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George Crumb - Vox Balaenae

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Uploaded on Jul 6, 2011

George Crumb (born in 1929)
Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for flute, cello and piano

Camille Lambert-Chan, flute
Philippe Prud'homme, piano
Stephane Tetreault, cello

Salle Claude Champagne - April 17, 2011
Montreal, Qc
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Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), composed in 1971 for the New York Camerata, is scored for flute, cello and piano (all amplified in concert performance). The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which I had heard two or three years previously. Each of the three performers is required to wear a black half-mask (or visor-mask). The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature (i.e. nature dehumanized). I have also suggested that the work be performed under deep-blue stage lighting.

The form of Voice of the Whale is a simple three-part design, consisting of a prologue, a set of variations named after the geological eras, and an epilogue.

The opening Vocalise (marked in the score: "wildly fantastic, grotesque") is a kind of cadenza for the flutist, who simultaneously plays his instrument and sings into it. This combination of instrumental and vocal sound produces an eerie, surreal timbre, not unlike the sounds of the humpback whale. The conclusion of the cadenza is announced by a parody of the opening measures of Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra.

The Sea-Theme ("solemn, with calm majesty") is presented by the cello (in harmonics), accompanied by dark, fateful chords of strummed piano strings. The following sequence of variations begins with the haunting sea-gull cries of the Archezoic ("timeless, inchoate") and, gradually increasing in intensity, reaches a strident climax in the Cenozoic ("dramatic, with a feeling of destiny"). The emergence of man in the Cenozoic era is symbolized by a partial restatement of the Zarathustra reference.

The concluding Sea-Nocturne ("serene, pure, transfigured") is an elaboration of the Sea-Theme. The piece is couched in the "luminous" tonality of B major and there are shimmering sounds of antique cymbals (played alternately by the cellist and flutist). In composing the Sea-Nocturne I wanted to suggest "a larger rhythm of nature" and a sense of suspension in time. The concluding gesture of the work is a gradually dying series of repetitions of a 10-note figure. In concert performance, the last figure is to be played "in pantomime" (to suggest a diminuendo beyond the threshold of hearing!); for recorded performances, the figure is played as a "fade-out".

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