About KFJC
Program Schedule
Specials and Events
Donations and Swag
Music and Playlists
Broadcast Archives
KFJC Music Reviews
  KFJC 89.7 FM

George Crumb “Voice of the Whale” [Black Box]

Excellent CD of music by the highly esteemed Philadelphia-based composer George Crumb (b. 1929).

Makrokosmos Book I – Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano (1972)
A landmark piece in exploring sonic opportunities available to a pianist, upstaging Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and blowing anything Cowell wrote out of the cosmos. The title undoubtedly refers to the Bartok piano masterpiece Mikrokosmos, but resembles it only in scope and ambition. Crumb’s labyrinthian score (a work of art unto itself) requires the pianist to play, plink, plunk, prepare, whistle, wail, and amplify (and at one point pour glass marbles into it). The performance grows out of a gloomy primordial ooze and turns into a deeply spiritual cosmic meditation for listener, with frequent allusions to Messiaen and a few other familiar sounds. A tremendous recording by Andrew Russo of the first of the four Makrokosmos books. DJs, be careful with your levels, there are frightening leaps of volume.

For a glimpse of the gorgeous score to part 12, Spiral Galaxy [Symbol] – Aquarius, visit:


A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 for piano (1980)
With its nativity theme and Rugglesian insistence on particular chord clusters and their colors, Messiaen is again brought to mind, especially in the opening and closing movements (refer to the Vingt Regards). This piece is played almost entirely on the keyboard (exception made for the hanging, frozen-in-time Canticle), but this gives Andrew Russo more opportunity to show off a wider range of his pianism, notably the wooden sound he achieves in the Nativity Dance.

Vox Balaenae (1971) (‘Voice of the Whale?)
In 1969, Crumb was inspired to write this piece after hearing a recording of whale songs. He doesn’t attempt to just represent them onomatopoeically, but instead transports you to their realm. You are immersed in the icy waters, at unsupportable pressures, and serenaded by amplified flute, cello, and piano. There is a visual aspect to any performance that can’t be registered on CD: the performers are wearing black masks and the stage is bathed in deep blue light. Conchord (the performing trio) probably didn’t bother for this recording. The piece opens on a whalesong flute cadenza, where the flutist sings while playing (is there a word for this technique yet? kirkifies?). For the middle section (apparently a theme and variations), time flies by as you sit entranced, listening to harmonic glissandos and aeolian strums and breathy fluting. You don’t even notice time has passed until the majestic finale ‘Sea Nocturne (…for the end of time)? begins, in a sudden wash of B-major tonality. The effect is enhanced by the cello’s B-F#-D#-A scordatura, and when they begin to play the crotales as well, you are launched to whale heaven in music that recalls Takemitsu and the finale of Gubaidulina’s ‘Canticle of the Sun?. Compare to the old Columbia recording on vinyl that we have!

A website with details on preparation and performance of Vox Balaenae:


For more music inspired by whales, see also:

Laurie Anderson’s ‘Songs and Stories from Moby Dick?
Alan Hovhaness? ‘And God Created Great Whales?
Ludmilla Ulehla’s “Elegy for a Whale” (1975)
John Cage’s “Litany for the Whale” (1980) — maybe?

Got more? Add them to the comments section!

-Cujo, KFJC, November 2005

  • Reviewed by cujo on December 15, 2005 at 2:12 pm
  • Filed as A Library,CD
  • 1 comment

  • One Comment

    Another whale-inspired album:

    Jade Warrior’s “Waves” (1975)

  • Comment by Dave Platt, March 7th, 2008 6:09 pm

  • Comment on this review


     Copyright © 2018   KFJC 89.7 FM
    12345 S. El Monte Road   Los Altos Hills, California   94022   phones