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Ancient Voices of Children, composed in response to a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, was one of a series of early works based on the poetry of the Andalucian poet Federico García Lorca. Political struggles that led to the Spanish Civil War (García Lorca was shot by Fascists in 1936) gave new intensity to the traditional Spanish poetic idiom, with its dark mysticism and preoccupation with death. Crumb described the poet’s style as “a language which is primitive and stark, but which is capable of infinitely subtle nuance. In a lecture entitled Theory and Function of the ‘Duende, Lorca has, in fact, identified the essential characteristic of his own poetry. Duende (untranslatable, but roughly: passion, élan, bravura in its deepest, most artistic sense) is for Lorca ‘all that has dark sounds ... This “mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained” is in fact the spirit of the earth... All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned’.”

But before hearing the first words of “El niño busca su voz” (The little boy was looking for his voice), the listener is aware of isolated timbres that develop into brief melodic gestures, then into elaborate melismas, in accordance with the score instruction “very free and fantastic in character.” Only gradually does wordlessness merge into words, punctuated with responses from the electric piano and harp, including tone-painting on the line: “The king of the crickets had it.” This gradual discovery of the voice is both illustrated and emphasized by Crumb’s choice of timbral effects. “Perhaps the most characteristic vocal effect in Ancient Voices is produced by the mezzo-soprano singing a kind of fantastic vocalise (based on purely phonetic sounds) into an amplified piano, thereby producing a shimmering aura of echoes. The inclusion of a part for boy soprano seemed the best solution for those passages in the text where Lorca clearly implies a child’s voice. The boy soprano is heard offstage until the very last page of the work, at which point he joins the mezzo-soprano onstage for the closing vocalise.

“The boy soprano here sings the last lines that express why he wants a voice (“I do not want it for speaking with / I will make a ring of it so that he may wear my silence on his little finger”). Even so, his offstage placement ensures that the narrative ambiguity of the text is not sacrificed.”

In “Dances of the Ancient Earth,” the first of two dance interludes, an oboe melody that recalls Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde alternates with highly rhythmic passages. The quiet “Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar” (I have lost myself in the sea many times) surrounds whispered text; at the end, the soprano’s vocalise imitates the bending quality of the musical saw. Instrumental insertions underscore the dramatic dialog between the singers in “¿De donde vienes, amor, mi niño?” (Where do you come from, my love, my child?).

García Lorca was born near Granada, and a recurrent theme in his poetry is the peculiar mixture of Arabic, Castillian, and gypsy elements in southern Spain. Thus “Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño” (Every afternoon in Granada, every afternoon a child dies) is in many ways the emotional centerpiece of this cycle. The “hushed, intimate, with a sense of suspended time” character Crumb specifies is achieved by a sinuous, flamenco-like melodic line; the words are repeated in Sprechstimme-like incantations. The rhythmic elasticity of the melody is complemented by pauses (such pauses are an essential element of the improvised flamenco style). The accompanying consonant harmonies played by chromatic harmonica and marimbas fade in and out of the listener’s consciousness, while the out-of-tune measures of a Baroque song played on a toy piano become in this context disturbing. The composer noted his interest in “juxtaposing the seemingly incongruous,” a technique that heightens the dark power of the text.

The delicate, other-worldly quality of the musical saw in Ghost Dance sets up the opening lines of the last song, “Se ha llenado de luces mi corazón de seda” (My heart of silk is filled with lights). An array of bells and gongs punctuated by sliding phrases on oboe and voice marks the passing of time… and perhaps of the child. Crumb once reflected: “It is sometimes of interest to a composer to recall the original impulse – the ‘creative germ’ – of a compositional project. In the case of Ancient Voices I felt this impulse to be the climactic final words of the last song: ‘and I will go very far... to ask Christ the lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child’.”

For Crumb, and for listeners in the decades since that impulse bore creative fruit, the threshold between words and music is a space that offers a glimpse into “the innermost recesses of the human soul.”

– Annotator Susan Key is an editor and musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.