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George Crumb – Vox Balaenae

Vectoral Analysis by Diego Barbosa-Vásquez

George Crumb – Vox Balaenae

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Historical Background

Crumb’s music is focused in the use of musical developments of its period to create connection with the public. Vox Balaenae written in 1971 is a good example of it. This work takes advantages of the extended techniques developments caused by the Cage philosophies of noise as music, and the advances in the electronic music to create different sounds. It’s important to say that Crumb is influenced by those electronic sounds but he prefer to create those with acoustic instruments. In addition, the USA composer music is focused in the connection possibilities that a dramatic work can create with the public. From its begging with the title Vox Balaenae (Voices of the Whales) and the indication “For Three Masked Players”, the composer shares with the performer the necessity of a dramatic approach to the work. Even at the end of the piece the indication “play in pantomime” shows that this piece is a theatrical-musical work.

Overview, Structure, and Texture

Despite the fact that the title is variations of a theme, the piece defined its form from a dramatic (long form) structure in its movements. To create this classical approach of form, its structuration uses different compositional aspects from the simple to the complex and then return to the simplicity. First, the dynamics goes from the flute alone to a very complex moment at the end of Mesozoic and then returns to the silence as a part of the music at the end. Second, the texture goes from the monophonic (flute and voice) to the complex polyphony at Mesozoic movement and returning to a simple heterophonic motive where the right hand of the piano play a melodic line accompaniment by the others in a very soft way. With this structure the piece is easier to understand despite the complex avant-garde procedures and techniques used by the composer.

Orchestration Techniques

Crumb tent to use different instruments and artifacts that can support his musical-theatrical thoughts. A very operatic approach that here take advantages of the musical developments in terms of noises, extended techniques and electronic music from 2 different aspects. First, from the acoustical approach, the performers can see a non-common ensemble of flute, cello piano and cymbals instruments that are amplified. In addition, indications of pedal in the piano when just the flute is playing and singing. Second, from the extended techniques, the flute needs to sing while is playing and do flutertonge, the cello uses “seagul effect” and continual harmonics in the piece, and the piano must play muted strings or the use of a Chisel to change the pitch of the strings.

Basic Techniques

Two elements give coherence to this dramatic piece. First, the huge form structure conception of the piece that shows in a dramatic way the sounds of wales. Second, the extended techniques and the electronic sounds produced with an acoustical procedure that supported this structure.

Vertical Models

The piece is based in a dramatically approach from the horizontal lines and its independences and relations are in favor of it. It creates a dissonance result in the vertical models. However, there are moments where the music needs a vertical approach mostly in the piano where triadic structures can be seen. From the basic 5/3 chord in the firsts entrance of piano to the 7 chord with 4th in the Mesozoic.

Horizontal Models

The horizontal procedures are based in the dramatic influence with treatment of three elements. First, the melodic movements are based primarily in diatonic movements with chromatic changes in the phrases. In addition, movements of thirds, fourths and fifths movements in quasi arpeggios are constantly seen too. Second, horizontal structures usually are repeated, not always equal and with chromatic changes, but this creates a sense of phrasing structures. Third, the tempos of those horizontal movements are measured in many cases in seconds, creating the necessity of performers playing from the full score.


The dramatic approach of Crumb is clearly seen in this work and three main aspects can be featured. First, the classical concepts of phrase and form are placed in the work Second, the composer uses the musical advances of his period in terms of extended techniques, noises as music and electronic-acoustical music but as compositional tools in favor of a dramatic work. Third, the composition can be defined as chromatic work, that use the 12 tones without a serialism approach.

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