Published: Feb. 6, 2024 By

Bruns and Crumb at a recording session of “Metamorphoses, Book II” at Swarthmore College in 2021.Photo: Bruns and Crumb at a recording session of “Metamorphoses, Book II” at Swarthmore College in 2021.

Writing music can be a lonely occupation—very private, very demanding. So it’s no surprise that most composers come across as intimidating individuals. Not so with an affable gentleman like George Crumb, although you’d never expect it from listening to his complex, often transcendent music.

“My mom connected with him,” recalls CU Boulder College of Music Associate Professor of Music Theory Steven Bruns, who will retire in May. “She always said George seemed like a nice fellow from down the street.” Anyone who spent some time with the late composer (including this writer) walked away amazed at how instantly likable he was. Yet, as Bruns is well aware, when Crumb died on Feb. 6, 2022, at age 92, the world lost one of its most brilliant and influential music makers.

Bruns and Crumb each served as faculty members at the College of Music—Crumb, from 1959 to 1964 and Bruns from 1987 to his pending retirement. But they shared more than that: A close, long-lasting professional relationship and a deep friendship that began in 1992. “I first met George in Prague, where I was lecturing on his music at a week-long Crumb Festival,” Bruns recounts, “I wrote my dissertation on Mahler and later published an article that traced the many connections between his music and Crumb’s. George wrote to express his delight with my perspective.

“That whole experience changed my life. I continued to write about Crumb’s music and eventually became his archivist.”

In fact, the professor’s work continued to involve more than organizing Crumb’s papers and manuscripts. “I’ve had access to an amazing amount of material,” Bruns says. “I was able to scan so much—his sketches, his letters, photographs, almost everything.” He’s still working on this massive project and there’s more: Bridge Records, the label run by Crumb’s devoted friends David and Becky Starobin, recently released the complete works of the composer on 22 CDs—Bruns was a key participant, attending recording sessions and writing liner notes. 

You’d think that digging through Crumb’s library of papers and collaborating with the Starobins on the Bridge recordings would keep the professor busy enough in his upcoming retirement. Well, guess again. Bruns has also been involved in a film project about the late composer.

“The film is built around a concert that was held in May 2022 of Crumb’s ‘Ancient Voices of Children’ [1970], three months after George died,” explains Bruns. Among the performers at this program by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York were soprano Tony Arnold, pianist Gilbert Kalish and percussionist Daniel Druckman. “That performance is the point of departure for a one-hour documentary that will include various interviews,” adds Bruns. “I’m one of the talking heads.” Directed by Tristan Cook, “Ancient Voices: A Film for George Crumb” will have its world premiere at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, in late March.

The point of the film—and the theme of his continuing post-academic labors on behalf of the late composer—is simple: “I want to tell people who he was, to keep his music alive.”

That goal may sound puzzling, knowing how brilliant a composer Crumb was, knowing the praise his works consistently received, the well-attended performances in concert halls around the world and the awards he won—the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and a Grammy in 2001, among many other honors. But that’s no guarantee of a permanent place in the consciousness of a fickle public. 

“George was extremely self-critical and very humble. He never engaged in catty talk about his composer colleagues,” adds Bruns. In other words, he kept a low profile and was hardly the self-marketing sort. So, what does the future hold for his music now that he’s gone? Where does one look for Crumb’s works and what role will Bruns play in that search?

“I’ll do all I can to invite new listeners into the sound world of George Crumb,” Bruns replies. He’s working on a book about the composer, hoping to educate a wider audience about the impact of the man’s music. Meanwhile, the collected compositions are not gathering dust, he reports. “There are at least a half-dozen works that are solidly in the repertoire. In addition to regular concert performances, there are multiple recordings of nearly every composition. For example, more than 20 pianists have released recordings of ‘Makrokosmos, Volumes I & II’ [1972 and 1973]. A good starter piece is ‘Vox Balaenae’ [‘Voice of the Whale’], Crumb’s dream-like trio for flute, cello and piano.” 

Those who experience Crumb’s music are in for an amazing surprise, Bruns promises. “Every piece creates a powerful connection with an audience.”