George Crumb: Voice Of The Whale
Directed by Robert Mugge
Starring George Crumb
Back in the day, being “Avant Garde” meant something. These were the artists and composers and writers who went where no man had gone before, mostly because no one thought that dissonant tone poems or novels lacking any verbs would entertain the public. But that audience really did exist; even if it was small enough to fit into a living room or community college concert hall. These Avant Gurus created entertainment that wasn’t so much intrinsically entertaining as a point of pride: “I sat thought two hours of a man playing the piano by running a chisel on the strings” got you some cred at the coffee houses; either for the act itself or the sheer creativity to think of something so execrable no one could call you on it. George Crumb worked these infertile fields and Robert Mugge arrived just in time to document him. Crumb remains obscure but Mugge went on to shoot a string of noteworthy music documentaries.
The Voice of The Whale arrived in 1968 shot on real Kodak film stock. We never see Mugge but hear his voice as he interviews Crumb (no relation to the cartoonist, Robert). Crumb sounds scholarly and serious; he knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. His narrative about tone and structure convinces until you hear the music. There are two parts to this story; in one we talk to Crumb, see film of his wife and children horsing around in a rural house, and learn his viewpoints on music. The other section provides a concert version of his notable Vox Balaenae; it’s one of Crumb’s best known efforts. The piece requires a cello, electric flute, and amplified piano and it sounds more like the whale songs than the whale song album that had just been released on vinyl in 1970.
Mugge’s footage began life in black and white; this release has simple primary color overlays that spruce up the look of the film. But no matter what process you might apply, this show appears quaintly dated to the modern eye. Avant Garde music never really caught on outside of specialist groups. But it’s not without merit and sonically it’s just jazz taken to its furthest reaches. Not only are melody and rhythm forsaken but even the cyclical connection of starting and ending keys becomes lost in the intellectualism. Elements of this style went on to influence punk and electronic music; it still finds a small but dedicated audience. Perhaps you might join them; they need the support.