George Crumb’s “Black Angels” is an exception.
Written almost 40 years ago during the height of the Vietnam War, “Black Angels” is scored for electric string quartet and is subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land.” The score is structured on theories of numerology and includes references to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” and the “Dies Irae” theme from Gregorian chant.
In 1972, Time magazine named the debut LP of “Black Angels” as “Avant Garde Record of the Year.” A CD recording by the Kronos Quartet made it a hit again in 1990. And this weekend, Bang on a Can places it as the centerpiece of a full day at MASS MoCA celebrating the music of George Crumb, who lives in West Virginia and turned 80 last fall.
Composer David Lang, a co-founder of Bang on a Can, will lead a discussion and performance of Crumb’s music in the afternoon. The evening event features performances of “Black Angels” as well as the trio, “Vox Balaenae” (voice of the whale) and a series of madrigals to poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. More than a concert, it will also include live video by Jim Findlay.
A New York City visual artist, filmmaker and performer, Findlay has worked extensively with Bang on a Can on various theatrical happenings and comes to the music of Crumb with a typical sense of wonder and excitement.
“This was music you could blow people’s heads off with,” says Findlay, recalling his first encounter with “Black Angels” during the early ’90s. “It’s classical music, with classical instrumentation and serious intent, but it wasn’t repetitive and had a level of noise and the aggressiveness that I could relate to. This was like rock with violins!”
The new project has allowed Findlay a wider exposure to Crumb’s music and its inherent theatricality. For example, Crumb’s score to “Vox Balaenae” says that the performers should wear masks and perform under blue lighting.
“We’re going take that one step further and make a full stage environment,” says Findlay. He’ll be controlling three video cameras during the performance, but adds that more specifics of the show will be worked out during the week prior to the performance, during Bang on a Can’s annual summer residency in the galleries of MASS MoCA.
Asked whether the war-resistance roots of “Black Angels” might come into play, Findlay turns to a more contemporary struggle.
“With ‘Vox Balaenae,’ I’m having trouble getting away from the BP disaster,” he says. “I’m creating this black-and-white world and think about oil and water and all the things that are dying. It’s the kind of topicality that in classic art is transferable, but it’s always better when the audience makes that connection themselves. I trust it’s in the music.”
Bang on a Can presents
George Crumb Celebration
Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass
July 25, 2010
Bang on a Can is dedicated to the forefront of contemporary music but the organization is still respectful of its elders. Concerts have often featured music from way back in the 1980s.
Saturday night’s program at Mass MoCA was practically ancient history with five pieces dating from 1965 through 1971by George Crumb. The American composer, who turned 80 last fall, helped create the musical avant garde and these works are full of what’s called extended instrumental techniques, like singing into the flute, bowing on the bridge of a double bass, and strumming on the inside of the piano. Tuned wine goblets and occasional whispers and shouts from the players were also part of the mix.
Over the years such stuff has become rather cliched, especially in the hands of lesser composers. Yet the whole program was performed with great dignity and professionalism by the 17 musicians. Most appeared to be in the early to mid-20s.
The pieces were mostly trios and quartets, yet there were no set changes nor breaks between pieces. Jim Findlay organized the staging and from a corner of the stage he created a live video backdrop. His grainy, black and white images were mostly close ups of various rotating objects. They lent a cool reverence to the proceedings. The only technical flaw in the night was a persistent noise floor from the amplification system.
The most startling and varied piece was the string quartet “Black Angels.” Apart from all that the players had to do, including play gongs and wine glasses, the piece also traversed a world of styles, including a couple of hushed but jolting references to early music. Did Crumb foreshadow postmodernism?
The three female vocalists were especially impressive. Mezzo Sonya Knussen and soprano Delea Shand soloed in what Crumb called his “Madrigals,” with Spanish poetry by Lorca. Both singers maintained a dead-on surety of pitch and attractive tone. This was even while delivering some swooping and percussive vocal affects and performing with nontraditional accompaniments.
Also poised and accurate was Amanda DeBoer the soprano in “Lux Aeterna,” which was a surprisingly moving conclusion to the evening. The quintet included two percussionist who got a world of weird rattling sounds from their tympani and other apparatus. There was also a guitarist and a bass flute player, who both sat on the floor. The single image on the video was a candle flame.
Originally appeared in the Times Union.