George Crumb, Quest

by Nathan Cornelius

As both a composer and a performer, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing all sides of the process of creating a musical work. When I write music, I often quote the music of composers I admire—sometimes almost against my will! While I’m not sure exactly what draws me to borrow from other composers, I suspect that the example of their artistry inspires me to be more creative and more intentional as I work on my music, even if my music doesn’t sound anything like theirs. Thus, it is no surprise that many of my favorite pieces I’ve performed also pay homage to earlier music, whether in overt or subtle ways. In particular, this is true of one of my favorite chamber pieces which I finally had the opportunity to play this fall: George Crumb’s hauntingly beautiful Quest for guitar, soprano saxophone, harp,  double bass, and percussion.

Crumb was one of the leading American composers of the 20th century, known for his unusual combinations of instruments, intricately designed scores, and mystical subject matter. Quest, written in 1994 for guitarist David Starobin, uses a diverse array of instruments, including Appalachian hammered dulcimer, African talking drum, and Japanese temple bells, to create an astonishing web of sound, with the guitar as the protagonist.  For Crumb, the music expresses “the concept of a ‘quest’ as a long and tortuous journey towards an ecstatic and transfigured feeling of ‘arrival.’”

The quotation from the American hymn tune “Amazing Grace,” with its line “I once was lost, but now am found,” contributes to the imagery of a search for peace amid darkness and trouble. In the final movement, “Nocturnal,” the hymn tune, played freely by the saxophone, alternates with a more rhythmic idea in the guitar and harp with a curiously similar ascending contour and pentatonic harmony. In fact, the more I played this piece, the more faint echoes of “Amazing Grace” I heard, as the hymn tune and Crumb’s music seemed to melt into each other. The ascending perfect fourth that begins each line of the hymn multiplies into a cascade of fourths on the harp in “Dark Paths,” a saxophone melody shortly thereafter, and a gesture in harmonics on the guitar at the beginning of “Nocturnal.” This forced me to ask myself: what compels me to search for “Amazing Grace” throughout the piece, even beyond the places where it is explicitly quoted? Does the very existence of a quotation give the piece deeper (albeit extra-musical) meaning?