Interesting Times, no. 4: Mysteries of the Macabre, Part 2

In this mini-series of articles written for the Ligeti Transylvanian festival on a program about war, death, destruction, and transformation in classical music, I explored works by Stravinsky, Crumb, Daugherty, and Ligeti.

This is the second installation, which features Crumb’s Black Angels.

George Crumb (b. 1929) wrote his arresting Black Angels, Thirteen Images from the Dark Land for Electric String Quartet (1970) in the context of another horrific war: that of Vietnam.  He constructs a haunting aural collage of depictions, impressions, memories and dreams that draw from mystic ancient times to the relentless age of machines.

Crumb was ever-intent on breaking boundaries and barriers in pursuit of authentic artistic expression: 

“One very important aspect of our contemporary musical culture—some might say the supremely important aspect—is its extension in the historical and geographical senses to a degree unknown in the past. … The geographical extension means, of course, that the total musical culture of  Planet Earth is ‘coming together’, as it were.”  

George Crumb

Never before is this statement more apparent than in Black Angels. Crumb mixes the sound of helicopters with voices of ancient prayer, the Russian Dies Irae motif and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet with avant-garde instrumental and vocal effects.  The ghost of Beethoven is glimpsed in Black Angel’s same trifold structure (I. Departure, II. Absence, III. Return) as found in the German composer’s piano sonata Op. 81a, poignantly nicknamed “Les Adieux” and divided into movements “Lebewohl” – farewell, “Abwesenheit” – absence, and “Wiedersehen” – reunion.  Bartók’s specter also emerges in the common depiction of insects (Bartók’s fascination of nature’s smallest musicians appeared in such soundscapes as his Microcosmos, Out of Doors Suite, and his Concerto for Orchestra), use of folk modes, fascination with numerology, and general string writing.  

Other European references include Black Angel’s no. 8’s title, “Spanish Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura” (saraband of the black death),  no. 6’s citation of Englishman John Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae, and  no. 10’s apparent homage to French composer Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. References also encompass Asia, with no. 2’s description of Tibetan Prayer Stones, and Africa, with extended vocal techniques including tongue clicks. Even multiple spiritual elements are close at hand, with pagan, Buddhist, Jewish and Catholic resonances interwoven in Black Angel’s musical textures. Crumb not only recalls the musical aspects of these cultures but also incorporates their mother-tongues into Black Angels. Having represented nationalities from all epochs and corners of the globe in his music, Crumb also utilizes German, Hungarian, Japanese, and Swahili for the musicians to declaim numbers from 1 to 7 during the performance.

As previously mentioned, numerology is ever-present in Black Angels.  In particular are the numbers 7 and 13: the former represents a completed cycle of life, often used in the Bible; the latter, a cursed prime number used to symbolize the anti-Christ. It is worth noting the composer’s hand-written date of completion: Friday the 13th, March 1970.

In Crumb’s world, anarchy and chaos reign supreme.  An aural Tower of Babel mixes the living with the dead, religious with the profane, the holy with the damned, the ancient with the modern and East with West.  The result is a ghoulish series of Hieronymus Bosch-worthy acoustic tableaux, which renders the listener haunted and hypnotized.