January 15, 2007

I found this version on Youtube to give you a taste---although it's not Stirling's choice and I apologize. He wrote an incredible article none the less.

...(Blogged by Stirling Newberry)

George Crumb's "Black Angels" has proven to be one of the most durable works of the late 20th century, written for electric string quartet, it combines simple haunting sounds in places, with medievalisms and studied references. As the composer admitted later, the subject of the work is the Vietnam war. A recent recording by the Miro Quartet available on iTunes or through their website reaches into this work for the present. The work is in 3 movements, cast in 13 parts, some so short that they are gone almost as soon as they arrive, and none longer than 4 minutes, the entire work lasts only 20 minutes.

The first movement opens with a screeching sound which comes from the rapid sawing of instruments under electric amplification. It is entitled "Night of the Electric Insects" and the sounds are reminiscent of helicopters, scrambling and cold terror. The second movement is a soft monody - Sounds of Bones and Flutes, that has the resonance of Buddhist prayer wheels and Asian folk music, without actually quoting it, it segues into a cinematic portrayal of horror and laughing skulls called "Devil-Music". Interspersed through the hole work are clatters and sounds, there are shouted words and gongs. The electric string quartet becomes a miniature film orchestra by using sharp plucks and slashing riffs that sound more out of a Jimmie Page solo, than a classical concert hall. The music is radically gestural, every individual sound and word holding attention, whether a gong, counting in German, or the reverberating echos of dying notes. The dark color and elegiac cast to the work reaches a kind of abyss in "Lost Bells", which sounds like a cross between Shostakovich and Pink Floyd. From there it is a climb through "God- Music" to a closing of the work that brings back "Night of the Electric Insects".

Crumb had too much on his mind, from references to Bartok and Schubert, to a kind of black masque interpretation of Bernard Herrmann and John Cage rolled through a desire to throw everything at the audience, but one thing at a time. It is a very American maverick sound, even as it is weighted down by the centuries. It would later be used in "The Exorcist".

Today we take for granted rolling classical influences with medievalism all done through an obvious modernity. The synthetic nature of say , Lord of the Rings doesn't bother even the most conservative scholar, because it was written by one. But back in 1970, this kind of attempt to make everything into an electric now disturbed people a great deal. More over, it is clear that Crumb himself was disturbed by ripples and energies which his training could not overcome, nor could his art do more than react to. His performers have to reach out, and tap, scrape and claw at their instruments. The work is a painting those haunting just on this side of dead, as a darkening jungle grows quiet.

I choose the Miro Quartet's recording, rather than the more famous Kronos Quartet, because it has something that is deeply embedded in the music. Namely, a sense of place. The work was premiered, not in a grand hall, but in Ann Arbor Michigan. It has the same dry dusty feel of a small theatrical production, with black blacks, and bright spotlights. It has a depth of placement that the Miro quartet captures by the coming and going of voices, and the sharp shocks of soft and loud. The recording is capturing somewhere, even if it is separated by a gulf from here. There is a divide, a distance between audience and performance, just as there is a strange disconnection between America, and those bleeding and dying amidst distant sands.

We are returning to Vietnam era art works, now, because Vietnam was the culminating war of its era, as Iraq is of this era. The place where the inherent dangers of an ideology and governing regime have begun to rattle apart, and seem intolerable, both at home and abroad. Iraq was the war that the Age of Nixon could not avoid, just as Vietnam was the war that LBJ could not understand. In the middle of that last war, George Crumb looked out through the velvet blackness, to etch fine sounds on an electric canvas. In the middle of this war, the Miro Quartet inked it with starry night, and pulled a print that is rough with the glistening fresh ink, which is equal parts oil and blood. The score bears the markings "in tempor belli" - in time of war - and this performance does as well.

Stirling Newberry, among his many other roles, is a composer of classical music, available on the web and at iTunes.

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