Wind instruments tend to be slighted as solo instruments in classical repertoire; violin, piano, and cello more often take center stage. Bryan A. Crumpler’s clarinet playing would make you wish things were otherwise. His technical command of the instrument allows both intellect and emotion to sing; his sensitive and informed performances deliver composers' ideas and yearnings, sorrow, rage, and joy right into the spirit of the listener.
I first heard Bryan, a resident of New York City, perform in Richmond, Virginia, as a guest with the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia (CMSCVA). Later, online, I discovered that Bryan not only plays, he has also composed many works for the instrument. His recordings on crumpler.bandcamp.com made for hours of absorbed and awe-building listening.
Jean Huets (Rail): Several of your compositions—for example, Starbirth, The Madd Teapot, Pierrotica (P-eroïca)—strike me as cinematic: lots of mood, drama, color. On the other hand, your Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet in A and Symphony Orchestra has a more formal, abstract sound, conveying mood and musical concepts but not illustrating anything, as cinematic music tends to do.
Bryan Crumpler: Concerto No. 1 does branch out from classical theory: sequences, progressions, a cadenza that has a feel of being improvised, a theme or motif used in various ways throughout the piece.
Rail: When I first listened to Concerto No. 1, I slipped into a vivid reverie of hugging and holding my elderly mother, who’s fading away mentally and physically. Later, when I read your notes on the piece, I saw: “the Misterioso section signifies a consoling moment that I needed while grieving the death of my grandmother.” The resonance of a younger person’s love for an old woman really came through!
Crumpler: I love it when that happens! I played a bit of my composition Roulette de l’Amour to my K–5 students, then had them draw pictures in crayon of what was going through their minds as they listened. I wanted to expose them to careful listening, then share their imaginings, give abstract thoughts concrete form. When one child drew an image of a sunrise, I was ecstatic, because the opening and closing of that piece symbolize sunrise and sunset. What I had in mind and put down musically was communicated to him. The communication is what it’s about.
Rail: Does being a composer guide your approach to performance?
Crumpler: Being a composer is integral with being a performer. As a composer, you start to listen to and interpret the music of other people in ways that can feel like telepathic communication. You won’t necessarily write on the page everything we have to do to interpret a piece of music. From a composer’s perspective, sometimes you give less information because you want more interpretation.
Rail: As a performer, how do you get at the heart of a piece, given that you rarely get to exchange insights with the composer?
Crumpler: We musicians have to try as best as we can to look inside the minds of composers. Musicologists help us see the historical and cultural aspects of a work. We bring that context to our performance through inflection, tone of voice, visual cues, and so on. It makes for a lot of debate concerning original intentions.
Rail: One of the pieces you performed with CMSCVA was The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, by Osvaldo Golijov, which premiered in 1994. Of it, Richmond music critic Clarke Bustard wrote: “Its musical references and implied narrative form a sound picture of life in the now-vanished ghettos and shtetls of the Jews of Eastern Europe.” How do you, a living African-American musician, interpret the music of disappeared Jewish ghettos and shtetls?
Crumpler: I did a lot of listening, consulted my Jewish friends, got feedback as to whether I was respecting the musical context. For the Golijov work, I had to play in a klezmer style, Balkan style, imitate a shofar [a Jewish ceremonial horn], and even embody a dybbuk [a malicious spirit that can possess a person]. Some passages were marked to play as if I were possessed by the wicked laughter of the Devil himself. Golijov is specific about those representations, but he also gives performers a lot of leeway. The notation shows where my fingers are supposed to go and how fast they need to move, but the sound I make is entirely up to what I do with my mouth. That’s where the magic happens, because there aren’t enough symbols in Western classical music notation to capture everything one needs to do to play in these folk styles.
Rail: You also performed in Olivier Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time. This work debuted at a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, in January 1941, with Messaien and fellow prisoners playing to an audience of prisoners and prison guards. Messiaen later said, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.” Music critic Alex Ross described Quartet as “heavenly to analyze but devilishly difficult to play.”
Crumpler: We [Bryan and the members of CMSCVA] had a lot of debate on interpreting the Messaien piece. Grace Park, the violinist, did a lot of reading and research. I drew from my own experience as a composer. In the first movement [“Crystal liturgy”], in order to keep the ensemble together, it’s highly recommended to play exactly in time. But Messaien was transcribing bird calls, and birds don’t chirp and chatter in exact time, inside bar lines. In the sixth movement, “Dance of fury, for seven trumpets,” Messaien decided to use a lot of metre changes, but he didn’t note them—on the page there are no time signatures. To understand that movement, we need to know that Messaien was creating non-retrogradable rhythms [a rhythmic palindrome]. The non-retrogradable rhythms make you feel as if the music propels forward with no end. So in the first movement, where my clarinet is supposed to be a bird in a misty haze interpreted by the piano with weirdly constructed chords, I have to be freer than in the sixth movement, where elongating a note would destroy the non-retrogradable quality. I play a living being in one movement, and in another convey more mathematical work. All that is to say it’s important to understand the composer’s intentions.
Rail: There’s the composition and its interpretation by the musician. And there’s the musician and the instrument. What I heard in your playing of the clarinet was a unity of human breath with the abstraction of music. What do you see as the heart and soul of clarinet performance?
Crumpler: You hit the nail on the head in terms of the breathing aspect. It’s the most virtuosic aspect of woodwind playing. Structuring phrasing around breathing limitations adds a huge human element. Sometimes our breathing limits our ability to play a piece as intended by the composer, usually because the composer of a woodwind piece is, for example, a piano player. Some techniques, such as circular breathing, which allows you to play longer passages without stopping the airflow, can accommodate problems.
Rail: You play a wide range of music. Do you see genre-hopping—for example, playing jazz and classical—as risky to your career?
Crumpler: My goal in that regard is to dispel the myth, in the instrumental music community, that jazz and classical musicians cannot cross over. In order to be a great musician, and even more so to be a great soloist, you have to be convincing and effective in a variety of styles. Besides, classical musicians, especially soloists, need to maximize the performance opportunities available to us.
Rail: As a teacher and, now, as EVP of Development and General Manager of the Long Island Youth Orchestra, what advice would you give to a young person who wishes to make music a career?
Crumpler: I can’t just say, “do it for the love of it.” It takes a lot of time and effort and travel, reading and listening, to build a career in music. So I would advise any musician, whether young and aspiring or well-established, to be prudent in their pursuit of music. It’s a tough business. In our economy it’s hard to survive as a musician, so people are more prone to quit. Stay the course. Be impassioned. Persevere and persist.
Rail: You’ve composed and orchestrated important works for clarinet. You hold a Local Masters Degree in Clarinet Performance from the Royal Conservatory of Ghent. You perform world-wide. You’re active and respected in the music community. Yet, like many artists in New York City and beyond, you must pit making a decent living against the time and energy it takes to create and perform, not to mention the ongoing hustle for opportunities. Do you get discouraged?
Crumpler: I’ve been tempted many times to quit. Then, just as I’m on the verge, someone or something comes along to reel me back in. Music makes me extraordinarily happy. Every single year of my life since I was three has been in some way devoted to getting to where I am in my career right now. It’s taken me to many parts of the world, opened many doors, compelled me to learn languages that I would never have had an opportunity to learn, given me perspective on many cultures. It’s even helped shape my friendships and love life. Music is such an integral part of who I am now as a human being that I can’t just shake it off.