Makrokosmos, Volume I – Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano (1972)
– George Crumb
Makrokosmos, Volume I was composed in 1972 for my friend David Burge. Ten years previously, in 1962 (we were then colleagues at the University of Colorado), he had commissioned and premiered my Five Pieces for Piano. I was very much excited about the expanding possibilities of piano idiom – it seemed as if a whole new world were opening up to composers; and I was especially impressed by Burge’s immediate and total mastery of this new idiom, which implied an organic synthesis of conventional (keyboard) and unconventional (inside the piano) techniques. I wanted to do a sequel to the Five Pieces but, alas, several attempts proved abortive. One set of sketches was assimilated into my Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death; other ideas wandered homelessly through the years; and two or three germinal ideas finally evolved into Makrokosmos.
The title and format of my Makrokosmosreflect my admiration for two great 20th-century composers of piano music – Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy. I was thinking, of course, of Bartók’s Mikrokosmosand Debussy’s 24 Preludes (a second zodiacal set, Makrokosmos, Volume II, was completed in 1973, thus forming a sequence of 24 “fantasy-pieces”). However, these are purely external associations, and I suspect that the “spiritual impulse” of my music is more akin to the darker side of Chopin, and even to the child-like fantasy of early Schumann.
And then there is always the question of the “larger world” of concepts and ideas which influence the evolution of a composer’s language. While composing Makrokosmos, I was aware of certain recurrent haunting images. At times quite vivid, at times vague and almost subliminal, these images seemed to coalesce around the following several ideas (given in no logical sequence, since there is none): the “magical properties” of music; the problem of the origin of evil; the “timelessness” of time; a sense of the profound ironies of life (so beautifully expressed in the music of Mozart and Mahler); the haunting words of Pascal: “Le silence éternel des espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me”); and these few lines of Rilke: “Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit. Wir alle fallen. Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen unendlich sanft in seinen Händen halt” (“And in the nights the heavy earth is falling from all the stars down into loneliness. We are all falling. And yet there is One who holds this falling endlessly gently in his hands”).
Each of the twelve “fantasy-pieces” is associated with a different sign of the zodiac and with the initials of a person born under that sign. I had whimsically wanted to pose an “enigma” with these subscript initials; however, my perspicacious friends quickly identified the Aries of Spring-Fire as David Burge, and the Scorpio of The Phantom Gondolier as myself.
Makrokosmos, Volume I was premiered at Colorado College (in Colorado Springs) on February 8, 1973. - George Crumb
Karkata (2021) – Vera Ivanova
Karkata is dedicated to the pianist Nic Gerpe, who commissioned several pieces (including this one) to be companion miniatures to George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, for performances and release on his solo album “The Makrokosmos 50 Project”.
The title of my companion piece to Crumb’s Primeval Sounds – Genesis I - Cancer, Karkata translates from Sanskrit as Cancer, the fourth sign of the zodiac and my own sign.
Esoterically, Karkata (Cancer) stands for the interaction of time and space on the involutionary path of the soul. The opening descending harmonic progression of four chords, sliding into each other chromatically, evolves throughout that entire piece and embodies Cancer’s backward motion and its natural instinct of hiding under the rock or in its own shell.
I am grateful to Nic Gerpe for this wonderful initiative and for inviting me into this project as I always felt connected to Crumb’s music and its unmatched finesse. – Vera Ivanova
Crumbling (2022) – Fernanda Aoki Navarro
This piece was commissioned by Nic Gerpe, as part of his project Makrokosmos 50, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos for amplified piano. Nic invited 12 composers to choose one movement of Makrokosmos, Volume I and then create a new piece that dialogues with it. Crumbling draws materials from the second movement (Proteus / Pisces) and from another piece of mine, Mestiça. The first chord of Crumbling is also the last chord of Proteus. The idea was to “crumble” materials of different natures and then connect these crumbs into a new semi-cohesive part, from which a new gesture emerges. This gesture (descending 9th, F-E followed by longer note, F) symbolizes both Nic’s impetus to commission “emergent” composers and the integrity that these composers need to have when writing a companion piece that both lies in the shadows of and highlights the work of an “emerged” composer. Sadly, George Crumb passed away 3 days after I finished this piece.
– Fernanda Aoki Navarro
The Patience of Water (2021) – Gernot Wolfgang
The inspiration for my contribution to this wonderful project was the third movement of Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, Pastorale (Taurus).
I focused on recurring elements in Crumb’s movement, and transformed them into my own musical gestures. These would periodically return within my piece, resulting in a modular structure not unsimilar to that of Pastorale.
Overall The Patience of Water turned out to be quieter, more pensative than its source of inspiration. In nature, absent of human influence, water moves at its own pace. Whether fast, slow or seemingly still, it is patient. It cannot be hurried.
- Gernot Wolfgang
SIGNAL (2021) – Eric Guinivan
Written after Crumb's Crucifixus movement, the score for SIGNAL is modeled on the modern Wi-Fi logo, symbolizing our desire for connection with one another. Repeated bell-like tones and a slow, lamenting melody represent our efforts to connect and our struggle to find our place in a world in which technology plays a massive role in how we communicate with one another. Loud and resounding flourishes represent points of contact – successful connections. But how meaningful are they? These flourishes drift further and further apart over the course of the piece, perhaps suggesting that while technology can bring us closer, and while we feel the constant need to be connected, relying too much on technology for our most meaningful communication can actually put distance between us.
– Eric Guinivan
Ghost of the Manticore (2021) – Nic Gerpe
Taking as its starting point Crumb’s “The Phantom Gondolier” [Scorpio] - Movement 5 of Makrokosmos, Volume I - this piece is dedicated to another of my musical inspirations, the British pianist and composer Keith Emerson. When I was younger, I was sure that I wanted to be a jazz pianist, and devoured recordings of Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson. My Dad gave me a couple of Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums, and I was blown away not only by their original compositions but also by their transcriptions of works by great 20th-Century composers. My first exposure to the works of Bartók, Copland, Ginastera and Janáček came by way of Keith Emerson’s electrified transcriptions of their music. There was no turning back after that – I knew that this was the kind of music that I wanted to play, and thus my journey into contemporary classical music.
This piece utilizes several harmonies and interval patterns that permeate the original Crumb movement. In composing it, I imagined a musical conversation between Emerson and Crumb, with each responding to the other’s style and gestures. This movement is an homage to two great Scorpios whose music has been such a tremendous source of inspiration for me. - Nic Gerpe
The Celestial Crown (2022) – Alexander Elliott Miller
There's so much to respond to in the music of George Crumb. I've known Makrokosmos for over twenty years, and hear something new each time I return to the piece. In my mind, I remember how the work is a truly encyclopedic compendium of wonderful, imaginative piano playing techniques, the Zodiac signs, the title referencing the Bartók Mikrokosmos, the beautiful handwritten notation, and that famous Chopin quote at the end. When I revisited the piece in January 2022 to write my own response, though, I noticed new things. The parts that struck me were the whistled melody, "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown," (a hymn particularly famous in Appalachia), the use of the piano to imitate an "Appalachian Harp" in the piece, and the possible connection of both of these elements to George Crumb's roots as a composer originally from West Virginia. These were elements about the work I had not appreciated before. My work is a sort of re-arrangement or variation on pieces of "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown." Crumb has the pianist whistle fragments of the chorus, so I primarily work with the verse, sometimes in its original form, sometimes inverted or augmented, and always harmonized by a chord shape derived from the opening, harp-like chord in Crumb's own work. – Alexander Elliott Miller
Scaling Back (2022) – Viet Cuong
Scaling Back, a short companion to George Crumb’s Music of Shadows (for Aeolian Harp), is a mediation on the first strummed chord of the Crumb. To me, this chord—an Eb major chord stacked with an A major chord—encapsulates the Libra’s balancing of scales, as Eb and A can be thought of as two ends on a musical spectrum. My piece attempts to strike a balance between these Eb and A major chords, all while making use of Crumb’s iconic technique of strumming the piano strings. – Viet Cuong
Circle of (2021) – Julie Herndon
This piece traces the finite circles of breath and pulse by using these quiet rhythms to set tempo and durations. Recordings of past performances play back in layers, superimposing the biorhythms with which our bodies keep time. While listening to the pacing and duration of the pianist’s breath and pulse, you are also invited to become aware of your own lungs and heart. – Julie Herndon
The Transcendence of Time (2022) – Gilda Lyons
The Transcendence of Time, commissioned by Nic Gerpe for the Makrokosmos 50 Project, takes as its starting point George Crumb’s The Abyss of Time, seeking a kind of atavistic inversion. Fragments of the ancient chant O Virgo Splendens give way to a heartbeat gesture summoned from inside the piano, while breath sounds and whispers grow to a shout and, finally, a droning on the Latin text for “everything changes, truth cures.” –Gilda Lyons
Aries (2022) – Timothy Peterson
Aries is a constellation that represents the winged, golden-fleeced ram of Greek mythology. The ram first appears in the tale of Phrixus and Helle, twin children who unwittingly become the object of their stepmother’s hatred. The children’s birthmother summons the ram to whisk them away to the distant land of Colchis (modern-day Georgia). While flying over the Mediterranean Sea, Helle succumbs to vertigo and falls to her death. Phrixus, however, arrives safely in Colchis, whereupon he sacrifices the ram to Zeus, who places it in the night sky, creating the constellation Aries, which, according to Hellenic astrology, the Sun enters at the beginning of Spring. Phrixus then gifts the local king with the ram’s golden fleece to thank him for his hospitality. (Later, Jason and the Argonauts embark on a quest to claim the prized fleece as their own.) Some scholars believe that the myth of the Golden Fleece was inspired by an early mining technique that was popular in the Caucasus region and likely known to Ancient Greeks whereby sheep fleeces were stretched over a wooden frame and submerged in a stream that held gold deposits. The fleeces would catch flecks of gold that were later combed out after the fleeces had been hung from trees to dry. These mythological, astrological, and historical associations were on my mind as I composed Aries. Sparkly and twinkly playing in the piano’s upper register evoke the sheen of the ram’s golden fleece and the starry quality of its celestial reincarnation. Watery textures – sometimes gentle and at other times more forceful, rising from the depths of the piano’s lower register – evoke the Mediterranean Sea and the streams used in placer mining. Lyrical, melancholic passages invite reflection on the more tragic elements of Phrixus and Helle’s tale, while moments of triumph allude to the feelings of rebirth so often associated with the Spring season that is rung in by the vernal equinox. – Timothy Peterson
… through cracked mirrors (2021) – Juhi Bansal
… through cracked mirrors was written in response to the Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini) movement of Makrokosmos, Volume I, which features prominent quotations from Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. I have always loved the Chopin but was particularly intrigued by how different the quoted passages sound in a context built of Crumb’s language - the esoteric, fragmentary, dissonant nature of the surrounding music changes completely how we perceive the fragments from Chopin.
In writing this piece, I had a picture in my mind of an infinite series of facing, cracked, mirrors, which reflect an image back and forth, refracted into something slightly new on each iteration. The piece imagines what might have happened if Chopin wrote a response to the Crumb - refracting the Fantaisie Impromptu quotes through Crumb’s voice and back again into the language of an imaginary Chopin.
– Juhi Bansal
Supernova (2022) – Thomas Osborne
My contribution to Nic Gerpe’s visionary project is a reinterpretation of the final movement of Crumb’s seminal work. This the last of the three “symbol” movements in Crumb’s score, and its notation is formed beautifully into the shape of a spiral. My own take on this symbol was to envision it as a kind of supernova — an explosive event that resonates deep into the cosmos. After a quick, intense flurry of sound moving to a musical singularity of sorts, the piece shifts gears as a gentle “Lullaby for the Star-Child” emerges, radiating outward like beams of light. – Thomas Osborne