George Crumb’s new piano cycle

Margaret Leng Tan: Cowell, Cage, Crumb

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Metamorphoses, Book I (2017) is George Crumb’s long-awaited new work for amplified piano. He is the Holland Festival’s composer in focus this year. Crumb wrote this com­position specifically for pianist Margaret Leng Tan. He once called her ‘a sorceress of the piano’ because she is so thoroughly familiar with the unusual sound palette and playing techniques he requires. Tan caused a furore with her virtuoso performance of Crumb’s famous Makrokosmos cycle, and worked for a long time with John Cage, whose The Perilous Night is on the programme too. There are also compositions by one of the founders of the American ex­perimental tradition, Henry Cowell, some of which are played entirely without using the piano keys.



John Cage (1912-1992)

The Perilous Night (1944) 


Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

The Tides of Manaunaun (1917)

Aeolian Harp (1923)

The Banshee (1925)

Advertisement (1914/1959)




George Crumb (1929)

Metamorphoses, Book I (2017)

European premiere

Focus: George Crumb

The American composer George Crumb (1929) is considered to be one of the most important musical innovators of our time. He creates distinctive soundscapes through novel playing techniques,

and the integration of non-Western elements while his exquisite calligraphic scores introduce unusual musical notations. 

His music is atmospheric, mysterious and sometimes gripping, but the descriptive imagery surrounding the works provides accessibility. While embodying the American experimental tradition, Crumb nevertheless cites Bartók, Debussy and Mahler as major influences.

George Crumb is composer in focus at this year’s festival. A series of concerts cover different facets of his work: from his most famous composition, the spectacular ‘electric string quartet’ Black Angels (1970) with its evocative themes, to the recent and masterly American Songbook arrangements, which put familiar melodies in alienating soundscapes. From his kaleidoscopic orchestral work A Haunted Landscape (1984) to his brand new piano cycle Metamorphoses (2017). 

Crumb shows he is still one of the most distinctive voices in the contemporary musical landscape.


Background information

Henry Cowell, John Cage and George Crumb are regarded as visionary innovators of the piano, using a range of experimental playing styles, so-called extended techniques. Although their pioneering work now belongs to the classical avant-garde and their 

influence has been all-pervasive, the soundscapes created by Cowell, Cage and Crumb are still distinctive today. 'They each have their own, unmistakeable sound,' Margaret Leng Tan remarks. Over the course of her career, the New York-based Singaporean pianist worked closely with Cage and Crumb, and she will be performing some of their innovative work in the concert.

Henry Cowell is considered the patriarch of the American experimental tradition. This is due, in part, to his introduction of harmonic clusters: groups of adjacent tones played with the fist, forearm or palm. Pieces such as Advertisement (1914), a depiction of the flashing neon advertisements in New York’s Times Square, and The Tides of Manaunaun (1915), based on a Celtic legend, speak for themselves. In The Banshee (1925) and Aeolian Harp (1923), Cowell also returned to his mythological Irish roots. In both compositions, the pianist plays the strings directly as opposed to the keys, a new technique he called 'string piano'.

With his 'prepared piano', Cowell's student John Cage took manipulating the sounds of the piano one step further. By inserting screws, bolts, pieces of felt, rubber and bamboo between the strings, he transformed the piano into a one-man percussion band capable of producing a variety of timbres. In The Perilous Night (1944), Cage expressed his struggles with his sexual orientation. Due to its powerful autobiographical undertones, the six-movement suite is one of his most personal and expressive pieces. The composition also had far-reaching implications for Cage's further musical development. Following negative criticism and his inability to control how pianists prepared the piano, precipitated a new artistic direction motivated by Zen Buddhism and chance elements.

Four decades later, The Perilous Night inspired artist Jasper Johns' series of paintings with the same title, dark works in which a fragment from Cage's score is embedded. Composer George Crumb depicts one of these Perilous Night artworks in his brand-new Metamorphoses, Book I (2017). For this first installment of his new piano series, Crumb pays homage to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, offering his personal musical interpretation of ten paintings including Kandinsky’s The Blue Rider and Paul Klee's Black Prince.

Just as in the previous piano cycle, Makrokosmos, Metamorphoses is a comprehensive representation of Crumb’s idiomatic pianistic language. The performer plucks, strums and scrapes the strings, vocalizes and plays a variety of different percussion instruments. For Chagall’s Clowns at Night Crumb's score calls for a toy piano, an homage to his muse Margaret Leng Tan, who performs on many toy instruments in her multi-faceted career.



Margaret Leng Tan (1945) was born in Singapore and studied in New York, where she became the first woman to earn a Doctorate at The Juilliard School. Her interest in exploring the interconnections between Asian and Western music led to a close collaboration with 

John Cage starting in 1981 and continuing until his death in 1992. Tan is regarded as one of the most prominent interpreters of Cage's music and has made various recordings of his work for labels such as New Albion Records, Mode Records and ECM. She also edited C.F. Peters' publication of Cage's piano music (Volume 4) and in 2006, she transcribed and performed the premiere of his newly discovered Chess Pieces from 1944. As a pianist, Tan enjoys venturing beyond the realms of traditional concert practice. She incorporates theatrical, choreographic and performative elements into her performances and is not afraid to use props as in Alvin Lucier's Nothing is Real where she plays a teapot. She has gained a name for herself as a virtuoso of the toy piano and other toy instruments, as heard on her CD The Art of the Toy Piano (Point Music/Universal Classics). Tan regularly performs at international festivals and has performed in large halls such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Over the years, she has collaborated with John Cage, George Crumb, Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Ge Gan-ru, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, composers who, like her, challenge the conventions of the piano.

George Crumb (1929) studied at Mason College of Music in his home city of Charleston (West Virginia), where he received his bachelor's degree in 1950. He continued his training with Eugene Weigel at the University of Illinois and after receiving his master's degree, studied under Boris Blacher at Berlin's Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst. In 1959, he received his Doctor of Musical Arts under Ross Lee Finney at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In the 1960s and 1970s, Crumb gained recognition with his compositions that were performed by prominent soloists and ensembles all over the world. These were mainly vocal compositions based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca, such as Ancient Voices of Children (1970), the four books of Madrigals (1965-69) and Night of the Four Moons (1969). Important instrumental compositions include Black Angels (1970) for electric string quartet, Vox Balaenae (1971) for electric flute, electric cello and amplified piano, the piano cycle Makrokosmos (1972–73) and his largest score until that point: Star-Child (1977) for soprano, solo trombone, children's voices, male choir, bells and large orchestra. His recent work includes Eine Kleine Mitternachtmüsik for solo piano (2001), the seven-volume song cycle American Songbook (2001–2010), and Spanish Songbook (2009) for which he returned to the poetry of García Lorca.

Crumb's music is characterised by the intermingling and contrasting effects of different musical styles: from Western art music to hymns, folk music and music from non-Western cultures. Many of his compositions also include symbolic, mystical and theatrical elements, which are also reflected in the unorthodox notation of his scores.  Crumb taught at the University of Pennsylvania for over thirty years. His work has been awarded various prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize (1968) and a Grammy Award (2001).

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) grew up in San Francisco (California) as the son of an anarchistic writer of Irish descent. Although he did not have a formal musical education, Cowell wrote many pieces for piano as a teenager, including the progressive Anger Dance (1914). On the strength of his compositions, he was accepted by the University of California in Berkeley in 1914, where he studied under Charles Seeger and developed interests in mysticism and theosophy. After two years, Cowell continued his education in New York under Leo Ornstein, a radical futuristic composer-pianist who encouraged him to incorporate experimental playing techniques into his work. He soon caused an international stir due to his remarkable technique. Cowell used his fists and forearms to create tone clusters on the piano and often played the strings and the interior of the instrument directly. Pieces like The Tides of Manaunaun (1915) and Aeolian Harp (1923) are examples of this and were a major source of inspiration for composers such as John Cage and Lou Harrison. In chamber music pieces such as Quartet Romantic (1915–17) and Quartet Euphometric (1916–19), he experimented with polyrhythm and polytonality, aspects that he further developed in his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1928).

John Cage (1912-1992), the American avant-garde composer, is considered one of the twentieth century's most important innovators of experimental music. In 1930s New York, he studied world music with Henry Cowell and composition with Adolph Weiss. Cage then spent two years studying in California with Schönberg, who later said he was the only one of his American students that interested him. Cage became fascinated by modern dance and accompanied dance classes in Los Angeles and Seattle, where he met his future life partner Merce Cunningham. In his compositions, rhythm and timbre became increasingly important, and in 1940 he invented the 'prepared piano': he inserted various objects between the strings of a grand piano resulting in a wide variety of timbres and, in Cage’s words, created “a percussion orchestra under the control of a single player.” One of his major works for this instrument, Sonatas and interludes for prepared piano (1946-1948) is a milestone in 20th century piano music. In 1951, he was presented with a copy of the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, a Classical Chinese tome on divination. For Cage, the I Ching became the means to compose music using chance operations and indeterminacy in his compositions. One of the earliest results of this new method was Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951. The following year he wrote the infamous 4'33", a work in which the performer is instructed to remain silent during the prescribed time; the sounds of the environment are all that can be heard. He also wrote a number of the earliest electro-acoustic compositions in this period. Cage's fame started to grow from the 1960s onwards. In the 1980s, Cage, whose chance-composed music had almost always had a theatrical quality, started focusing on opera, ultimately completing a series of five Europeras. Cage died on 12 August 1992. In 2012 the Holland Festival, which has performed many of Cage's works over the years, organised a celebration marking the centenary of his birth.




John Cage, Henry Cowell, George Crumb
Margaret Leng Tan

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