Sunday, 28 February 2016

George Crumb "Vox Balaenae": An intelligent approach to silence 

...Of the four characteristics of the material of music, duration, that is time length, is the most fundamental. Silence cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony: it is heard in terms of time length. Cage

"Piano Piece #10"...lasts about 26 minutes... at the beginning there's a very dense period of music about 2.5 minutes long which has all the musical material in extreme compression. And then, one by one, fragments of music occur and die out in resonances. The silences finally go up to about one minute, which is an extremely long time to make a minute musically interesting. So I discovered a new way to prepare for a certain duration of silence by what happens just before the silence, so that one can hear again, like an echo, the figures or structures before the silences.

Karlheinz Stockhausen interview for Modulations 1999

In the same article Stockhausen uses the phrase "coloured" silence, i.e. not complete "non-activity" but sounds outside the main constructional argument of the music, the radiators in the auditorium are mentioned as an example. In Cage's 4'33 one could argue that such sounds are the sources for construction. In the music that follows the revolution created by 4'33 composers have adopted a working method of using silence which incorporates a scale of events such as indicated in the table above. It may not be at the forefront of their planning, but every composer has had their awareness of degrees of silence heightened since 1952.

The following commentary is on George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" and uses this recording as a source that all can follow on You Tube:

If Takemitsu's works can be described as exploring silence or "Ma" then it is fair to consider Crumb's work in the same category. Indeed his interest in oriental sounds may be an indicator of his association with such ideas, experts on his music may wish to contribute their views. An excellent PDF is available on the exploration of MA in Takemitsu's work at:

While "Vox Balaenae" has many moments of suspended activity there is only one of non-activity. As stated in the previous blog periods of non-activity as felt more keenly by some than others.  In the field of popular music the song "Wild Thing" by the Troggs is a famous example of "power-silence".  It lasts about 2 seconds, and for me it is a dramatic pause, however there is no doubt about its effectiveness.
Crumb is a master of texture and we are given tremolo, wide vibrato, glissando, usually on harmonics, piano strings are scraped and left to resonate, the flautist sings into the flute and the cellist uses hand percussion on the cello. All the effects come together to provide a poetic interpretation of the sounds of the sea and the actual space of performance takes on bluish hues to heighten associations with the sea.

All times are approximate.

The graph below illustrates the degrees of activity to silence described above.
Left click the image to enlarge, timings given on the top of the table.