Paul Crabtree’s innovative music explores the worlds of popular culture and highbrow art to find what is eternal in the everyday.
Chicago Classical Review, July 1, 2009
Lawrence A. Johnson
It had to happen but leave it to Paul Crabtree, one of our most inventive and wickedly witty composers, to come up with a choral work based on The Simpsons. Crabtree’s Five Romantic Miniatures from The Simpsons are great fun with the emphasis on uneuphonic hard consonants (“Marge, you make the best pork chops”) yet manage a surprising degree of genuine tenderness, particularly in Homer’s sincere closing words of love to Marge. Bell and the singers managed to put across the humor and feeling while maintaining composure and tonal refinement.
Palm Beach Artspaper, June 9, 2009
All of these works — and the majority of Crabtree’s pieces are vocal music — have the same kind of approach as the Simpsons cycle: An often-whimsical choice of texts filtered through an intellect of formidable erudition, and set to music whose pop and jazz influences are plain but that do not detract from the urgent, highly sophisticated message the composer is trying to impart. It makes for an absorbing experience in the concert hall, and devotees of contemporary choral music in particular would do well to seek him out.
Crabtree’s achievement here is large: He has shown that it is possible to reimagine the cantata in a moving, fresh way, and his example should give other composers a good model for pursuing a similar trajectory. He does, however, share with other highly cerebral composers (John Adams comes to mind) a certain melodic reticence that could keep these estimable pieces from being more than catnip to the clerisy.
The Metamorphoses of Paul Crabtree June 9 2009
Sedebat Mater April 17 2009
Sedebat Mater April 18 2009
San Francisco Chronicle, June 1, 2001
‘SIMPSONS’ AS CLASSICAL MUSIC? DOH!
Quick, all you pop-culture fanatics: Which television character professed his love in the following flowery way? “You know, you remind me of a poem I can’t remember, and a song that may never have existed, and a place I’m not sure I’ve ever been to. I feel all funny. I’m in love.” Stumped? It was Homer’s dad wooing Marge’s mom in an episode of “The Simpsons.”
Surprised? Paul Crabtree was, too. But then the dedicated “Simpsons” fan — and classical composer — started watching the cartoon series more carefully and realized it had all sorts of deep, emotional messages. And so, the San Francisco man sat down at his Yamaha grand piano and composed sweeping, dramatic works with lyrics straight out of the Simpsons’ mouths.
The San Francisco Concert Chorale will perform his “Five Romantic Miniatures from ‘The Simpsons’ ” in San Francisco and Burlingame this weekend. “They’re totally serious pieces about these little characters,” explained Crabtree, 41, wearing his characteristic bow tie and round spectacles. “They’re not cartoony or cheap in any way. Not until you’re in the concert hall do you really figure it out. Like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a Bugs Bunny soundtrack.’ It’s an in-depth probing of these cartoon lives.”He named the five pieces after the characters who uttered the lines. “Lisa” continually repeats the lyric, “I like Langdon Alger. He is very quiet and he enjoys puzzles.” In the song, “Marge,” it’s “I love you so much, my little bitty Barty.” The piece, “Homer,” repeats, “Marge, you make the best pork chops. Mmmmm, pork chops.”
A second piece called “Homer” includes the lines from an episode in which Marge kicks Homer out because he blabs about their sex life. He begs her forgiveness while kneeling on the front lawn. “Marge, I need you more than anyone else on this entire planet could possibly ever need you. I need you to take care of me, to put up with me, and most of all I need you to love me, because I love you.” “It’s this intensely emotional moment between the two of them,” Crabtree said. “Homer’s a loving man, but he doesn’t have a clue about how to express it. He’s brutally stupid, but he’s lovable and he tries.”
Magen Solomon, a colleague and friend of Crabtree’s, serves as music director for the San Francisco Choral Artists, music director for the Oakland Symphony Chorus and the interim artistic director for the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus. She greatly admires Crabtree’s work and said he’s reached a new height with his Simpsons pieces. “He manages to find moments of tenderness within the silliness,” said Solomon, 45, of Menlo Park. “I wasn’t particularly disposed to ‘The Simpsons’ to begin with, and I found these pieces really won me over.”
Mixing media isn’t anything new for Crabtree. He wrote “The Nocturne to Flash Gordon” — a lullaby based on the Shirelles’ hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” He combined an Alzheimer’s patient’s heartbreaking pleas with a Shakespeare sonnet on death in another song. “That’s one of the primary rules of composition — thou shalt not bore,” Crabtree said with a laugh. Born in Rugby, Scotland, — the sport’s birthplace and a neighboring town of Shakespeare’s birthplace — Crabtree loved listening to the rock groups Genesis and Yes with his older brother. His mom served school lunches “like Lunch Lady Doris” on the Simpsons. His dad was a chauffeur who loved playing war tunes on the piano.
“His favorite type of music was Perry Como- crooner stuff,” Crabtree said. “Even Frank Sinatra was a little too out-there for him.” A high school music teacher whose grandfather wrote “Silent Night” took Crabtree under her wing, explaining Beethoven and Schubert to him over home-cooked dinners. Crabtree wrote the overture to the school play that year, and later wrote a Mass based on “Whistle While You Work” and a fugue based on “Someday, My Prince Will Come.” “At slow speeds, that sounds so baroque, like something Bach would have done,” Crabtree said. “I performed it at church . .. I thought it was funny — and some people got it!” He went on to study music at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1982. The training was rigorous, with students required to compose symphonies in their heads. Crabtree longed for the opportunity to inject pop culture into his works, but that, sniff, simply wasn’t done. “Rock music and pop music were completely belittled,” he said. “We never talked about the Beatles or progressive rock or anything. I didn’t feel like I could do what I wanted to do. I came to San Francisco on a vacation and never left.”
That was in 1984 and Crabtree’s been happily composing every since. He also teaches piano and voice lessons to 25 young students, as well as music theory classes to adults. For his 39th birthday, he let his young students scrawl messages in markers on his wall. “Music rules!” and “Make it Sing!” still decorate his apartment two years later.
Anne Kenner, a friend of Crabtree’s, vividly remembers a music theory lesson he gave her. In trying to explain the dramatic crescendos of fugues, he played clips from the Miss Marple mystery movies in which suspects come on the scene, shouting clues louder and louder each time.
“He hasn’t lost touch with the child inside himself,” said Kenner, 42, of Pacific Heights. “He has a vivid memory of what it was like to grow up and everything he felt and everything he saw around him. When he sits down and talks to you, or when he writes his music or gets his inspiration, there’s just a tremendous amount of honesty to it all.”
Her son, Willie Scopa, 8, takes piano lessons from Crabtree, but seems to remember their extracurricular activities better. “He took me trick-or-treating once,” he said. “I think that was when I was wearing a pirate costume and it was when I was 4 or so and I was scared and he comforted me. And also, Paul helped us get a ball out of a tree. It was our dog Lucy’s ball. He climbed the whole way up the tree and shook it out, so I think he’s really nice. “I try to make Paul feel proud.”
Crabtree uses his eclectic music collection to relate to students as well. His stacks of CDs include just about every style imaginable — Russian Orthodox chants, Pakistani music, jazz, early Renaissance dance music, show tunes, Disney movie soundtracks, country and Top 40 hits from Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind. The silly and sublime combined once again several weeks ago when Crabtree became a U.S. citizen. He choked up as he proudly belted out “The Star Spangled Banner” while friends in the audience cheered him on and waved an American flag.
Other friends gave him a celebratory gift perfectly fitting the monumental occasion — Simpsons-themed Pez candy dispensers, naturally.