Arnold, who comes from a contemporary music background and has recorded much vocal music by Carter and Babbitt, explains, "Part of the aesthetic appeal of the song settings is that the part could be sung by anyone … many of the songs come from a vernacular body of tunes that used be sung around the dinner table."
To Sellars, Crumb's settings of the songs make the actual historical context that bore them in the first place. "The Civil War never really ended, it is going on to this day," he says. Bewailing the street-level indifference that plagues much modern-day democracy, he continues: "The abolitionists were fighting for their beliefs, protesting against an inhuman law." Crumb's music puts the original songs through something of an awesome microscopic lens. "The song settings open up chasms of emptiness, doubt and danger," he says, thus exposing "the invisible emotional force-field that makes these songs so powerful."
When Hampson heard the first book of the set in 2001, he was immediately struck by this eerie magnetism. "In a way that is unexplainable to me," he says. "The sonic effects of the instrumental ensemble augment the meaning of the songs; they are not just party tricks or weird musical events: there's a real musical integrity to them."
Arnold recalls the potent insight into Crumb's music that came to her when she accompanied the composer on a trip to his hometown in West Virginia. "The landscape there is old, hilly and quite mysterious, and a river runs through it that also goes through the city, which is very industrial," she says. "It is rural and industrial at the same time."
The eerie co-existence of timeless landscape with the unequivocal signs of human artifice is a signature trait of Crumb's musical mind. Both worlds (factory and hills, avant-gardism and folk song) are irrevocably clasped together in the blaze of a single gesture.
Crumb himself would be unlikely to think much of all this talk of chasms and juxtapositions. Tinkering at his faithful old Steinway to illustrate a few musical points, he sheepishly apologizes for the bad tuning ("The pin-board must have snapped"). Moments later he confesses to secretly enjoying the experience of working with the flawed instrument. Every time he tries something at the keyboard, he must strain to hear the pitch lurching "within" the microtonal halo enshrouding the struck note.
Crumb has been composing on this very piano for decades now, and if his wife's chiding is anything to go by, it has not often been in tune. Indeed, the tinny piano is much more than a temporary inconvenience: It's a poetic accomplice. Much of Crumb's music (and none more than the "American Songbook") urges the listener to do as he does with his Steinway and hearken to a familiar scrap of music hidden in a maze of strange sound.