rooftops spiked with radio antennae — you half expect choppers to emerge from the margins.

“I have to pretend that you live forever,” Crumb said in a 2020 interview, “because it takes so much time.”

Crumb recounted his first exposure to a musical score — Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” (Op. 84) — and the impact it had on his young understanding of the art of composing. (His clarinetist father and cellist mother played in local orchestras when he was growing up and flooded his home with music.) But the unique magic of a well-penned score is a pleasure anyone can enjoy.

If you’d ever like to lose an afternoon listening with your eyes, the Twitter account Music Notation is Beautiful (@NotationIsGreat) assembles scores from every imaginable era: Scans of the 16th-century Lambeth choirbook mingle with the chaotic futurist diagrams of Sylvano Bussotti. And for reliably Crumb-ier (and occasionally NSFW) specimens of experimental scoring, there’s Threatening Music Notation (@ThreatNotation), which is precisely what it says on the tin.

Score Follower also is a delightful time-suck opportunity for the score-curious, with an ever-growing archive of digitized new music notation available on YouTube, Twitter and TikTok (where they sometimes post transcription attempts for beloved TikTok sounds, like a trumpet submerged in gelatin.

As for Crumb’s scores, it’s difficult to pinpoint just what it is about them that speaks so clearly to me. Like him, I’m a poetry guy, and have always been fascinated by the way words on the page are merely a starting point for the making of meaning.

When I examine the manuscripts of my favorite poets, I experience a similar thrill, a voyeuristic peeking-under that can offer all kinds of unexpected revelations. The handwriting of Emily Dickinson (those overlong dashes, the words fanning across the page like the seeds of a dandelion) is a far different animal from the prim, tidy poems we encounter on the printed pages of anthologies. The strikethroughs and marginalia of Sylvia Plath’s manuscripts can deliver multiple monologues, showing us all that the finished poem leaves unsaid. The doodles of Tennyson reveal the poet’s mind running over the edges of his poems.

In the same way, Crumb’s scores offer us a way to access the composer that our headphones might not. They also recast him not just as a composer, but also as an artist — and maybe even a poet. (It’s hard for me to scan passages of “Echoes of Time and the River” and not see stanzas strewn across the page.)

For those listeners wary of “new music,” averse to the unhummable or otherwise uneager to subject themselves to the experiments of others, Crumb’s scores can provide not just a lie of the musical land, but also the reassuring presence of the composer’s hand, there to lead you forward.

I like to think of Crumb’s scores as directions to the impossible — his staves stretching like tethers between two worlds.

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