George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, a song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble, is one of several compositions by Crumb based on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. In fact, the work is the eighth installment in what the composer considers a kind of "meta-cycle," one that includes such earlier Lorca settings as Night Music (1963), Madrigals, Books I-VI (1965), Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968), and Night of the Four Moons, from (1969). Ancient Voices of Children is the best of the series, and stands as one of the few pieces of late twentieth century avant-garde music that manages to appeal to a broad audience while at the same time maintaining a challenging harmonic and stylistic language and a highly sophisticated musical surface.
It is perhaps the complexity of the piece that appeals to listeners; Crumb's angular lines and surprising timbres do not seem to emerge from a theoretic premise but rather from a highly intuitive and often visceral emotional sense. In setting Lorca's evocative poetry and addressing its themes of childhood, aging, and death, Crumb renders the poetry with an intriguing theatrical sensibility. Crumb frequently calls on the soprano and the boy soprano featured in the piece to use extended vocal techniques and sound effects, thus blurring the boundaries between conversation, soliloquy, and song. Likewise, the oboist frequently uses unusual articulations and pitch bends, and also doubles on harmonica. The mandolinist plays deliberately out of tune, and also performs on the musical saw. The harpist sometimes plays with papers woven between the strings, while the keyboardist moves between a toy piano and an amplified "real" one. A trio of percussionists perform on a wide variety of instruments from around the world. Crumb seeks not only to blur boundaries between music, poetry, and drama, but likewise keeps porous the boundaries separating the musical elements involved in the piece: the instrumentalists are called upon occasionally to hum, speak, and whisper, while the singers sometimes are instructed at certain points to sing directly at the amplified and undampened strings of the piano in order to create shimmering fields of resonance.
Consisting of five songs, the cycle is comprised of five songs interspersed with interludes. In "El niño busca su voz," vocal gestures and noises gradually coalesce into words. The ambiguously exotic "Dance of the Ancient Earth" leads into the haunting second song, "Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar," followed by the more angular and rhythmically charged "¿De dónde vienes, amor, mi niño?" and the "Dance of the Sacred Life Cycle." The mournfully tranquil "Todas las tardes en Grandada, todas las tardes se muere un niño," with its combination of meditative drones and nostalgic instruments (including the toy piano and the harmonica) is perhaps the most memorable song in the cycle. The brief and spartan "Ghost Dance" introduces the intensely focused "Se ha llenado de luces me corazón de seda," with which this engaging and dramatic cycle ends.