Other plays were equally theatrical and sometimes had ritual elements. A recording of whale songs made by a marine scientist inspired his “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)” for electric flute, cello and amplified piano (1971). Performers wear black half masks; Mr. Crumb also clarified that (wherever possible) the performance takes place under blue lighting. He used various extended techniques, such as strumming piano strings with a trombone, to create strange sounds.
Each movement of his orchestral piece “Echoes of Time and the River” (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968) features processions in which small groups of musicians move across the stage in patterns and directions specified in the score – the requirements which Mr. Crumb later admitted were rather impractical.
However, practicality was usually not one of his main concerns. As in Charles Ives’ immense Fourth Symphony, several conductors preside over Mr. Crumb’s “Star-Child” (1977), a major work on Latin texts for soprano, solo trombone, children’s choir and large orchestra. A recording of the work, one of his rare forays into the orchestral repertoire, won a Grammy in 2001.
Mr. Crumb’s fascination with Federico García Lorca led to other major works. Lorca’s poetry “in a way reconciled the joyful and the tragic”, says the composer, and he set Lorca’s lines to music in four books of madrigals for soprano and various instruments in the 1960s, and later in several song cycles including ‘Ancient Voices of Children’ (1970).
Created by mezzo soprano Jan DeGaetani, collaborator and frequent muse of Mr. Crumb, “Ancient Voices” features a range of haunting vocal effects, muscular oboe lines and reserve sounds from Japanese temple bells, Tibetan prayers, mandolin, harp and toy piano.
He was less prolific in the 1980s and 1990s, when he suffered from a creative block, but found renewed energy after 2000. He created a series of American Songbooks, collections of hymn arrangements , popular tunes and African-American spirituals. The sweet melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for example, is punctuated by restless percussive interjections and a shimmering array of sonorities.
At Mr. Crumb’s directory for piano includes four books entitled “Makrokosmos”, the title inspired by Bartok’s “Mikrokosmos”, an influential series of student works of varying difficulty. The pianist is instructed to sing, shout and moan at various points in the series by Mr. Crumb.