The Vox Balaenae Principle

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:56 am

Forgive me for not posting in a few days; I’ve just moved into a new apartment in Irvine and just started a new job in Costa Mesa, and consequently have had less time and no internet until tonight. Hopefully I’ll be back to posting regularly now. And in the meantime, thanks so much to all who have been commenting–I really appreciate your feedback, insights or random thoughts on what I’ve written. Keep ’em coming! Now to the real post:

I heard George Crumb’s work Vox Balaenae (Latin for “Voice of the Whale”) several years ago at Cal State Fullerton’s new music festival. It was performed by three members of the incomparable eighth blackbird ensemble (the scoring is for flute, cello and piano, all amplified), as the score specifies, in black half-masks and under deep blue stage lighting. It was an eerie setting for a really cool piece.

I have to confess that I haven’t heard it since then, so my recollections are vague, but the main thing I remember is the subject of this post. The piece utilizes lots of extended techniques to evoke the sea and the whalesong, meaning unconventional ways of playing the instruments–singing through the flute, playing on the strings inside the piano, etc. And (we remember) it’s by George Crumb, which together with the extended techniques means that it isn’t always easy to listen to, often has a random/incoherent feel to it, and denies any kind of resolution most of the time. But in the middle of the piece, it suddenly broke out into a clear, tonal, chordal passage that was absolutely lovely. And because of the style of everything that had come before it, it was heartbreakingly beautiful–much more so than it would have been on its own, without the surrounding material. It was so much a contrast to the preceding music that it was thrown into sharper relief, and the effect was amazing.

The principle proved itself again a few weeks ago. I went to the senior composition recital of a friend of mine named Seán Dunnahoe, and the three pieces on the program were of a similar mold as I’ve described above. The middle piece was entitled Textural Study and was scored for three flutes, clarinets in Bb, A and bass varieties and portative organ. It included lots of aleatoric elements: cells of notes repeated arhythmically playing against other cells in other instruments, and that type of thing. But at several points all the instruments came together and played a few chords of the major and minor varieties, and the effect was similar to the one in Vox Balaenae. It was such a contrast to what had come before that it was beautiful, and it had a very dramatic effect.

Therefore, from henceforth I shall call this “The Vox Balaenae Principle.” I may even try to use it in one of the compositions I’m working on now, an a cappella choral piece about the fall of Rome. Hmm, that would actually work really well….

(If you’re interested, there’s an excellent page on Vox Balaenae on Crumb’s website that lists all the details of the piece and includes program notes and a review.)



Leave a Comment