By Dmitry Sumarokov

Recently, Kairos released a double CD of George Crumb (1929) with three out of four cycles of “Makrokosmos” — a classical round myth within a late-modernist musical framework.

This series of piano pieces contains everything any respectful mystic worth his salt could possibly need — Twin Suns (Doppelgänger aus der Ewigkeit), the Phantom Gondolier, Gargoyles and the Druids of Stonehenge. Luckily, all this decorative exuberance can be spooned off as easily as a mound of whipped cream from the top of an honest, no-nonsense layered cake.

Speaking of a cake, Lévi-Strauss called the eternal juxtaposition of chaos and order “a struggle of the Raw against the Cooked” (“Mythologiques. Le cru et le cuit”). The paradox of Crumb is that for all this apparent excess of the elementary “raw” sound material, the structure of his music is flawlessly, perfectly “cooked”, i.e. organised in the traditional sense.

Take, for example, his renowned round notation: the partiture of the last piece of every cycle is written out in a shape of a circle (or a spiral or a cross). Here it’s not simply a decorative element but a prepared archetype, philosophy of infinity, endless return, timelessness of time. And it sounds exactly like that — Crumb tends to use the round forms of the ABA type.

The CD was recorded by pianist Yoshiko Shimizu and percussionist Rupert Struber. The interpretation by Shimizu in Kairos’ version is an exciting interplay of attacks and resonances. The performance is sharp, dense and decisive. Unlike previous recordings, this rendition is intellectual rather than romantic. Such an approach, in my opinion, exposes the architectural idea of Crumb much more clearly, with all its somber topology of timeless myth.

Yoshiko Shimizu with George Crumb (Nov. 2017) / © Yoshiko Shimizu, archive

. . . . I’m listening to the “makrokosmik” piece Nocturnal Sounds (The Awakening) with the epigraph from “Ulysses’ Isle” by Salvatore Quasimodo (“The ancient voice has ceased. I hear ephemeral echoes. Oblivion of midnight in starry waters”) when it suddenly dawns on me that for some reason in the last three years I have only listened to Japanese pianists. The endless return yet again!

George Crumb. Makrokosmos, Volume I. The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto perpetuo)



Special thanks to Svetlana Barsky

Journalist & empiriocriticist