Crumb was born in West Virginia in 1929 into a musical family, and studied at various schools in the Midwest as well as at the Berlin Hochschule as a Fulbright Scholar. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he composed and taught for three decades. His highly intuitive approach to composition, with its emphasis on texture, timbre, and line, bore substantial fruit during the 1960s, including the Madrigals (1966-1969), Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965), and, inspired by the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Night of the Four Moons (1969). Echoes of Time and the River, one of Crumb's rare orchestral works, earned the composer the Pulitzer Prize.
Crumb's style remained remarkably consistent during the subsequent decades. Black Angels (1970) used a dizzying arsenal of extended techniques to evoke a surreal soundscape of the Vietnam War. Star Child (1977) applied Crumb's acute ear for nuance to an impressive vocal/orchestral ensemble. Ancient Voices of Children (1970), with its unimaginable timbral variety and taxingly dramatic vocal lines, became a near-instant classic of the postwar period. It also demonstrated the resonance between his compositional style and the writing style of Garcia Lorca, whose poems would repeatedly serve as the inspiration for and/or words to a number of Crumb's pieces.
Crumb's works became known also for their almost choreographic visual elegance in performance -- and, in fact, numerous dance companies have composed dance pieces to be performed with his work. Crumb's poignant use of musical borrowing and stylistic allusion also add a sense of reflective history and introspection to his compositions. In some cases, this visual approach to design spills over into the very notation: some of the pieces in the two-volume keyboard collection Makrokosmos (1972-1973) appear engraved on staves that turn and twist into a variety of curious Zodiac symbols. Having eschewed process-oriented compositional techniques, his output slowed in later years as greater demands were placed on his creative faculties to find continually new sounds and inspirations -- though by the turn of the century, his historical importance was already firmly established.