In the basement studio of Crumb's home in Media (where he barricades himself away from the six household dogs), you can pick up a cylinder resembling a sawed-off mailing tube, pull the string hanging out of the bottom, and hear the sound of a cavernous exhalation. It's typical of Crumb's otherworldly ominousness, heard most famously in his settings of Garcia Lorca poems, titled Ancient Voices of Children.
As with his six previous songbooks, the new one builds phantasmagorical sound environments around hymns, spirituals, and folk songs, many of which he heard during his upbringing in Charleston, W.Va. His daughter, Ann Crumb, is again a featured soloist, along with baritone Patrick Mason. Though the huge battery of percussion is used with spare precision - there are only four players - the voices have to be amplified, especially in passages inspired by the flocks of crows in the composer's backyard.
Crumb flips through the score: "Here I use a low-pitch siren. It's in a very soft range, like a disembodied human voice. Here's the African-Brazilian berimbau," a stringed instrument that makes a buzzing sound. "I knew about it long ago. A percussionist found the crazy thing and I thought of a way to use it. . . . "
Though Philadelphia has surprisingly extensive percussion rental agencies, baritone Mason is bringing American Indian rattles in from Boulder, Colo., where he lives. One new feature of Voices From the Heartland is the presence of Navajo and Pawnee chants, the words of which are similar in tone to the Chinese poems Gustav Mahler used in his Das Lied von der Erde.
How Crumb came to do this is hard to say: His process is too intuitive for self-analysis. "I hardly know any facts about the construction of my music," he says. "I'm sure there is some rational process involved. . . . "
Certainly, he's remarkably easygoing about how his music is reincarnated. At last year's Ojai Festival in California, director Peter Sellars staged one of Crumb's songbooks, a collection of Civil War songs titled The Winds of Destiny, with soprano Dawn Upshaw costumed as a traumatized Afghan-war veteran.
Hasn't he ever been curious to analyze what's really going on in his music? Though he was on the University of Pennsylvania faculty for more than three decades - analyzing scores by students such as Osvaldo Golijov and Jennifer Higdon - Crumb won't consider subjecting his own music to that kind of scrutiny.
"That's a form of suicide. If you get too analytical about your music, it becomes more like a textbook illustration. . . . something that looks good on a blackboard," he said, citing Paul Hindemith as an example.
Crumb does take a certain delight in how his music looks on the page. He loves inventing new time signatures that look like hieroglyphics. In years past, his manuscripts have sometimes come in different colors of ink. An eccentricity? An aesthetic priority? Whatever the case, Crumb has turned out to be a durable survivor of the American avant-garde, perhaps because he was never really a part of it.
Such now-deceased contemporaries as Milton Babbitt spent the 1960s producing ever more tightly controlled music with scores that looked more like complicated blueprints. John Cage went to the extreme opposite by declaring that even silence was music. Crumb crafted a sound world of his own with what are often called "extended techniques" - drawing unusual sounds out of conventional instruments and then moving on to unconventional instruments.
The impracticalities of such pieces only temporarily deterred their performance. His string quartet Black Angels, in which players shout and play tuned water glasses, inspired the formation of the Kronos Quartet - one sign of the lasting recognition that composers often don't have until after they're dead.
Yet for a decade or so, Crumb's compositional life seemed not to survive his fame. Throughout much of the 1990s, he was silent. The rumor in new-music circles was that he had had to give up his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit, and that that had somehow derailed his intuitive gifts. Typically, Crumb won't say anything definite on the subject. But he does quote Alban Berg, who supposed asked a prospective student, "How can you compose if you don't smoke?"
Ultimately, nothing truly excited him until his daughter, Ann - who has starred in several Broadway shows and will head the cast of Media Theatre's production of Wings - suggested he write a piece based on folk songs. The silence was broken in 2002 with the first of his songbooks, Unto the Hills, which had her singing "I am a poor wayfaring stranger" amid percussive explosions that suggested the song's protagonist was navigating land mines.
Crumb routinely claims the latest songbook is his last, but often he has a few outtakes from the "last" piece, and they grow into the next one. Any future pieces, he says this time, will involve returning to Lorca.
When that happens, Orchestra 2001 is likely to be the first to know - since Swarthmore-based founder/music director James Freeman has been a close collaborator with Crumb (along with Bridge Records, which records the new pieces soon after the premieres). Though Crumb's orchestral works have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Freeman assures the composer that he need not settle for secondhand sounds.
"And it's so handy," the composer muses. "Only five miles down the road!"
Orchestra 2001 performs
at 8 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Center in Philadelphia and at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College. www.orchestra2001.org or 215-893-1999.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.