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The River of Life (2008) is designed as the first of a series of American Songbooks, or what Crumb dubbed “my Ivesian thing.” Like Ives, Crumb grew up in a household animated by many different musical styles. “I had a classical background because my parents were primarily classical musicians. To fill out the family budget, they would play occasional light music and the pop music of the day. My father would play in combos and he conducted a theater orchestra in the days of silent film. Later, he also conducted a Masonic band, and a concert band…. My ear was picking up tunes off of country and folk radio, as well as gospel music, and my father had quite a collection of miniature scores.”
Also like his predecessor, Crumb is keenly alive to the way the music resonates with deeper meanings rooted in the American experience. While the instrumentation in this work includes a raft of percussion instruments and extended instrumental techniques, the vocal style retains the melodic simplicity of its sources, a result of Crumb’s desire “not to harm those wonderful melodies, to stay out of the way of those beautiful tunes.” “Those beautiful tunes” are set in a subtle heterophony created by the melodic relationship between the pitched instruments and the voice – not only surrounding the voice with a kind of misty halo effect but creating an imaginative, wordless echo of the spiritual sentiments in the texts.
The opening setting of “Shall We Gather at the River?” begins with “River Music” for piano and percussion, a series of wispy fragments that are repeated until the conductor decides to move into the vocal setting. On the score he indicates that “with its ‘drifting tonality’ and interrupted phrases, [the hymn] should suggest something surreal and disembodied (like ‘a song in search of itself’).” “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” (marked “boldly resounding, jubilantly”) evokes not just Ives but John Cage and gamelan music in its use of melodic cells that revolve in a kind of musical kaleidoscope. Crumb turns “Amazing Grace!” into a kind of nocturne (“poised, suspended, timeless”), in stark contrast with the next piece, “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” whose opening march rhythm on amplified piano, joined by drums and cymbals, begins a procession that increases in dynamics and drama before fading away.
Each of the American Songbooks includes an instrumental interlude dedicated to a particular time of day. Here, “Time is a Drifting River: A Psalm for Daybreak and Morning” captures the shifting light and shadow of dawn with rhythmic patterns and melodic sequences that evolve slowly, almost imperceptibly. The score is signature Crumb: around a central “circle music” are eight phrases that constitute its musical “rays.”
Sudden dissonance begins “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” its angry brightness sustained tone painting on the word “tremble” before dissipating in a moment marked “serene, desireless.” “One More River to Cross” tells the Noah’s Ark story amidst a jumble of percussion, including a toy piano, that lends a childlike quality. It’s a perfect setup for the drifting, faraway mood of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and the final hymn, “Deep River,” whose gently unfolding phrases and layered textures evoke the river’s combination of variation and permanence.
The emotional impact of this work is by turns haunting, startling, and sentimental. As critic Eric Bruskin puts it: “In the American Songbooks, George Crumb, surrealist, transforms himself into George Crumb, magical realist.”
– Annotator Susan Key is an editor and musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.