Sunday, December 29, 2019

American Maestro: George Crumb Interpreted by Yoshiko Shimizu

George Crumb. (Photo by Sarah Shatz)

CD Review of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos 1 and 2, Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for amplified piano, 63:59; Music for a Summer Evening, 34:12.

Recorded February 2016 / June-July 2017, Oizumi Bunkamura, Japan.

Performed by Yoshiko Shimizu (with Akiko Shibata, Rupert Struber and Natsumi Shimizu) on the Kairos Label.

“The ancient voice has ceased. I hear ephemeral echoes. Oblivion of midnight in starry waters.” “Ulysses’ Isle” by Salvatore Quasimodo (Epigraph to Crumb’s Makrokosmos)
We can all celebrate a new double-CD release from Kairos with Japanese pianist Yoshiko Shimizu playing George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, Volume II and Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) accompanied by Austrian percussionist Rupert Struber.The title reflects Crumb’s admiration for Bartók’s legendary piano series Mikrokosmos, and is a brilliant creative attempt to enlarge that folk spirit scale and theme to encompass all of our shared experience as humans.

Makrokosmos, Volume I and Volume II are filled with references to the history of humankind, myths, Christianity, paganism and occultism. In Music for a Summer Evening Crumb pays a tribute to poetic quotations of Quasimodo, Pascal and Rilke. The composer himself regards these three works as forming a trilogy that consists of a classical round myth form within a late modernist musical framework.

If there is an American canon, it likely contains such stellar names as Charles Ives, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Harry Partch, Conlan Nancarrow, Morton Feldman and George Crumb. I myself would even add eccentric but brilliant outliers such as Moondog and even the later serious orchestral works of Frank Zappa. And I doubt if I’m going too far out on a limb to suggest that what Bartok was to European music, a recapitulation of classical values in the context of a modernist ethos, so Crumb was a re-ordering of Ruggles within a stringently archaic drama.

Born 90 years ago in Charleston, West Virginia and commencing his career as a composer at any early age, he was a rigorous but not a rigid modernist, notable for his use of unusual timbres, visual notations and extended, often merged, instrumental and vocal techniques in the midst of vivid sonorities. Among his most renowned works are Voices of Ancient Children (1970), Black Angels (1971) and Makrokosmos (1972-74). Initially influenced by the starkness of Anton Webern, he quickly set out on his own idiosyncratically American path, employing a ritual theatricality and the radical embrace of mythical and archetypal content.

Makrokosmos is certainly his most ambitious and perhaps famously complex work, a 24-piece collection of character studies utilizing string techniques and amplification. On several occasions, the pianist is required to sing, shout, whistle, whisper and moan, as well as playing the instrument both conventionally and unconventionally. It was originally premiered and recorded by David Burge, who became a mentor to Shimizu when she was still a student.

Shimizu’s first encounter with Crumb’s music must have been a startling and revelatory one for a student at the American Center in Toyko, where she was exploring American music and studying piano. While researching and browsing in their extensive library of well-known names such as John Cage, she found some cassette tapes of Makrokosmos 1, featuring the first performances by Burge. She shared her experiences of transformation through a sudden entry into Crumb’s musical world in the notes to this Kairos disc set:
What is that sound? How is it made? It was overpowering. Driven by the undulation of the stunning sounds, my whole body was taken to another world – a dark mystic abyss. Various images tumbled through my mind: the origin of the earth, darkness, God, stillness and affection. It was as if I were watching a movie of the cosmos, and when I had gotten though all twelve pieces, my heart would not stop throbbing, and I was unable to leave the room for a long time.
It is precisely this movie of the cosmos that Shimizu projects for us in her interpretation of Crumb for this two-disc set, andwhile her touch is gentle enough to transmit the dreamy experience of creation, at the same time she has a forceful enough attack to fully convey the power of his majestic sonic environment. Indeed, the word “majestic” is the key one I would use to identify her performance and recording in all its staggering glory.

Yoshiko Shimizu. (Photo by Natsumi Shimizu)

She writes, “Fascinated by Crumb’s music, I decided to go to the Eastman School of Music in New York, where I had the opportunity to study with Burge, who was not only Crumb’s reliable interpreter but also his close friend. Guided by him, I stepped into Crumb’s world. That magical sound, which has changed my life, continues to capture my heart.” The pianist has also since become a close friend of both Crumb and his wife Elizabeth, and one can easily imagine one day Shimizu mentoring another future young musician as they warily approach the awesome domain occupied by one of the most unique and gifted American composers we have been blessed to hear.

Dimitry Sumarokov has observed that anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss considered we live in a continuum, an eternal juxtaposition of chaos and order which he referred to as a struggle of the raw against the cooked, and one of the paradoxes of Crumb’s music is that while he appears to revel in the raw and elemental sound materials of his favored mythical structures, the actual content of his music is often flawlessly, perfectly cooked, as in organized (in the traditional sense of the word).

I tend to agree with him that rather than taking a customary romantic approach to Crumb, this current recording is more intellectual. “Take for example Crumb’s renowned round notation: the partiture of the last piece of every cycle is written out in the shape of a circle, or spiral or cross, not simply as a decorative element but as a prepared archetype, a philosophy of infinity, an endless return: the timelessness of time. Such an approach, in my opinion, exposes the architectural idea of Crumb more clearly, with all its somber topology of timeless myth.”

"The Magic Circle of Infinity" Score, Crumb.
Spiral Score from Makrokosmos 1, Crumb.

The topology of timeless myth: perhaps an ideal concept with which to approach such a creatively daunting and yet warmly inviting American musical presence. Also on this disc set is Makrokosmos 3: Music for a Summer Evening, for two amplified pianos and two percussionists, featuring Rupert Struber. In this work, Crumb combined two pianos and two percussionists, just as Bartok had done in his own Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion; however, uniquely in this rendering, both piano instrumentation sections are played by Shimizu and both percussion parts played by Struber. This novel approach, the first recording delivered by only two players rather than four, succeeds remarkably well, even though it required a delicate and almost alchemical editing process, completed in both Japan and Austria.

Her notes more than amply characterize both the challenges and the rewards of this compelling work: “With vast references to diverse literary works and to the composer’s own unique mental pictures, they are constellations that adorn the infinite universe – the Makrokosmos.”

But perhaps the highest accolade one can imagine for her performing and recording achievement here has been made by the composer George Crumb himself: “Yoshiko Shimizu’s recoding of my Makrokosmos volumes are beautifully done. She combines a superb technical mastery with a deeply convincing understanding of my musical and poetic intentions. I consider her to be one of my very finest interpreters. Bravissima!”

This is indeed a masterwork of interpretation on Shimizu’s part and is the living evocation of a masterpiece of pure American music composed by one of the nation’s titans. As attentive members of a carefully listening public, we can only echo Crumb’s own enthusiastic endorsement of her soulful and sensitive achievement: Bravissima!

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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