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Performance Guide for Vox Balaenae

Vocalise (..for the beginning of time)


The opening Vocalise (..for the beginning of time) begins with a long, quasi-cadenza flute solo. To capture the “Wildly fantastic; grotesque” character, Crumb has the flutist simultaneously sing and play. Written in a grand staff, the top line (treble clef) is to be played and the bottom line (bass clef) is to be sung. He notes “The sung tones and flute tones should be perfectly balanced!” The resulting timbral effect is buzzing and metallic; when the technique is combined with the fragmented and repeating melody, the result is a primitive and unsure character.  


In Vox, the flutist must be able to sing in unison (or an octave below) as well as sing a drone pitch while playing. Additionally, the + symbol indicates that the mouth should cover the tone hole and the flutist should sing into the instrument. Here, Crumb is utilizing the instrument’s tube to project the voice and the sonority may be further manipulated by changing the vowel shapes in the mouth (ex. “ah “ or “oo”).  


First, I suggest practicing the vocal line separate from the flute line. Sing the pitch and interval relationships with the aid of a piano. Then, simply learn the flute line without singing. Contemporary flutist, Wil Offermans, suggests that when singing and playing simultaneously be sure to sing with a comfortable feeling, and whenever stress is felt in the vocal-cords, to take a break and try again later with less tension. Once you are comfortable singing and playing separately, work in small sections to make sure the voice and flute tone are balanced. There are many ways to interpret Vox’s opening cadenza. Wil Offermans writes, “We all have different voices, which makes using the voice a most personal and unique experience and expression.”


The opening vocalise also requires the flutist to tremolo, glissando, and flutter-tongue. After a parody of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the section ends with a fragmented quotation of the opening melody -- this time only played.

Variations on Sea-Time

[Sea Theme]


In the theme, the cello imitates the haunting cries of a seagull with smooth, pianissimo harmonics. The piano interjects with an “aeolian harp” effect created by strumming inside the piano. Later, the sea-theme returns at the end of the work. Crumb’s expressive marking “solemn, with calm majesty” is further emphasized by the Adagio tempo indication.



Archeozoic [Var. I]


The beginnings of life, singled celled organisms, is depicted in the Archeozoic variation. The sound of seagulls is evoked again -- this time with a new harmonic/glissando effect in the cello. The “chisel-piano” effect is created by the pianist’s left hand plucking a string while sliding a chisel up and down along that same string with the right hand to produce the notated pitches. Later, Crumb asks for a “double-glissando” effect achieved by repeatedly striking a key while applying a chisel to the string with the other hand.The cellist’s quarter-tone trill combined with a glissando.


Proterozoic [Var. II]

Marked “darkly mysterious,” the Proterozoic  represents the emergence of multi-cellular organisms and plant life. The piano begins with a buzzing drone achieved by placing a paper clip on a vibrating string. Although this is the first time all three musicians play in the same variation, Proterozoic features a dialogue between flute and cello. The variation requires the flutist to use many techniques unique to Crumb including speak-flute and a slow, wide vibrato. It is important to observe the dynamic hairpins and to lean into the microphone during the speak-flute. For the B-D grace notes at the end, use both trill keys. To achieve a soft, pale color, remove harmonics and edge from the sound and use an “ooo” vowel shape.


Paleozoic [Var. III]


In this flowing variation, the cello and flute alternate shimmering unison harmonics with tritone gestures in the piano. Russell Steinberg writes, “Paleozoic (Var. III) features regular pulses, the full chromatic pitch set and interaction between all three instruments, parallel to the Cambrian explosion of diverse life.”

Mesozoic [Var. IV]

Marked “Exultantly!” this variation takes on a bright, energetic character. The cello and flute are written in the high register and the piano has an active, rhythmic part further heightened by the placement of a “jangling” glass rod in the piano.  


Matching tone qualities, pitch, and vibrato between the flute and cello requires the most attention. I would recommend extensive intonation work with the cellist. As a group, rehearse slowly at a medium dynamic with piano playing only one hand at a time and without the glass rod. Rhythmic integrity and timing is imperative for this movement. It is helpful to mark in “counts” so that the flute and cello can align vertically with the piano. The velociss marking indicates that the flute and cello should accelerate through the grace notes. Also, I recommend using harmonic fingers on the F, E, D# grace notes. Memorizing or making a photocopy of page is necessary.


The length of the glass rod is specified in the composer's notes; it must cover only a select group of strings. A glass rod might be difficult to find; you may have luck at a hobby, hardware, or chemistry accessories shop.  Jacob Greenberg, pianist of the International Contemporary Ensemble, however, uses a plastic ruler after an unfortunate incident of the glass rod breaking inside the piano.


Cenozoic [Var. V]

The latest geologic era, the Age of Man, is marked  “dramatic; with a sense of imminent destiny.” Cello and flute cadenzas are surrounded by frenzied piano quotations of the Strauss tone poem. It is crucial that the performers observe the different fermatas, breath marks, and the precise dynamic markings. For the flutist, I recommend an accelerando to the top of the gesture with a slight lengthening at the top.


Sea-Nocturne (..for the end of time)


The Sea-Nocturne, recalling the Sea-Theme, is marked at an adagio tempo; Crumb describes it as serene, pure, and transfigured. The opening features call-and-response whistling in the flute and cello part. Be sure to observe the portamenti between the whistled pitches as it is recalling the legato cello harmonics originally presented in the Sea-Theme. Consider using a straight-tone in the whistle which will match the pure character of the earlier cello harmonics in the Sea-Theme.


The composer writes, “In composing the Sea-Nocturne I wanted to suggest “a large rhythm of nature” and a sense of suspension in time.” Beautiful cantabile lines unfold in the cello and flute parts which soar above B Major undulations in the piano. Marking in counts will help vertical alignment between the flute and cello parts.


The Sea-Nocturne ends with a series of 10-note figures that gradually fade away. The last figure is to be played “in pantomime” to suggest a dramatic diminuendo and dying out. The effect of this theatrical gesture is powerful.


Four antique cymbals (crotales) are required for the Sea-Nocturne. The actual sound is an octave higher than the written pitch. The cymbals are mounted close to the cello, and the flutist walks over to the cymbals for the concluding passage. If possible, treat them with as much consideration as any other instrument on the performance.


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