Composer: George Crumb
Number of Players: 1 Guitarist, 1 Soprano Saxophonist, 1 Harpist, 1 Double bassist, 2 Percussionists
Approx. length: 25 minutes
Quest was composed at the request of the guitarist David Starobin and was commissioned by Albert Augustine, Ltd. The final revised version of the work was completed in February, 1994 and is dedicated to David and Speculum Musicae.
Over the years David had played virtually all the various parts I had composed for plucked instruments — mandolin (in Ancient Voices of Children), electric guitar (in Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death), sitar (in Lux Aeterna), and banjo (in Night of the Four Moons). In requesting this new piece David specified only that I write for acoustic guitar and that the guitar part be treated soloistically.
I initially toyed with the idea of a piece for guitar alone, but feelings of insecurity in regard to guitar technique and idiom led me quickly to the conception of an ensemble work. Within the chosen sextet of players the guitar remains the principal protagonist, but other instruments (especially the soprano saxophone) can also take over the principal “voice”. The inclusion of a wide variety of percussion instruments gave me an exceptionally colorful palette of timbral and sonoric possibilities. I would specifically cite rather unusual instruments such as the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, the African talking drum, and the Mexican rain stick.
The poetic basis for Quest was never very clearly articulated in my thinking. I recall pondering images such as the famous incipit of Dante’s Inferno (“In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy mood, astray …”) and a line from Lorca (“The dark paths of the guitar”); also the concept of a “quest” as a long tortuous journey towards an ecstatic and transfigured feeling of “arrival” became associated with certain musical ideas during the sketching process. But although the movement titles are poetic and symbolic, there is no precise programmatic meaning implied. There is one use of musical quotation in the work: phrases from the famous hymn tune Amazing Grace are played by the soprano saxophone — initially, at the conclusion of Dark Paths (over a delicate web of percussion sonority), and finally, in Nocturnal (over a sequentially slowing ostinato of bare fifths in the harp and contrabass). On the very last page of the score a distant echo of the tune is intoned by a harmonica, or, as in this recording, a concertina.
The composition of Quest turned out to be much more of an arduous “quest” than I could ever have imagined! An incomplete version was first performed in Amsterdam as early as 1989 (as a work-in-progress). But only after several more years of constant revision did the work reach its present form.
Annotated by David Luidens