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Musical Responses to Crumb's Makrokosmos at 50

Throughout music history, composers faced with new shifts of tonal thinking and instrumental capacity often will create a series of pieces that explore these developments. In keyboard literature, one can look to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Preludes, Debussy’s Etudes, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, and the work inspired by the latter, Crumb’s Makrokosmos. Crumb composed four volumes of this Makrokosmos series between 1972-1979. The first volume of these is the focus of a new release by pianist Nic Gerpe which is part of his project honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the work.

Crumb’s initial 12 pieces are arranged in three sets of four pieces each. The last movements of each respective section are also notated to form the chape of a cross, circle and spiral, respectively. This adds another layer of symbology to the often visceral and intense sounds that Crumb extracts from the piano. The macabre swirls prepare us a bit for what is to come in the opening “Primeval Sounds” with the third movement “Pastorale” providing some respite before the final “Crucifixus”. Throughout these opening segments, Crumb incorporates small specific sets of sound to provide harmonic connections with other smaller motives repeated and varied across the textural writing to provide a further thread. The other “parts” have a similar structure with the motivic elements rising up a bit to also provide a further aural connection to what has gone before. Crumb’s work is a contemporary exploration of piano timbre made from how keys are pressed coupled with pedal technique, and additional “inside-the-piano” technique of strumming and striking the strings. He also explores “prepared piano” concepts, though here the elements are placed during performance, not prior to it (as is the case in John Cage’s work). Adding to the often eerie quality, the pianist also is called upon for various vocalizations and sounds/pronouncements along the way.

Gerpe’s performance is often stunning and entirely engrossing throughout here. The particular motivic ideas are brought out well which helps the listener make the broader connections while also being overwhelmed by the sheer variety and intensity of the sounds. It makes for an engrossing and amazing audio experience. Fortunately, there are planned videos coming to YouTube to also allow those interested to see the music performed as an element of Crumb’s style is always as dramatic visually as it is sonically.

Part of Gerpe’s project of performing the original work in concert was to also commission eleven composers to provide their own musical response to a specific movement of the work. In addition to his own contribution, there are pieces by Vera Ivanova, Fernanda Aoki Navarro, Gernot Wolfgang, Eric Guinivan, Alexander Elliott Miller, Viet Cuong, Julie Herndon, Gilda Lyons, Timothy Peterson, Juhi Bansal, and Thomas Osborne. Some of the aspects of these new choices are infusions of jazz harmonies, global dramatic styles, and /or enhanced electronic manipulation techniques that are part of the respective composer’s own heritage here. In this way, one gets a whole new view of the motives and ideas that serve as the departure points for the other 12 works mirroring Crumb’s piece. It is also worth noting that unlike the stark lines of Crumb’s approach, the new works tend to employ more common concepts of looped ideas and ostinato as unification devices that again are more contemporary compositional approaches employed to further stretch the timbre and musical elements.

This particular release will be available through streaming services today (March 15) and one can also head to Nic Gerpe’s YouTube Streaming channel after March 19 to catch video of the performances from this project. Gerpe’s concerts of this music have garnered appropriate high praise for his interpretations, and this is one way to help further spread awareness of the project. Limited pressings of CDS will likely be available as well through the project website: . This is an important work of 20th Century literature careful listeners will want to navigate between Crumb’s piece and those that are written in response to the different movements to explore further connections.

For more information and to watch the performances of the different pieces: If you are interested, here are the links to the video version of the album:


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