'George Crumb: Voice of the Whale' -- A Whale of a Tale It's Not

If George Crumb’s music sometimes skirts the borders of kitsch, it certainly doesn’t need the help of this insipid film.

George Crumb: Voice of the Whale

Director: Robert Mugge
Cast: George Crumb, Richard Wernick
Label: MVD Visual
US Release Date: 2016-06-24

The documentarian Robert Mugge is noted for his films on popular music -- particularly blues and jazz. His film subjects range from Sun Ra to Sonny Rollins to Al Green, from reggae to bluegrass to zydeco. This 1976 documentary on American avant-garde composer George Crumb was his first film on American music and it is arguably his worst.

Although supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the film appears laughably amateurish, like something from a parody of public access television. The shoddy camera work, the awkward titles, and the clumsy editing all make this film feel as though it were thrown together for a high school project by a not particularly talented student.

The structure of the film primarily involves the alternation of scenes from a performance of Crumb’s composition for electric flute, cello, and amplified piano inspired by whale song, entitled Vox Balaenae, and interviews with Crumb conducted by fellow composer Richard Wernick as well as interviews with Crumb’s wife and scenes from their family life. All of the musical performance scenes are bathed in a blue light -- perhaps to allude to the oceanic depths inhabited by the whales that inspired the composition. All of the interviews and other scenes are bathed in a sickly green light. I can see no reason for the latter choice unless it is to connote that this documentary is itself ill and thus deserving of our pity rather than our condemnation.

The performance is cut up over the course of the film. There's a certain logic to this decision. We get to hear Crumb’s work intercut with his thoughts about music and his various sources of inspiration, the conditions of his working life, the position of the composer in modern society (well, there is one comment to that effect -- spoiler alert: it isn’t easy making a living as just a composer), and so on. However, aesthetically speaking, this is a disappointing structural design. Vox Balaenae is not a lengthy piece (clocking in at just over 20-minutes) but, more to the point, it relies on its continuous structure for its effect. To cut it up in this manner is to eviscerate it of its peculiar joy and its alluring, gentle presence.

The way the performance is filmed also leaves a great deal to be desired: that blue light washes out the details of the performers’ appearance. But the blue light only covers so much—most of the scene is occluded through darkness. The performers (Carole Morgan on flute, Lambert Orkis on piano, and Barbara Haffner on cello) are shot mostly in extreme close-up. Often we see no more than their hands on their instruments. It takes a longer than one might expect to realize that these performers are wearing masks (as per the instructions in the score). For better or worse, whether they are merely a gimmick or something more, these masks are an important aspect of dealing with this piece of music.

The indifference to proper lighting does not serve to focus our attention on the music (perhaps that's what was intended). We can do that perfectly well by listening to any of the fine recordings of the piece extant -- and while the piece was relatively new in 1976 (being only four years old) there were recordings available. The point of a Crumb performance is that it is performative. This is the blessing and the curse of Crumb’s music: a blessing in its rich theatrical tension and pathos, a curse in its tendency toward gimmickry, always threatening to cross the line from pathos to bathos. The film cannot really engage with these issues insofar as it barely engages in any appreciable sense with the performance.

This criticism extends to the sound quality. The performance attained here by this trio is worthy of approbation (they all acquit themselves well with respect to the extended performance techniques that pervade the piece) but it's mired by a total lack of concern for its sonic (as well as visual) reproduction. The instruments are electrified and are asked to explore a variety of timbral oddities: a chisel is used on the piano to slide or “bend” pitches, the flautist is asked to sing through her flute. This creates a rich, resonant sound.

The problem with the film’s approach to the sound here is that it attempts to augment that resonance through what I imagine to be poor microphone placement, inappropriate levels of gain, and repeated demonstrations of poor taste. What should sound ethereal sounds boomy, what should sound boomy sounds distorted, and what should sound distorted sounds like repugnant noise.

The matter is made worse when Mugge decides to employ certain sound effects from the score in a cutesy and arbitrary manner. For example, at one point Crumb skips a rock across a placid body of water and Mugge overlays an amplified piano thunk. If Crumb’s music sometimes skirts the borders of kitsch, it certainly doesn’t need this kind of insipid help.

If the handling of the performance is bad, the interviews fare no better. Occasionally Wernick will broach interesting territory. For example, he raises the issue surrounding the theatrical tendency in Crumb’s music; Is it merely an effect, a bit of fun for an audience that needs to be enticed to enjoy new music? But the question goes nowhere. Wernick frames it by saying that he believes the theatricality is more than mere gimmickry and Crumb, of course, agrees.

Aside from such non-starters we get to witness Crumb playing duets with his sons, throwing a Frisbee, skipping rocks, and playing show-and-tell with the various exotic instruments he collected over the course of his career. It all goes nowhere and if you are not already a devotee of Crumb’s music, this film is not likely to convert you. If you are, this film may give you reasons to reconsider -- never a good sign.


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