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About this Piece

Composed: 1984
Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (almglocken, bass drums, Cambodian angklungs, Caribbean steel drum, chimes, Chinese temple gongs, claves, crotales, cuica, flexatone, glass wind chimes, glockenspiel, guiro, hammered dulcimer, kabuki blocks, maraca, marimba, rute, sandblocks, sleigh bells, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tam-tams, temple blocks, tom-tom, vibraphone, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 19, 1987, Zubin Mehta conducting

The notion of musical space inspires such uniquely colorful soundscapes from George Crumb you can hardly avoid dreaming up your own spooky narrative to accompany them. Still, the composer insists that A Haunted Landscape “is not programmatic in any sense.” The urge behind it was to express his feeling that “certain places on the planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery” and of ancient histories that still penetrate contemporary consciousness – whether Jerusalem, Delphi, or the woods of Crumb’s native West Virginia, where “one senses the ghosts of the vanished Indians.” Crumb floats the idea that “perhaps music is an ideal medium for delineating the tiny, subtle nuances of emotion and sensibility that hover between the subliminal and the conscious” when contemplating a landscape.

Subtlety abounds to an extraordinary degree in A Haunted Landscape. Two double basses (with retuned strings) sustain an almost imperceptible low B-flat as a kind of “cosmic drone” throughout. Much of this single-movement musical poem involves shades on the quiet side of the dynamic range – and an unsettling field of silence, from which sounds emerge. In addition to its traditional orchestral forces, the score employs four percussion players who are given an ethnomusicology museum’s worth of unusual instruments to play: steel drums, kabuki blocks, Cambodian angklungs, Brazilian drums, Appalachian hammered dulcimer, and so on. The almost ritual sonic impressions they produce blend with the eerie modernisms of an amplified piano.

Crumb numbers Béla Bartók (along with Debussy and Mahler) among his major influences, and A Haunted Landscape presses the genre of night music to extremes. Along with the underlying “cosmic drone” of the basses, a unifying element is provided by a kind of five-note knocking motif. But Crumb keeps our interest clearly focused on the moment-by-moment emergence of events, even while building to a big climax about two-thirds of the way through the piece.

These events have a remarkably spatial, almost “3D” feel, emerging as foreground from an omnipresent, ominous background. Strings sound in triads of blissful peace (a hint of Ives’ The Unanswered Question) but are outnumbered by the mysterious resonances coming out of black silence. Brass meanwhile suggest an imminent cataclysm but retreat. Crumb’s palette has a precision of nuance and specificity that brings Takemitsu’s sound gardens to mind, while his subtle alterations of color from one source to another are akin to Schoenberg’s and Webern’s painting with Klangfarbenmelodie (literally, “tone-color-melody”). The ghostly knockings come to dominate in the final minutes of the piece – a musical cipher for the persistence of memory in this multilayered landscape.

- Thomas May writes and lectures about music and the arts.