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PUSHING THE ENVELOPE:
The New Music Champion
THE HONOREES, 5
ALL ON BOARD, 6
in a Redemptive Tale (Paulk on Heggie), 10
DOTTED NOTES from
Kroll, Pehrson, BLC, 17
More on Board, 19
Mixing History and
Mystery Electronically (BLC on Martin Gotfrit),
RECENT RELEASES, 25
COMPOSER INDEX, 25
BRAVI TO , 27
THE PUZZLE PAGE:
George Crumb and Black Angels
By Peter Burwasser
1970 was a tough year for America. Memory of the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as the immolations of American black inner city neighborhoods hovered darkly, acridly, in the air. It was, above all else, the ongoing nightmare of Vietnam that engulfed the national consciousness, casting a huge shadow over virtually all human intercourse. It was into this lurid zeitgeist that George Crumb's amplified string quartet Black Angels was premiered. The music crystallized the composer's uncanny ability to project ferocity and the beatific in the same voice. New music in 1970 was still dominated by emotionally constricted serialism, and Crumb's direct sensuality had an explosive effect. Black Angels was an instant classic, and has since been recorded ten times, a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented statistic for contemporary art music.
By 1970, George Crumb was already an established new music innovator, and well into his tenure as an influential teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, where he joined the faculty in 1965. The West Virginia native had made the Philadelphia area his home base, and he still lives in Media. In 1968, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, among many other honors he has been accorded in the course of his career. The Pulitzer was for Echoes of Time and the River (Echoes II), a work that included many of the unique techniques that Crumb has since become famous for.
Indeed, a number of these Crumb "signatures" that had been used in previous works come together in Black Angels, including unconventional use of instruments, spoken or vocalized contributions from the players, and allusions or quotes from earlier music. "In Echoes of Autumn, written in 1966, I believe, the performers have to speak some words of [Federico García] Lorca. Soon after, I wrote Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death, which was mostly for amplified instruments. This led me into [new] ideas of amplification and instrumentalists vocalizing certain things."
"The original stimulus [for Black Angels] was a commission from the Stanley Quartet, then in residence at the University of Michigan. I was unsure what direction to take, but I didn't see myself writing a typical quartet. I decided right away to rethink the concept of what a string quartet really is. I was already into exploring sound in a big way, going back to my piano music from the early 60's."
Despite the sensational effect of his work, when Crumb speaks of his own music, it is with a curious sense of detachment, as if he is himself still discovering connections and meaning. When he completed Black Angels, he inscribed it "finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)." As he acknowledges, the work "will probably be forever known as the 'Vietnam Quartet.' I didn't approach it that way. It was very late in the compositional process that I became aware of associations with that period. Some have suggested that even several of the titles refer to the geography of Vietnam, such as 'Night of the Electric Insects.'" Black Angels, a 20-minute work in 13 sections, took Crumb almost a year to complete. "I came to recognize that there was something of the feeling of that strange time. That's when I called it music in tempore belli, in time of war."
But even if the composer did not have the war explicitly in mind, there was inherent subject matter that naturally lent itself to such an interpretation. "Good versus evil was part of my thinking. The devil's music is for the violin. I use Tartini's 'Devil's Trill.' The cello is the voice of God." Spirituality is also conjured with a quote from the slow movement of the Death and the Maiden string quartet of Schubert, but the musical homage goes further back as well. "There is something very medieval for me in some of the music. It sounds like quotes from medieval music [in parts] but is actually original."