George Crumb

Ancient Voices of Children

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Thirty years later, George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children is still a startling work. Like many of his compositions from this period, the music centers on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, here excerpted prudently by Crumb to create a virtual song cycle about life, death, and the quest to reacquire the "ancient soul of a child." Mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, whose voice ranges from supernatural bird caws to haunting lyricism (and from a whisper to a scream, literally), is the lance with which Crumb shatters our armor of expectations. Applying exotic percussive sounds -- here strident, there dreamlike -- like daubs of paint around his subject, the composer holds listeners spellbound in DeGaetani's mad siren's song. The treatment of the text is so radical from section to section that the work's short span (under a half-hour) is almost a necessity to keep all of the events in memory. The opening "El Nino Busca Su Voz" is rendered phonetically (think Yoko Ono with classical training, or better yet don't think about it), creating a world of fantastical perspectives. "Me He Perdido Muchas Veces Por el Mar" is whispered; "De Donde Vienes, Amor, Mi Nino?" is magical dialogue between woman and child; and "Todas las Tardes en Granada..." is luminescent. At the close, which recalls the opening theme, there is a sense of surrender and completion that simply trails off; nothing is left to be said. George Crumb's resourceful instrumentation -- tuning one set of mandolin strings a quarter-tone low, threading paper between a harp's strings, playing piano strings with a chisel -- coupled with his revelatory vision of the voice as an instrument, creates a work here that sparkles with invention. Not only does the music communicate the story, it is the story. At first alien, then primitive, then human, this is the ancient voice of children: not the creation of a new voice, but the liberation of musical potentials long forgotten. Ancient Voices of Children remains a must-have for serious students of the contemporary classical movement. Although the vinyl pressings are more than adequate, a 1987 CD that combines this and Makrokosmos, Vol. 3: Music for a Summer Evening is probably the version to own, as some of the passages are very quiet.