Pianist Gil Kalish and percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum are part of an ensemble presenting Ancient Voices of Children, by the revered and recently departed American composer George Crumb, with the Chamber Music Society in May. Rosenbaum talks with Kalish about the pianist’s long association with Crumb’s music and how it changed Kalish’s direction.
Ian David Rosenbaum: You worked with George Crumb for decades, and you were my first introduction to his music—could you tell us about how you first met him? What drew you to his work?
Gil Kalish: I think the first piece that I did was in a series of concerts with violinist Paul Zukofsky, Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) for violin and piano. This was definitely something I had never experienced in my life; I’d never heard or seen anything like it. I was a traditional piano student, with German teachers, doing the classics, and never ventured into the 20th century as a matter of fact… Debussy, I mean, that was kind of minor league stuff to them.
But I was a curious person and eager to do interesting things. That’s how I found my way into some important music and meeting Paul, who was focused on 20th century music. So, playing this piece of George’s was a great adventure and challenge, and they remain very difficult works—we don’t grow up as pianists knowing anything at all about [playing] the inside of the instrument… we can identify keys, but we can’t identify strings. George was not the first person to use the inside of the piano, but I think he was the first to use it almost as equally as the keyboard. Henry Cowell, at the beginning of the century, did things inside the piano, but that didn’t become part of what composers did.
George grew up in Appalachia in a musical family. He heard the folk music of his area, he heard the instruments that people used, which were not symphony instruments. He had this amazing imagination. As a person, he was soft spoken, self-effacing, not the kind you would think would be inventing sounds in the way he did. So, with [Four Nocturnes], it was really an extraordinary range of challenges for the pianist.
Those who will hear Ancient Voices of Children, you will see some of the things that musicians have to do and some of the instruments that are called for. It’s quite amazing, it was quite revolutionary at the time. Also, his use of percussion, it was quite new for percussion to have such an important chamber music role.
IR: Ancient Voices of Children premiered in 1970.
GK: Yeah, it was an important and interesting time in new music, serial music was ascendant, and most composers were using that particular language, which is very rigorous. George, finally, had an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania. His colleagues were Richard Wernick and George Rochberg. Rochberg, a very talented, brilliant man who was a composer and a theorist, had kind of an inner revelation. It’s hard to describe, but the ‘60s were a time when most composers were using a very rigorous language, basically initiated by Schoenberg. The style is kind of anti-lyrical, even though some people wrote very beautiful [music]. Rochberg had been a serial composer, [but] about that time he had a revelation. He said, “we’ve gone on the wrong path, we don’t speak to audiences, we don’t use harmony in the way it’s been used throughout history.” These things often come when the time is right, and George was fitted for this.
George followed his own passions, his own instincts, what spoke to him—he invented what he invented. He was a very literate composer, steeped in the traditions both of his time and of the 19th century. He just took what sounds he heard in his inner mind, and what he had heard from people around him and what he had seen, like from Cowell and Charles Ives. He took it all and he made it his own.
IR: How did people respond to Ancient Voices of Children?
GK: It was an astonishment to all of us. He wrote this for mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, a great singer steeped in the old music. Jan and George had an immediate connection. There was an amazing reaction to the first performance at the Library of Congress. I had never seen or participated in a performance in which the reaction was almost like a riot, people going crazy in the audience, they were astonished at what they had heard.
The piece has mandolin, percussionists, toy piano, all the stuff that happens inside the piano, and a boy soprano, and it’s a very emotional text. The audience truly went crazy. I really have never…you know, it’s nice when you get a nice reaction from an audience. But this was just beyond anything I’ve ever seen.
IR: I think I have the same feeling in the ensemble playing this piece. From the first note, you know instantly that it’s George Crumb, and you just get this almost spiritual feeling of this music that is unlike anything else.
GK: I think he was very spiritual. He never spoke about religion, but I am quite sure that he was deeply spiritual.
And furthermore, I remember very clearly an article in The New York Times that was basically “George Crumb, Savior of Music.” I do know it was incredibly intimidating to think of himself as any kind of a savior or a spokesperson for the new direction of music. He just did what he did. And I think that was very difficult for him, that every piece was expected to be something that would be revolutionary. I think that was hard for him to deal with. I think at a certain point he had difficulties, and I know he always refused commissions because he did not want to deal with deadlines, he did not want to churn something out. He wrote what he wanted. George is unique, he doesn’t have any predecessors.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents The Innovators: Debussy to Crumb at Alice Tully Hall on May 3. For more information, visit ChamberMusicSociety.org.