Black Angels

Listening to Black Angels – Thirteen Images From The Dark Land by George Crumb, feels like looking deep into one’s soul and at the same time looking back years into the history of mankind. It exists in ancient times while reminding you of things that didn’t yet happen.

From Departure, through Absence to ReturnBlack Angeles, is a dramatic portrait of a soul’s journey and an allegory of the Vietnam war, composed in 1970, for an electric String Quartet. It is an epic work, expressing philosophical ideas of spiritual annihilation and redemption, earthly existence and eternity.

It is one of my favorite chamber pieces of all times. I first came across the piece during my time with the International Ensemble Modern Academy. The string players of our group were asked to prepare this piece for a series of concerts for children from different schools in Frankfurt.
I was looking at the score for the first time having no earlier knowledge of how Crumb’s scores usually look like: pure art.
I was immediately drawn to this living thing: creativity and imagination are screaming out of the pages. Here is an excerpt from my copy of the score:

Black Angels collects emotions and materials from the entire spectrum of the human psychology. At times it is philosophical and mysterious, at times as direct and simple as a children’s book. It is both aggressive, loud and radical, as it is soft, whispering and melancholic. And like any other masterpiece, it hides a fare amount of brilliant humour.

Georg Crumb, an American composer born in 1929, is obviously one of the most creative artists living today. He is also one of the most played living composers of our times.

Among the musical tools which characterize Crumb’s language, are the use of musical quotations, exploration of unusual timbers, extended techniques, and use of amplification for acoustic instruments and traditional ensembles.
When defining music, Crumb was quoted saying:

”[music] is a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse.“ 

He is famous for his gorgeous and absolutely unique hand-written scores. He invented new notating techniques, which (unlike the new notations of many other contemporary composers), are incredibly intuitive and practical and at the same time artistic.
Black Angels is one of Crumb’s most known and played works. It is one of these rare examples of an art which is completely avant-garde (in the sense that it breaks conventions), yet connects immediately to one’s most basic thoughts and emotions. The impact it leaves on the listeners strikes me every time I perform this piece: it simply haunts people.

There is a fantastic live performance by the Ensemble Intercontermporain:

The structure of the quartet is a sophisticated design of an arch-like mirrored progression:

Numerology affect both the structure of the piece as well as the content itself. The Thirteen Images From The Dark Land (so is the piece subtitled), are obsessively controlled by the numbers 13 and 7, which appear in different combinations basically everywhere.

Religious or mythic ideas are represented in the title Black Angels, as well as in the macro structure of the movements: Departure – Absence – Return. We also encounter characters such as the Devil, played by the violin, and his ultimate rival: God, played by the cello.

Subtitles such as ancient voices, echoes and sounds of bones and flutes, throw us to distant worlds of sounds and secrets.
The tenth movement, God-music, is a mesmerising cello solo accompanied by a trio of bowed whine glasses. It almost inevitably associates to the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

Quotations and musical references from a verity of sources are used:
Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817), is quoted in the sixth movement – Pavana Lachrymae, while given an entirely new mediaeval character; the Gregorian chant of the Dies Irae, is quoted in more than one occasion. Tartini’s trillo di diavolo, is used in the seventh and central movement of the piece.

These are just a few of the things which make Black Angels so fascinating. Unfortunately, live performances are rare, as it requires a tremendous amount of work and a lot of equipment. But if you do have a chance to listen to it live, please go. I cannot recommend it enough.