Easy listening, really

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It’s a sad indication of our cultural sophistication that we’re on the cusp of the 21st century, yet we view much of the music of the 20th with alarm, if not downright fright. Sure, some of the music is difficult and unsettling, but then, so was the society in which it was composed. Still, much 20th-century music is, to use that horribly patronizing word, "accessible," and that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily soft or reactionary. The American musician George Crumb, despite his relative obscurity, has been one of the century’s most innovative – and "listenable" – composers. He’s interested in the entire sonic spectrum. In "Vox Balaenae" ("Voice of the Whales"), for instance, he combined electronic instruments with sounds emitted from whales, recorded from a submarine. In his great 1977 composition, "Star-Child," which is included on this CD, he employs a striking percussion force of traditional drums and cymbals, in addition to pot lids, iron chains, tubular bells, flexatone, metal thunder sheet and wind machine.

There’s also a weird but gripping dialogue between soprano and trombone, with the singer shooting up to piercing high notes and the trombonist diving toward the lowest reaches of the instrument. The seven-movement work, performed without pause, also includes children’s chorus, choir and a large orchestra. The work goes from blackest darkness at the beginning to hazy light at the end, suggesting a new beginning from either pessimism or annihilation. "Star-Child" also requires four conductors, not because the forces are so huge, but because parts of the orchestra play in different meters and tempos. It’s a little confusing, that’s why only one conductor, Thomas Conlin, is credited.

While exploring a panoply of rhythms and contrasting timbres, Crumb constructs a work that is urgent and cohesive. Some of the movements, like "Desolato" and "Musica Apocalyptica" are searing in their intensity. The Warsaw Philharmonic and Choir, soprano Susan Narucki, trombonist Joseph Alessi and other musicians do a handsome job.

In an entirely different light is "Mundus Canis" ("A Dog’s World"), a lark that Crumb composed in 1998. Based on the personalities of five Crumb family dogs, these bagatelles for guitar and percussion are witty but slight and a bit gimmicky. "Three Early Songs," from 1947, are sung with heart by Crumb’s daughter, Ann, with the composer at the piano. In the liner notes, Crumb says he didn’t find his voice until the early 1960s, but these youthful melancholy compositions are nothing to be ashamed of. "Night" is set to a poem by Robert Southey, and "Let It Be Forgotten" and "Wind Elegy" were written by the lyric poet Sara Teasdale. Crumb’s pensive melodies complement the dolorous texts well.

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