Black Angels

Collected Works: Music


Black Angels

by George Crumb

View an excerpt from the score

Bursts of feedback erupt from silence. Percussive, plucked string patterns race through the darkness. Shouts, moans, and all manner of strange, unclassifiable sounds ricochet about in the void. A macabre tango strikes up, as if played on Death’s own fiddle. As we fail to impose a sense of reason upon the sequence of events in which it is lodged, it glimmers just out of reach, revelling in our inability to order this chaos.

With Black Angels, the string quartet, a form often associated with cool detachment, gives way to a visceral experience. The viola, cello, and pair of violins are amplified and subjected to electronic distortion, their timbre radically transformed. The musicians, too, are pushed to their limits; at times, they seem to be attacking or ignoring their instruments. Here, they are called to play crystal glasses. There, they must recite streams of syllables and bash tam-tams.

We are left uncertain how to interpret the composition that results. George Crumb has cryptically related the piece to fallen angels, mortality, and the Vietnam War. The work makes use of numerical symbolism, in particular the sacred seven and demonic thirteen. Enigmatic movement titles and allusions to the music of Schubert and Beethoven form an interpretative mesh, one so dense that it threatens to destroy all sense of meaning.

But perhaps this is precisely the point. Black Angels is, appropriately, both uplifting and crushingly morbid. The piece deals only in contradiction, disjuncture, and enormity, tearing apart the ensemble into a series of vast, irreconcilable tensions. It provokes fear of the unknowable, of humankind’s inability to comprehend its own existence. It is a dance with the dark expanse of the universe, but we are given no time to learn the steps.

Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe

More to discover

Listen to a performance of the piece by Ensemble Intercontemporain here. Listen to a brief programme celebrating the work on BBC Radio 3. Garrett Schumann has interviewed George Crumb for the University of Michigan.

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Read more: Classical compositions