The most unusual modern music composition, called “Vox Balaenae” (The Voice of the Whale) and composed by American George Crumb in honour of the conservation of humpback whales, was performed for the first time in Cape Town to the great delight of the delegates attending the closing evening of the UCT Summer School at the Baxter Concert Hall this week.
The composer prescribes that his music should not only be enjoyed musically, but also theatrically, and therefore the hall must be darkened, and the musicians must perform under a blue light. They also must wear goggles, to set the scene for what is to come. The piano, cello and flute were amplified, which added to the whale-like sound effects they created.
Respected musicians Albie van Schalkwyk on piano, Peter Martens on cello and Bridget Rennie-Salonen on flute and making the singing sounds of whales, recreated the sounds of the oceans, of seagulls, and of whales singing, breaching and blowing. One section even had a “Jaws” movie music sound to it. The instruments and their performers’ versatility was tested, with Rennie-Salonen having to sing and play the flute simultaneously; Martens had to tune the cello to be played in a different key; and Van Schalkwyk not only played the keys but also the strings inside the piano.
Crumb is in his eighties, and composed the piece in 1971. He is known for his unusual compositions, and for adding a theatrical dimension to them. In the notes to the CD-recording if this great work, Crumb writes as follows:
“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”.”
The UCT Summer School ‘Music in Miniature’ programme celebrated six centuries of sacred and secular compositions, and was presented by Barry Smith and Rodney Trudgeon. The ‘Voice of the Whale’ was the highlight of the week-long programme.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com