Vox Balaenae [La Voix des baleines]

Program note

Crumb developed a host of “extended techniques,” or new ways of producing sound from traditional instruments, and also championed unusual instruments including tuned “prayer stones” and a musical saw. Vox Balaenae (1971) or Voice of the Whale, which was inspired by the singing of humpback whales, requires the flutist to sing and play at the same time, and the cellist to mimic the cries of a seagull. The three instruments—flute, cello, and piano—are all amplified. The cello is specially tuned (B-F#-D#-A, known as scordatura), and the score also calls for four “antique cymbals” to be played by the flutist and cellist. The pianist is required to reach inside the instrument to play pizzicato (plucking the strings) and harmonics (stopping
strings to produce ghostly partials). Many of Crumb’s chamber pieces exude a dramatic, or even theatrical, sensibility—including “Voice of the Whale.” Each of the three performers is asked to wear a mask, and the stage is to be awash in deep-blue lighting. The composer explains: “The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature.”

The work falls in three parts: an opening vocalise, which Crumb describes as “a kind of cadenza for the flutist”; followed by five variations on the “sea theme”; and a concluding “Sea Nocturne.” The end of the cadenza is marked, ironically, by a quotation from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra—a rather portentous fanfare perhaps most familiar from its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. The ensuing variations are each named for a geological era, from the Archeozoic (maybe 3.8 billion years ago) through the Cenozoic Era, to the present. Gull cries echo at the opening, and Zarathustra returns at the end to announce the appearance of man. Crumb describes the final variation as being “dramatic, with a feeling of destiny.” The “Sea-Nocturne” is a final elaboration of the sea theme, a kind of cumulative variation that
features antique cymbals. Crumb hoped to suggest “a larger rhythm of nature” and a certain transcendence of chronological time; the eternal present is captured in music by a repeated 10- note figure that gradually escapes our hearing, yet still continues on.

copyright Elizabeth Bergman, International Contemporary Ensemble

Name of movements:

- Vocalise (... for the beginning of time)
- Variations on Sea-Time     
         Sea Theme    
         Archeozoic [var. I]    
         Proterozoic [var. II]    
         Paleozoic [var. III]    
         Mesozoic [var. IV]    
         Cenozoic [var. V]
- Sea-Nocturne (... for the end of time)


Year of composition
C flute /
Cello /
Prepared piano /

Last performances