George Crumb’s “Black Angels”


CRUMB: Black Angels. Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening / Quatuor Hanson: Anton Hanson, Jules Dussap, vln; Gabrielle Lafair, vla; Simon Dechambre, cel with Philippe Hattat, Théo Fouchenneret, pno; Emmanuel Jacquet, Rodolphe Théry, perc / B Records LBM040 (live: Deauville, France, July 7 & 10, 2021)

To put it succinctly, as it is in the promo sheet accompanying this album, “This is ritual music filled with angels and demons, mystical incantations, amazing percussion and supernatural harmonies.” These two performances come from the July-August 2021 music festival in Deauville, France, not to be confused with the rock concerts given at the Deauville Island Music Festival. The CD is scheduled for release on May 13.

Demons indeed, as Black Angels opens with the strings screaming fast, multi-tonal motifs in their upper register—a real waker-upper. Small wonder that this suite is subtitled “Thirteen Images From the Dark Land.” Much of the music is percussive in quality, with the performers striking their strings with their bows, making bizarre flittering sounds, and a hollow-sounding viola solo. This is one instance where modern-day string players’ proclivity for performing with straight tone makes a difference, since playing with straight tone sounds abrasive and unpleasant rather than full and rich. In the fifth piece, “Danse Macabre,” Crumb introduces some nifty syncopation as well. Boy, do these angels know how to party, or what??

The “Pavana Lachrymae,” by contrast, uses the opening theme from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. (Oddly enough, Schubert was one of Crumb’s favorite composers.) There is more string buzzing, along with a few shouts, in the “Threnody” section. Let’s put it this way: although this is fascinating, creative music, it’s not something you want to play on a dark night when you’re having a bad acid trip. No, it is not. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon sounds like a Neil Sedaka song compared to this. There’s a quote from some mediaeval music in “Sarabands de la Muerte Oscura,” but even here Crumb makes it sound ominous and creepy. Even the “God-music” sounds a bit menacing, despite a rather innocuous theme.

Of course I hope that my readers will understand that some of my comments above are just a bit of humor (one might say, dark humor), but it’s the kind of reaction I have to a piece like this. Only Crumb knew how to push these kind of buttons in one while still writing music that was substantive and had structure. Many modern composers who follow in his footsteps get the creepiness right, but much of their music doesn’t go anywhere.

The Makrokosmos is more familiar territory, recorded by a number of artists including Marcantonio Barone on the Bridge label, in a series of sessions supervised by the composer himself. Thanks to the wonderful natural reverb in the concert hall, this performance has a wonderful ambience that contributes to the music’s strangeness, but although it is rather mysterious and a little creepy, it is nothing compared to Black Angels. Part of the percussion effects includes sounds that resemble glass breaking . This may just be the most intense performance I’ve yet heard of this work, and it certainly suits the mood…but whether or not I would find it appropriate, as Crumb subtitled it, as “Music for a Summer Evening” depends on whether or not that summer evening sounded like an alien invasion with the sounds of explosions in the background. Yet there are moments of repose, and in the “Wanderer-Fantasy,” it almost sounds like a kalimba playing.

Bottom line: chalk up another outstanding album of Crumb’s mind-blowing and mind-expanding music.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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