It’s a composition that “scared the bejabbers” out of David Bowie the first time he heard it.
Sometime this week when you’re feeling particularly sane, stable and able to withstand the fury of unfiltered musical horror, devote 20 minutes of focused attention on George Crumb’s “Black Angels.” Crumb, whose death was announced Sunday, was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, and “Black Angels” is his thrilling 1971 masterpiece.
David Bowie listed Black Angels on a 2003 Vanity Fair list of his favorite albums, calling it “a study in spiritual annihilation” and adding, “I heard this piece for the first time in the darkest time of my own ‘70s, and it scared the bejabbers out of me. At the time, Crumb was one of the new voices in composition and Black Angels one of his most chaotic works. It’s still hard for me to hear this piece without a sense of foreboding. Truly, at times, it sounds like the devil’s own work.”
Crumb wrote the string quartet, subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land,” as a commission for the University of Michigan; at the time, the Vietnam War was raging and the world was in the midst of generational upheaval. “I had no idea that Black Angels would be influenced by the Vietnam War,” he said in one interview, “but certain titles in the score, together with the character of the music itself, so obviously reflected the anguish and darkness of those times. I found that most audiences immediately sensed those deeper influences reflected in the work.”
Compositionally, the depth of “Black Angels” is astounding. Crumb reveled in writing scores, and created magically unorthodox works that looked as wild on the page as they sounded when performed. Using numerology, symbology, wit and a gleeful imagination, Crumb penned works that moved in spirals on the page, with staffs circling inward and the various signatures and markings swirling inward. He composed one piece as a peace sign.
The sheet music for Black Angels is a trip:
But regardless of how visually memorable the scores are, nothing prepares you for the sonic assault that opens “Black Angels” or the ridiculous inventiveness that follows.
Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington has said that he founded the Quartet after hearing Black Angels in the early 1970s, and Kronos Quartet named its crucial 1990 album after Crumb’s piece, which opens the album.
Here’s the Spektral Quartet performing the piece in 2012.