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1. Pastoral Sounds
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A Broken Idyll: Post-Pastoralism in the Works of George Crumb

Kristina KNOWLES


Pastoral is one of the oldest and most enduring musical topics, yet most scholarship exploring it in music ends with the beginning of the twentieth century. This paper seeks to examine the expression of the pastoral in the musical output of post-modern composer, George Crumb. In doing so, I argue that the concept of post-pastoralism put forth by Terry Gifford may provide a valuable lens through which to understand musical expressions of the pastoral in the post-modern era. The article ends with a close reading of George Crumb’s chamber work, An Idyll for the Misbegotten, examining the ways in which this musical text sonically evokes post-pastoral sentiments.

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1. The question of the pastoral in music

Pastoral’s concern with time is what, first and foremost, renders it universal, for it is one of the most deeply rooted instincts of mankind to claim that the world is too much with us and to find an escape from the overwhelming present in a sanctified past or in some indistinct and redeeming future. (Marinelli 9-10)

1In this quote, Peter Marinelli describes the pastoral as a need to escape from the harsh reality of the world, a desire which extends beyond any one time or place in history. Adaptable and malleable to the unique problems and societal issues of any given period, the pastoral is ubiquitous. As Raymond Monelle has observed, “pastoralism is one of the most ancient, and longest lived, of all literary and culture genres” (The Musical Topic 185). Present in literature, art, and music of different times and places, recreated and reinterpreted for each new age, the pastoral topic has numerous signifiers and a multitude of meanings while simultaneously retaining an underlying essence which makes it identifiable despite its various guises. In literature the initiation of the pastoral genre is commonly identified with the Idylls of Theocritus and Virgil’s Eclogues, while in music the case has been made that the pastoral has been present from the onset of notated music. According to Monelle, “the tradition encompasses the whole of the noted repertoire, beginning with the troubadour pastourelles and Adam de la Halle’s Jeu de Robin et Marion (thirteenth century) and leading, through the madrigal, early opera, the Arcadian movement, Romantic nature worship, to the songs of Debussy and Strauss’s Daphne” (ibid.).

2Musical studies have identified numerous instantiations and a variety of musical signifiers for the pastoral topic, including elements such as rhythm, harmony, instrumentation, and texture. From such undertakings, musicologists have identified sub-topics of the pastoral, writing on the differentiating features (and shared similarities) between the pastorale, the musette, and the siciliana. Yet while literary scholars have carried the pastoral forward into the twentieth-century, investigating new meanings and theorizing about post-pastoral aspirations, musicologists by and large abandoned the pastoral in the Romantic period, leaving the question of how contemporary composers have reinterpreted the pastoral topic unanswered. As can be seen above, Monelle’s impressive enumeration of the long history of the pastoral ends with the beginning of the twentieth-century, omitting entirely the post-modern repertoire. Such an omission is understandable given the typical signifiers of the pastoral identified thus far; the rhythmically irregular and fragmentary nature of many non-tonal compositions found in the twentieth-century renders common signifiers such as rhythm, harmony, and phrasing obsolete. Furthermore, the abandonment of what had been a unifying musical language with the advent of atonality and the celebratory “emancipation of dissonance” at the turn of the century makes the identification of shared signifiers for any one musical topic difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, as Monelle himself notes, “new signifiers are needed for the authentic pastoral sentiments of modern times” (The Musical Topic 249).

3This study is a preliminary attempt at answering Monelle’s call for an investigation of new pastorals in music. As such it will focus on the compositional output of one post-modern composer whose work is permeated with pastoral concerns. I will argue that George Crumb can be understood as a pastoralist, expressing both an affinity for nature and the pastoral sentiment as well as an environmental anxiety fostered by a growing awareness of the ravages caused by industrialization and urbanization. More specifically, I suggest that in this latter concern for the destruction of the earth at the hands of mankind, much of Crumb’s musical output denotes a musical expression of post-pastoralism.

4The term, originally coined by Terry Gifford, is intended as a means of enabling an environmental aesthetic concerned with the state of the natural world to “sift the ‘sentimental pastoral’ from the ‘complex pastoral’ in a way which takes account of the urgent need for responsibility and, indeed, advocacy for the welfare of Arden” (149). In his monograph, Pastoral, he proposes six qualities of post-pastoral literature (152-165). The first two entail (1) an awe or a divine respect of the natural world along with (2) a recognition of the creative-destructive balance, often expressed in cycles of birth and death, growth and decay. Gifford suggests that post-pastoralism expresses a symbiotic relationship between man’s understanding of self and nature, both through (3) a recognition that the external qualities of nature can shed light on our inner human nature, the two informing one another, and (4) an awareness of nature as culture and culture as nature. The post-pastoral also involves an ecocritical stance, acknowledging that (5) “with consciousness comes conscious” (Gifford 163)––our awareness of nature and ecological concerns gives us a responsibility towards other species and the well-being of the environment. Finally, (6) post-pastoralism calls for an awareness that the same mindset that leads to the exploitation of the planet results in the exploitation of women and minorities. Many of these qualities underlie Crumb’s compositional output and reflect his stance towards nature and man’s relationship to the environment. In what follows, I will make the case for Crumb as a pastoral composer and explore how post-pastoral elements are present in his music, specifically his ecological compositions Vox Balaenae (1971) and Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985).

2. Crumb as pastoralist

5George Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1929. A child of two accomplished musicians, he began musical training early in life, receiving rudimentary composition lessons from his father and studying piano with a local teacher. He continued his studies of piano and composition in college, going on to receive a Masters at the University of Illinois and a DMA from the University of Michigan, where he studied under Ross Lee Finney. He eventually settled down as a Professor of Composition at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, where he remained until his retirement in 1999. While his compositional style remains unique, employing an expressivity and range of timbral effects that makes his music both instantly recognizable and broadly appealing, the influence of his favorite “modern” composers, Debussy, Mahler, and Bartók, can be seen in the pitch-language, rhythmic construction, and melodic style of his compositions. Other influences come from the unique soundscape of his childhood home; the Appalachian river valley was a landscape of “echoes and deep sounds,” sounds which Crumb observed “don’t want to die” (qtd. in Gillespie 270). Crumb described the aesthetic effect of the topography as “haunting” and noted that his upbringing in the Appalachian river valley, “meant that my ear was attuned to a peculiar echoing acoustic.” He also suggested that “this acoustic was ‘structured into’ my hearing, so to speak, and thus became the basic acoustic of my music”

6(Music 121). These persisting echoes can be found throughout his music, as sounds reverberating and decaying into silence populate his oeuvre, lending his music both a timeless quality and a sense of spatiality. Indeed, music journalist and long-time critic, James Keller, suggests that “Crumb’s work appear to us as connected to the real world beyond that of strictly human experience, in his case to a world that stretches across vast expanses of time and space” (7). He further argues that “Crumb’s music consistently conveys qualities that we encounter rarely in music: a grasp of time and place; an honoring of origins and of community; a sense of the visionary and the mysterious; a celebration of timeless emotions” (11). These observations highlight the influence of Crumb’s upbringing in the American pastoral landscape of the West Virginia hills and point to the pervading role of time and space in his music.

7These influences can be heard in his early compositions from the late 1960s, such as Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965) and Echoes of Time and the River (1967), broadening in later compositions such as Vox Balaenae (1971) and Black Angels (completed on Friday the thirteenth, March 1970, and annotated “in tempore belli”) to encompass themes such as creation, life, death, good and evil. Crumb’s compositional style was also marked by his discovery and subsequent relationship with the texts of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Don Gillespie notes that

in the stark simplicity and vivid imagery of the Spaniard’s haunting poems, Crumb found literary motives that ideally accommodate his new musical style […] life, death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of wind and sea, the innocence of children, the frozen nature of time, the pervading presence of evil in the world. (2005, 273)

8Many of these themes fit comfortably in the realm of traditional signifiers of the pastoral, and Crumb’s own concern with “man’s connection to the natural world” (Idyll 4) provides further fodder for his pastoralist style.

3. Music and Nature

  • 1 For an in-depth discussion on the stylistic connections between Debussy, Bartók, and Crumb, see Ric (...)
  • 2 In addition to similarities in pitch language and references to Bartók’s “Night Music,” Crumb share (...)

9A self-proclaimed lover of nature, Crumb identifies a similar affinity for nature in many of his favorite composers, noting “I’ve always loved Mahler’s music, and he says it’s like a sound of nature sometimes” (qtd. in Hobbs 27). A close connection to nature can also be heard in the music of Debussy and Bartók, two composers who have been considered Crumb’s musical predecessors.1 Crumb notes that “Debussy is full of nature,” and describes Bartók’s music as “evocations” of a “love of nature––of nature in music” (ibid.). Indeed, many have suggested that the infamous and eerie insects found in Black Angels originate in the insects of Bartók’s “Night Music.”2 In an article on the future of music, Crumb suggests that the relationship between music and nature may be a solution for contemporary composers, noting “perhaps many of the perplexing problems of the new music could be put into a new light if we were to reintroduce the ancient idea of music being a reflection of nature” (Music 119). Such sentiments reflect Crumb’s view that music is deeply connected with nature, and has the power to both represent nature and to bring man into a closer relationship with the environment.

  • 3 Those interested in these more traditional signifiers of the pastoral should refer to Raymond Monel (...)

10While Crumb can be viewed as a pastoral composer, both the signifiers of the pastoral and their subsequent meaning have changed from earlier iterations of the musical pastoral. As alluded to earlier, traditional evocations of the pastoral, be it as a musical topic or an instantiation of a pastoral genre, were associated with elements such as a drone, harmonization in thirds, and a simple rocking back and forth, signifiers which can be traced back to the zampogna, a type of bagpipe native to Southern Italy and associated with local shepherds (Monelle The Musical Topic 2006). Other signifiers include the flute, whose significance as a pastoral instrument arose in response to confusion over the traditional shepherd’s pipe, a double-reed instrument known as the aulos, along with the syrinx, or “pan-pipes,” which eventually took on mythological significance, with its allusion to the story of Pan and the Syrinx. The pastoral in music has also come to be associated with simple and repetitive melodies, lilting rhythms, harmonizations utilizing the subdominant, and even phrases, along with more explicit references, such as the allusions to bird-songs found in the works of Joseph Haydn and references to Volkslied in the works of composers like Brahms and Mahler.3

11Though retaining a small handful of these signifiers, Crumb has by and large developed new methods for representing the pastoral in his music. While not all of his pieces engage in pastoral expression, concerns with nature, land, geography and symbolic references to animals, which in turn stand in for various larger themes such as innocence, death, timelessness, creation, and the earth, are found in many of his pieces. As noted above, Crumb believes that the “ancient idea” of music as a “reflection of nature” provides the answer to many of the problems facing contemporary music. This “ancient idea,” which he attributes to the Greeks’ belief that art should imitate nature, is articulated in his own music through artistic representations of natural sounds. While he acknowledges that “there’s probably some larger meaning that they [the Greeks] had in mind,” he suggests that this concept of art imitating nature can also have more simple meanings, “the sounds of the wind, the ocean, the birds, the insects, those are immediate models for musical gestures” (qtd. in Hobbs 28). In many ways, Crumb’s pastoral evocations reside in the representation of these natural sounds and their references to larger themes. He noted, “in a larger sense, the rhythms of nature––large and small, the sounds of wind and water, the sounds of birds and insects––must inevitably find their analogues in music” (1980, 121). Use of the flute as well as the voice to imitate and represent the sounds of birds, along with the aforementioned insects, can be seen in a number of his compositions. Other, more explicit references to animal sounds can also be found, such as the coo of a “turtle-dove,” a lion’s roar, and the call of sea-gulls, to name but a few.

12While these elements reflect an awe and respect for nature (the first post-pastoral quality referenced at the beginning of this article), death and decay are also present in Crumb’s pastoral. Consider, for example, the fifth movement of Apparition (1979), “Come lovely and soothing death…” and the vocalise which precedes it, entitled “Death carol (“Song of the nightbird”).” Crumb’s setting of Walt Whitman’s text draws motivically from the “bird-song” of the vocalise, connecting the nightbird’s “death carol” with the singer’s haunting call for the “soothing” embrace of death. Crumb has also explored the darker pastoral theme of lost innocence, most notably in his chamber work Ancient Voices of Children (1970), one of his Lorca compositions. Particularly notable is his setting of the text for the fourth movement: “Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño [Each afternoon in Granada, a child dies each afternoon].” The slow and haunting quality of this movement, with its buzzing drones and hymn-like melodic lines, creates an elegiac atmosphere. The setting of the Bach quotation, an excerpt from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach played on a toy piano, evokes the sounds of a music box and adds a macabre, almost grotesque effect to the composition when viewed in light of the text.

4. The ecological compositions

13Though many of his compositions reference pastoral themes, two of his pieces were intentionally written to be ecological compositions. The first of these is his chamber work entitled Vox Balaenae (1971), the “Voice of the Whale.” This work for amplified flute, cello, and piano, was originally commissioned for the New York Camerata. The cellist, Charles Forbes, came across tapes of whale songs made by marine biologist Roger Paine, who was the first to record the sounds of whales through the use of microphones placed in the water. Forbes sent the tapes to Crumb, requesting that he use them in some way for the piece they had commissioned. In an interview several decades later, Crumb recalls being “blown away” by the whale songs, using them as a point of departure for Vox Balaenae and noting that the sounds “suggested a lot of the kind of echoing, submarine-sound environment” that he built into the piece (qtd. in Hobbs 26-27). While certain moments within the piece are clear efforts to artistically represent whale songs, the composition as a whole is rife with symbolism relating to the cycles of creation and destruction, timelessness, and the life-giving force of the ocean. In his performance directions, Crumb indicates that the performers are to wear masks throughout the performance, which, “by effacing a sense of human projection, will symbolize the powerful forces of nature dehumanized” (Vox Balaenae 3). He also notes that the piece can be performed under a “deep-blue” stage lighting in order to enhance the desired effect. While Crumb has received criticism for these and other similar theatrics for their eccentricity and connection to mysticism, they also speak to his commitment to creating a holistic experience for the listener––in this case a sense of immersion in the primordial waters.

14Within the opening movement, the timbre of the flute is altered by having the performer sing while simultaneously playing the instrument, creating a sound that is neither voice nor flute but an otherworldly combination of the two, both primitive and fantastic. Combined with the predominant use of the minor pentatonic scale and strange undulating calls that punctuate the chant-like melody of the voiced flute, the sound-world of this “vocalise” evokes a time outside of time, before time, an invocation of the creation of the earth. This allusion to the beginning of creation is furthered by the parody of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, an intertextual reference to both the opening fanfare of the composer’s work (appropriately titled “Sunrise”) as well as to the infamous use of this same fanfare in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released three years prior to Vox Balaenae. Following this quotation, the piano enters for the first time, sounding a loud and dramatic chord, followed by a ponderous and heavy alternation of a minor third in the lower register of the piano, the regular oscillation between the two notes bringing to mind both the sound of heavy footfalls, potentially symbolizing the arrival of man, and the “tick-tock” of a clock, signaling the “beginning of time.”

  • 4 The Archeozoic eon is actually the second of the three geological eons, the first being originally (...)
  • 5 This quote comes from Crumb’s annotations to his list of compositions, which can be found in George (...)

15The middle movement of the work, “Variations on a Sea-Theme” is organized as a Theme and Variations, the five variations named after various geological eons and eras arranged in chronological order, beginning with the Archeozoic eon4 and ending with the Cenozoic era, which encompasses the present day. These variations are full of strange sounds, furious gestures and echoing motives. At times, animal references are identifiable, such as the seagulls at the beginning of the “Archezoic” variation. Another, partial reference to the previous parody of Also Sprach Zarathustra signifies the emergence of man in the Cenozoic era (Mac Lean 24), the title of the final variation. The heavy oscillating minor third from the first movement also reappears, carrying with it references to the footfalls of man and the passage of time. The final movement of the work, entitled “Sea Nocturne (…for the end of time)” begins with a haunting whistling melody reminiscent of whale song, the slow and contemplative temporality evoked by this movement standing in contrast with the, at times, frenetic sounds of the variations. At the end of the movement, the clock motif returns, but rather than leading into frenzied activity it is followed by a reprise of the opening whale song. The piece ends with the gradual decay of a motive reminiscent of the waves of the ocean, each repetition fading into longer and longer silences, gradually decaying dynamically into nothing. This effect creates for the listener a perception of time progressively slowing until it dissolves completely, dying away into silence. Indeed, the experience of timelessness was an aesthetic goal of the composer, who notes “in composing the Sea-Nocturne I wanted to suggest a ‘larger rhythm of nature’ and a sense of suspension in time”.5 The final movement, peaceful and majestic though it may be, also carries with it a darker warning of the precarious future of the whales, and by extension, all forms of natural life. The gradual dissolution of the music into nothing at the end of the piece can be read as the gradual disappearing of species as they become extinct, wiped from the surface of the earth and the passage of time.

16This concern for the fragility of species approaching extinction and the role mankind has played in the destruction of the planet is taken up in his later composition, An Idyll for the Misbegotten (hereafter Idyll). Gillespie notes that “If Vox Balaenae only hints at the possibility of eventual extinction of animal life, the later An Idyll for the Misbegotten shows Crumb’s ecological concerns more openly” (273). A concern for the current state of the environment was a conscious influence on both of these compositions. In a 2009 interview, Crumb states that while “a lot of things are sort of subconscious in composition,” the conception of Idyll as “an environmental piece” was “definitely conscious” (qtd. in Hobbs 27). He goes on to note that Vox Balaenae and Idyll are “kind of alike…I was so conscious, in both pieces, of the danger, the extinction of the whales, the earth degenerating or being threatened” (ibid.). It is worth noting that both of these pieces, the former written in 1971, the latter in 1985, were composed during the rise of the environmental movement, motivated by increasing concerns over the pollution and poisoning of the environment through industrial practices and a growing awareness of the ecological cost of modern society that was, in part, sparked by Rachel Carson’s environmental exposé, Silent Spring in 1962. The decades of Crumb’s compositional activity leading up to Idyll saw the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the founding of Greenpeace, and attempts to preserve disappearing wildlife through the Endangered Species Act. In many ways, Idyll represents a conscious effort to express deeply ecological concerns, taking a critical stance on man’s current relationship with nature and participating in the growing conversation about environmental issues. Crumb’s concern that “mankind has become ever more ‘illegitimate’ in the natural world” (Idyll 3) expresses sentiments that parallel those of deep ecology, an ecological and environmental philosophy associated with Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss and connected to scientific ecology by Bill Devall and George Sessions’ book, Deep Ecology, which was written in the same year as Idyll. While Vox Balaenae expressed several of the post-pastoral qualities referenced earlier, such as an awe of nature, the cycles of creation and destruction and, in its larger message, a call for man to take up responsibility for the fate of endangered species, Idyll is also a more explicit post-pastoral composition. In what follows, I will provide a close reading of Idyll, considering the ways in which this it encapsulates Crumb’s ecological concerns and is emblematic of a post-pastoral piece.

5. Post-pastoralism in Crumb’s Idyll

17The title of the work, An Idyll for the Misbegotten bears examination, as it suggests from the outset a deeper meaning. The word idyll derives from the Greek eidyllion, which means “little picture,” and typically refers to short, descriptive poems of a rustic or pastoral nature. A prime example would be William Blake’s “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence.

How sweet is the Shepherd’s sweet lot,
From the morn to the evening he strays:
He shall follow his sheep all the day
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.

For he hears the lambs’ innocent call,
And he hears the ewes’ tender reply,
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh. (20)

18Blake paints a bucolic scene, depicting the innocent and carefree life of the shepherd and highlighting the peaceful and harmonious interdependence of shepherd and flock. While depictions of nature scenes, shepherds and shepherdesses, dancing, innocence, and love are all common themes for the typical idyll, the darker quality underlying Crumb’s Idyll, along with the addition of For the Misbegotten, suggests a potential subversion of the normally bucolic genre, expressing both grief and frustration at the current state of the earth and the “fateful and melancholy predicament” of man (Crumb, Idyll 3). The term “misbegotten” is an explicit reference to man and his current (dis)connection with nature, its implications of something poorly conceived and contemptible appropriate ascriptions of man’s ill-gotten relationship with the environment. Crumb’s elegiac lament that “the ancient sense of brotherhood with all life-forms…has gradually and relentlessly eroded, and consequently we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world” (ibid.), suggests another meaning of “misbegotten”—that of illegitimacy, a disharmony with nature that renders man illicit in the world of plants and animals. The implication that this Idyll is meant for the “misbegotten” race of man suggests a reparative program underlying the work, an effort to both educate and reform man’s connection to nature. The indication that the work should be “heard from afar, over a lake” suggests that Crumb intended to convey both distance and inaccessibility, separating the audience from the performance space of the Idyll while simultaneously evoking a visceral connection to natural landscapes.

19The composition itself is a chamber work written for flute and three percussionists. In the program notes, Crumb refers to these instruments as “the voice of nature,” and later in an interview he describes the flute and drum as “two primeval instruments” found in every culture (qtd. in Hobbs 27). This view of the flute is further supported by his performance indication at the beginning of the piece, which suggests that the flute should be played “like a primitive instrument.” This is not the flute of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, or even Stravinsky; this is a primal flute, a flute of bone, of wood. Thus, from the onset the use of the instruments is intended to evoke both a prehistoric time and space as well as represent the natural world. The opening melody is both simple and haunting, the measured, written out vibrato over the sustained tone further distancing the flute from its context within classical repertoire, simultaneously rendering it “unnatural” (the typical flute vibrato being free and unmeasured) and “natural.” The sound of the pulsed vibrato brings to mind the call of birds, such as the chatter song of the oriole or the song of the northern flicker. Other instances of more explicit references to bird calls can be found throughout this opening, including the coo of a turtle-dove, created by bending a pitch while performing a tritone tremolo. The use of other bended pitches following the opening gesture contributes to the haunting atmosphere and primeval quality.

  • 6 Gifford observes that references to an untamed or wild landscape are more common in American expres (...)
  • 7 Karol Berger discusses the distinction between mythical or ritualistic time and historical time as (...)

20The opening of Idyll is important not only for its establishment of place, in this case, a primitive and wild nature populated with animals,6 but also for its evocation of time, or more specifically, of timelessness. As alluded to by Marinelli in the quote that began this article, time is an important component in the pastoral, one which has received less attention from musicologists. The desire to escape to a “sanctified past” or an “indistinct, redeeming future” that so commonly characterizes the pastoral urge is underlaid with a desire to remove oneself from the ravages of time and the perils of progress, to a time out of time. Raymond Monelle highlights the idea of a frozen present often associated with the pastoral, noting “in pastoralism, as in music, there is no conceptual ‘real’ […] time is suspended in a lyric present” (The Musical Topic 189). Rebecca Leydon also mentions the “static temporality […] typical of the pastoral mode” (161) while Thomas Peattie suggests that this added temporal dimension gained emphasis in the nineteenth century, citing Wagner’s use of repetition as a means of suspending time and evoking the pastoral (186). In describing Mikhail Bakhtin’s characterization of the idyll, Richard Will observes “if time enters the idyll at all it does so only in the form of such renewable cycles as are represented by the generations of the family, the season, or the hours of the day” (317). These quotations suggest a number of signifiers for pastoral notions of time, such as a lost past, a redeeming future, cycles, nature, stasis, and timelessness. Most of these signifiers involve a relatively static temporality in which events either repeat in endless circles, reflecting a divine or sacred cultural conception of time rather than the linearity of secular and historical time,7 or are frozen in time, perhaps evoking a space that is removed from the natural flow of time and preserved in a crystalline state.

  • 8 This viewpoint is best expressed by Monelle, who observes we often forget that music can also sign (...)
  • 9 There are a large number of relevant studies on this topic. Some of the more useful articles relati (...)
  • 10 The silences in this opening passage are not acoustic silences, meaning that they are not absent of (...)

21This raises an interesting dilemma: how can music, commonly considered one of the most temporal art forms, existing only in and through time, evoke the concepts of timelessness, stasis, or the cycles of sacred time that are associated with the pastoral? After all, as David Epstein suggests, “music actually structures time–and the flow of time–in precise quanta and proportions, controlling this flow, its intensities, its direction, its speed, its goal orientation, to a degree unmatched in other domains of our temporal experience” (182). However, as a number of scholars have observed, there is a difference between the time a piece takes, and the time which a piece evokes perceptually for the listener.8 The notion that our experience of time is subjective and conditioned by our relationship to and interaction with events around us has a strong history in philosophy and is associated with thinkers such as Kant, Hume, Whitrow and Bergson. This in turn has influenced psychologists, inspiring research on the notion that “time is not an independent process but a relationship between a person and an experienced event” (Clifton 114). From their research, it is possible to assemble a list of musical elements which may create an experience of temporal expansion, evoking conceptually the notion of timelessness and leading the listener to ascribe their experience of the piece as timeless. These include a sparse texture, a low density of musical events, the absence of meter or any kind of predictive, temporal structure, and the interjection of long spans of silence.9 The opening of Crumb’s Idyll displays all of these elements; the solo flute melody playing short melodic gestures that fade into silences lasting several seconds.10 At intervals rapid, at others slow and haunting, the gestures defy any sense of meter or regularity, contributing to the timeless quality of this opening passage.

22The evocation of a primordial natural wilderness removed from (or outside of) the passage of time gradually shifts as the piece progresses. While the opening features the haunting calls of the flute, and the low distant roll of the bass drum, potentially representing the sound of distant thunder, a change is initiated at Rehearsal 2 with a canon between the drums, reminiscent of the kind of call and response patterns seen in African drumming. Following the entrance of the drums the flute becomes frantic, entering into a series of rapid, shrill gestures, the languid and sliding melody of the opening temporarily forgotten. The entrance of the drum canon at Rehearsal 2 and its subsequent effect on the flute suggests an intrusion into the sanctity of the wilderness, potentially representing the entrance of man. The ensuing dialogue between the drums and flute suggests interaction between man and nature, the even turn-taking implying a harmonious relationship. The middle passage of the piece, however, warns of the risk mankind poses to the previously untouched wilderness.

23Here, Crumb interweaves two quotations, one textual, one musical. The first consists of an excerpt from the eighth century Chinese poet Ssu-K’ung Shu: “The moon goes down. There are shivering birds and withering grasses” (Crumb Idyll 7). This text, though evoking the spirit of an ancient time, paints a dark picture of the world, implying “an atmosphere of decay and death” (Schmidt 176) which resonates with the lamenting quality of the Idyll. The musical quotation consists of the opening of Debussy’s Syrinx, a well-known solo work for flute that is itself a pastoral piece. The quotation is indicated in the score with quotation marks, a notational device Crumb uses in other compositions to mark musical quotations, and is an octave lower than the original, with slight modifications to the rhythm. The use of this particular motive from Debussy’s Syrinx is interesting, as Monelle refers to this gesture as a new type of pastoral topic created by Debussy to invoke “an ancient world, pagan, mysterious, sunlit.” He goes on to note “it may, indeed, be a pastoral world. But the image of innocence, of happy love, is rendered crystalline, is slightly colored with risk” (The Musical Topic 268). The “risk” to which Monelle refers may derive from the story of Pan and the Syrinx, the subject of Debussy’s Syrinx, which Crumb in turn evokes through his quotation of the piece. Though appearing in many forms, the most familiar version of this story can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. While out in the woods, the beautiful nymph Syrinx catches the eye of Pan. Denying his advances, she flees and, upon reaching the river Ladon, begs her sisters to hide her. They oblige, transforming her body into reeds. When he reaches the river, Pan only sees the reeds, which he cuts down into unequal lengths and binds together to form his pan-pipes, the sound of which Debussy seeks to evoke with his Syrinx.

24Crumb’s setting of the Debussy quotation, with its reference to the tragic tale of the nymph, in between recitations of lines from the Chinese poem, encourages a deeper, ecofeminist reading of the story. In cutting the reeds which form the converted body of Syrinx in order to fashion his pan-pipes, Pan enacts two forms of violence; first the exploitation of the body of Syrinx for his own purposes, and second the repossessing of the Syrinx’s voice, which can now only “speak” through Pan when he plays the pipes. The fact that Crumb chose to have the dark and foreboding text spoken by the flautist while also playing, creating a “speak-flute” utterance, creates an inhuman timbre that is part flute, part human, suggesting the disembodied voice of the Syrinx warning of the perils of exploiting the earth. As Tracey Schmidt notes, the traditional representation of Pan as half-man half-goat serves as a representation of our baser, animal instincts, the rape of the nymph resulting in a forced loss of innocence (174). Having the voice of the Syrinx utter the warning of “shivering birds and withering grasses,” the death and decay of the earth, suggests a parallel between Pan’s rape of the nymph and man’s rape of the environment, which has resulted in the exploitation of its natural resources at the cost of the earth and its animal inhabitants. As Crumb noted in an interview about Idyll:

People are almost illegitimate now, upsetting the natural scheme of things. They represent a danger to so many other forms of life. And in that sense we’ve passed from legitimacy to illegitimacy, occupying a place where, if we continue like this, we jeopardize at last even our own existence. (qtd. in Strickland 166)

25The passage following these quotations initiates a regular drum beat, shattering any remaining sense of timelessness and instead suggesting both the progress of time towards modernity and the sound of alternating footfalls, further signifying the intrusion of man into the idyll. Alternatively, the pulse established by the drums may represent the regularity of machinery, such as the war machines of industry. Though initially soft, the drums become ever louder and more insistent, the flute responding with furious flurries involving flutter tongue and multiphonics, further distorting the previously pure timbre of the flute. The increasing dynamics and ever more frantic gestures of the flute and drums depict “the chaotic din of the modern world,” and any lingering sense of tranquility completely eradicated (Schmidt 188). The frenzied activity reaches a climax around Rehearsal 16, ending with three resounding calls on the drum, seemingly announcing the destruction of our little idyll.

26The pastoral is characterized by a retreat and a return––a removal from the perils and corruption of town life to the tranquility and innocence of the country is inevitably followed by a return to the urban, ideally wiser, having achieved greater insight from the retreat to the pastoral. Crumb adds his own twist to this typical exchange. While he begins his Idyll in the untarnished primitive wilderness, depicting the gradual erosion of this time and space by the appearance of man and industrialization, his propensity for cycles and circular forms leads to a “return” to the opening idyll, first by recalling the dialogue between the flute and drum and then by returning to the opening melody of the Idyll at Rehearsal 21. However, there are changes that undermine the sense of a true “return” to the time and space evoked by the beginning of the work, implying that rather than a “return,” this passage may be a recollection of the former, untarnished idyll, or perhaps a dream of a potential future. The first change is the “whistle-tone” melody, appearing shortly after Rehearsal 19. The thin, plaintive sounds produced by the harmonics are fragile and haunting, representative of the frail and tenuous state of the idyll. Though the opening melody of the flute returns, rather than echoing into silence, its gestures are followed by calls on the drum, undermining the tranquility and timeless quality of the earlier idyll with the memory of what had transpired. The continual decrease in dynamics, rendering the sounds of the flute and drums ever more remote and distant, suggests a fading away, a gradual distancing or disappearance of the wilderness evoked by the melody. The dissonant and ever fading tremolos of the “turtle-dove” which end the piece convey a sense of unease and uncertainty. As Schmidt observes, “a sense of resolution is sought but not found” (184).

6. Conclusion

27In its concern with man’s relationship to nature and the current state of the environment, Crumb’s Idyll reveals the possibility for new versions of the pastoral in music of the post-modern era. Crumb’s “flawed idyll” (Strickland 166) may represent the most coherent post-pastoral composition within his oeuvre, yet an interest in and concern for nature permeates his musical output. Nor is Crumb alone in his morally-charged take on the pastoral. Consider the film Koyaanisqatsi, which has been deemed “one of the most coherent responses to the economic disparity and environmental degradation of the Reagan era” (Essid 320). The result of a multi-media collaboration between minimalist composer Philip Glass and film director Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word which can be translated “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a life that calls for another way of living” (ibid.), juxtaposes images of land formations, natural elements and broad expanses of American wilderness with scenes of industry, urban living and modern life, the rhythmicity of the shots closely matched by the repetitive rhythmic elements of Glass’s music. Part of the intention behind the film is to reveal the artificiality of the environment man has created for him or herself that has, in many ways, effaced an earlier, pre-existing nature. Different in many ways from Crumb’s Idyll (the least of which being the melding of image and music), Koyaanisqatsi nevertheless expresses a shared concern. Moving forward, music scholars need to expand the typical signifiers of harmony, rhythm, melody, and references to shepherd’s music to explore how post-modern composers signify pastoral concerns of their time. The development of the recent field of ecomusicology speaks to the growing interest in connections between music, culture and nature. The concept of post-pastoralism, with its roots in ecocriticism and environmental concerns, offers one possible lens through which to view these musical texts. Undoubtedly there are many post-modern composers who share Crumb’s fervent hope that “humankind will embrace anew nature’s ‘moral imperative’” (Idyll 3).

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1 For an in-depth discussion on the stylistic connections between Debussy, Bartók, and Crumb, see Richard Bass. Models of Octatonic and Whole-Tone Interaction: George Crumb and His Predecessors.” Journal of Music Theory 38.2 (1994): 155–186.

2 In addition to similarities in pitch language and references to Bartók’s “Night Music,” Crumb shares the Hungarian composer’s interest in traditional folk music, represented in the numerous settings and adaptions of various genres of folk music undertaken by Crumb later on in his career, found in his American Songbook series.

3 Those interested in these more traditional signifiers of the pastoral should refer to Raymond Monelle’s The Musical Topic (2006), Robert Hatten’s Musical Meaning in Beethoven (1994), Michael Klein’s article on Chopin’s Fourth Ballade (2004), and the shorter study of the pastoral found in Andrew Haringer’s contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Musical Topics, “Hunt, military, and pastoral topics” (2014).

4 The Archeozoic eon is actually the second of the three geological eons, the first being originally referred to as the pre-Archeozoic eon until 1972, when it was renamed the Hadean eon (named after the Greek god Hades in reference to the hellish conditions on earth during this time). Given that the Archeozoic eon covers the period of time during which the earth’s crust cooled and the continents began to form, it is understandable that Crumb would begin his geological chronology with this eon.

5 This quote comes from Crumb’s annotations to his list of compositions, which can be found in George Crumb, Profile of a Composer, compiled and edited by Don Gillespie.

6 Gifford observes that references to an untamed or wild landscape are more common in American expressions of the pastoral, noting American Arcadians are usually set, not in a garden, but in a wilderness that is presumed to be in an innocent, original state beyond ‘the frontier’ in both space and time. American Arcadian innocence is therefore located in a land before colonization” (33).

7 Karol Berger discusses the distinction between mythical or ritualistic time and historical time as it existed in traditional societies. Time in these societies was cyclical and repetitive, and ritual functioned as a way to suspend profane” time and activate sacred eternity.” He notes that traditional societies did what that they could to hold linear time at bay, abhorring the freedom and novelty of history and craving instead the immortality, repetitiveness, and permanence of nature” (173).

8 This viewpoint is best expressed by Monelle, who observes we often forget that music can also signify time. Music, then, can subsist in time without taking time(The Sense of Music 88). This semiological position on the nature of time in music is further developed by Thomas Reiner, who uses it to cover both instances where music evokes a cultural concept of time, as is discussed by Monelle in relation to the nineteenth century, and the subjective experience of time while listening to music, which may in turn be interpreted in relation to cultural concepts of time (i.e. timelessness).

9 There are a large number of relevant studies on this topic. Some of the more useful articles relating to the elements listed here include works by musicologists Barbara Barry (1990) and Jonathan Kramer (1988), along with articles by psychologists Daniel Zakay (1989), Richard Block (2010), and Mari-Reiss Jones and Marilyn Boltz (1989). The author has also conducted empirical studies demonstrating the perceptual tendency of silences to prompt a sense of temporal expansion in contemporary compositions.

10 The silences in this opening passage are not acoustic silences, meaning that they are not absent of all sound, as the drum roll that initiated the piece is still sounding, though the extreme soft dynamic of the drum renders it nearly inaudible. However, with the cessation of the primary melodic instrument, many listeners perceive silence in these moments.

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Electronic reference

Kristina KNOWLES, « A Broken Idyll: Post-Pastoralism in the Works of George Crumb », E-rea [Online], 14.2 | 2017, Online since 15 June 2017, connection on 18 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Kristina KNOWLES

Northwestern University
Kristina Knowles is a PhD student at Northwestern University. As a sopranist and pianist, she has won numerous awards and performed with classical, jazz, and popular music groups. In 2013 she won a Graduate Research Grant from Northwestern University to fund her research. Her primary research interest is the aural perception of post-tonal music, focusing on issues of rhythm, meter, and subjective time in “unmetered” post-tonal music with an emphasis on the works of George Crumb.

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