Think back to, say, 1970. The first baby boomers are now in college. Their dorm rooms resound to defining music: the luxuriant exuberance of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s,” the austerity — single, soft notes in a limitless void — of George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children.” Thirty years later, Sgt. Pepper still commands his battalions. And so, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic proved over the past few days of its belated George Crumb 70th birthday celebration — the actual date was Oct. 29 — does the great and much-loved American original.
Two concerts in chamber music-sized halls drew capacity, cheering crowds, ranging in age from ex-boomer to undergrad; a free Sunday morning get-together (for talk, bagels and more music) was similarly well attended. In his tattered cardigan and work shirt, more like a favorite uncle just in from the shed than one of America’s most distinguished musical innovators, Crumb beamed his obvious approval, and came onstage to jiggle a bunch of off-the-wall percussion instruments to join guitarist David Starobin in a new work, “Mundus Canis,” a set of tiny portraits of Crumb family dogs (dachshunds, mostly) past and present.
Like the earlier American original Charles Ives, to whose musical ideals his own bear some resemblance, Crumb often slips a reminiscence of his home territory — in his case, West Virginia — into his music.
A recent work called “Quest,” performed at the last of the Philharmonic tribute concerts — also written for guitarist Starobin and recorded on Starobin’s Bridge label — spreads a line or two from “Amazing Grace” across the starscape.
From the “Night Music II” of 1964 to the doggie kibbles of 1997, the range nicely surveyed in the Philharmonic series, Crumb’s music has rolled forth with remarkable consistency; he does not, in his words, “see the need some composers have to redefine oneself with every new piece.” His earmarks include a tendency to create musical lines out of spangles: bits and pieces of isolated, glittering tones suggesting the outlines of a vast continuum.
He draws some of his tones from sources charming and unexpected: a toy piano, stroked drinking glasses, dime-store slide whistles. Much of it rests on the edge of silence, but in his 1970 string-quartet piece “Black Angels,” written to protest the Vietnam War, the rude, amplified sounds resonate in your teeth as well as your ears. The memory of Vietnam may have receded, but George Crumb’s angry and heartfelt masterpiece, played with appropriate fury by four Philharmonic musicians at the first of these concerts, brilliantly proclaims its lessons.