Makrokosmos I: Extended Piano Techniques in George Crumb’s Work

Büyükyıldırım B. L.

Konservatoryum, vol.7, no.2, pp.105-126, 2020 (Peer-Reviewed Journal)

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 7 Issue: 2
  • Publication Date: 2020
  • Doi Number: 10.26650/cons2020-0012
  • Journal Name: Konservatoryum
  • Journal Indexes: TR DİZİN (ULAKBİM)
  • Page Numbers: pp.105-126
  • Istanbul University Affiliated: Yes


The paper purposes to inform readers about the advanced piano techniques used in George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I, one of the most significant piano repertoires of the twentieth century. It also attempts to illuminate features to be considered while working on the piece. Composers throughout history have created cycles of piano works; for example, Johan Sebastian Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, Frédéric Chopin’s Etudes & Preludes, Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Dmitry Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues, and Debussy’s Preludes. Crumb’s methods of writing a cycle comprise aspects such as prepared piano, plucking strings, laying a metal chain on strings, some vocal techniques, playing on keys, as well as amplification. These techniques were previously used by John Cage, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, and Henry Cowell. Advanced piano techniques involve using the inner and outer parts, strings, soundboard, steel features, and wood parts of the piano as instruments that supplement the sounds produced only by the keys. This technique incorporates the playing of various objects and materials, and even includes the use of human voices. Numerous works have been composed using this technique, which became quite widespread after the first half of the 20th century. 

This study discusses the musical context of the composer in terms of numerology, notation, symmetrical relationships, and the composers who influenced him. It examines extended piano techniques through the analysis of personal performance notes and notations. Unusual sounds incorporated in the piece such as pizzicato, muted strings, glissandos, overtones, percussion effects on the soundboard, chain, thimble, plectrum, whistle, and vocal effects will be examined through the author’s numerous performances of this work. Articles by David Burge, to whom the piece was dedicated, as well as books, interviews, and personal experiences, are referenced as sources for the present study. The study also examines potential technical problems that may occur during the performance of this oeuvre. The arguments or the study are posited through subjective experience attained through the performance of this work on various brands and models of pianos and in halls with differing acoustic conditions. The suggestions tendered in the paper are obtained through the analysis of the score as well as the performance notes, and the conclusions are derived from the performance of the piece.  

The two sections of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos are divided into three parts each, which are themselves sectioned into four segments meant to be played without interruption. Crumb designed the last four parts of the three divisions of the two sections as symbols: for example, in Volume I, piece number 4, “Crucifixus” is presented as a cross; piece number 8, “The Magic Circle of Infinity” is noted as circle; and piece number 12, “Spiral Galaxy” is displayed as a spiral. In this manner, Crumb connected this musical venture to the star signs of the Zodiac.

Each of the twelve fantasy pieces is labeled with a Zodiac sign of the zodiac and with the initials of someone born under that sign: a friend, colleague, family member, or respected composer. In both volumes, the pianist must not only to play in and out of the piano, but also whistle, sing, shout, and whisper in varied and specified ways. Singing is always notated only in the bass clef because the pianist-dedicatees of each volume are men; women may transpose pitches up an octave. Whistling is notated at an exact pitch; the whistling requirements in both volumes are demanding and most performers need to devote extended practice time to develop the range, breath control, and precise intonations to deliver an accurate and effective performance. For a competent performance of the work, it is recommended that performers work simultaneously on the musical and performance notes, paying attention to markings, selecting an appropriate piano for the piece, and choosing suitable objects and materials. The amplification of dramatic effects in the performance is also emphasized. While Crumb uses traditional musical, compositional, and pianistic techniques in Makrokosmos I; however, he also contrasts the conventional aspects with advanced piano techniques used by numerous composers of the period including John Cage and Henry Cowell. Therefore, performers must aim to improve their skills in the extended piano techniques required to interpret the work and to deliver an apposite performance.

Bu makalede, George Crumb’ın Makrokosmos I eserinde kullanılan ‘gelişmiş piyano teknikleri’ne odaklanılmakta, bu tekniğin uygulanmasıyla ilgili bestecinin yorumlarını aktararak icra esnasında dikkat edilmesi gereken noktalara ışık tutmak istenmektedir. Eserin ithaf edildiği piyanist ve icracıların yorumlarıyla birlikte, yazar tarafından eserin icrası yoluyla edinilen çeşitli edimler aktarılmaktadır. Bestecinin müziksel geçmişi; sıradışı tınılar, numeroloji, notasyon, simetrik ilişkiler üzerinden incelenirken, eserde karşımıza çıkacak olan pizzicato, telleri susturarak çalma, glissandolar, doğuşkanlar, ses tahtasında çıkan perküsif efektler, zincir, yüksük, pena, ıslık ve vokal efektler gibi alışılagelmişin dışında olan çalış teknikleri, önerilen yöntem ve materyaller aktarılmıştır. Bu konuda David Burge’nin makale, kitap, söyleşilerinden faydalanılmıştır. Eserin performans notları öncelikli kaynak olmakla birlikte, Crumb hakkında yapılan çalışmalardan derlenen bilgiler ışığında, eserin icrası sırasında oluşabilecek teknik sorunlar aktarılmaktadır. Bu aktarımları, eserin çeşitli piyanolarda ve salonlarda icrası sayesinde edinilen öznel deneyimlerle, hem nota hem de performans üzerine yapılan teknik analizler vasıtasıyla elde edilen sonuç ve öneriler oluşturmaktadır. Böylelikle eseri yorumlamak için gerekli olan gelişmiş piyano tekniklerinde icra sırasında karşılaşılabilecek performansa ilişkin sorunlara yönelik bir öngörü sunmak amaçlanmıştır. Eserin nitelikli icrası için; eserin nota ve performans notlarının beraber değerlendirilmesi, işaretlemeler, esere uygun piyano seçimi, obje ve materyal seçimlerinde önem gerektiren hususlara dikkat çekilmekte; dramatik efektlerin icrasında özen ve amplifikasyonun önemi vurgulanmaktadır.