George Crumb had been working on his iconic work Black Angels (for electric string quartet) for nearly a full year before he expressed its association with the Vietman War. The connection was probably inevitable on some level. The year of its compostion spanned most of 1969, and the first few months of 1970.
Black Angels has been on my mind recently, with Memorial Day on the calendar yesterday. So I popped it in today (the definitive recording on Nonesuch with the Kronos Quartet) and gave it a good long listen.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard it – long enough for the many additional ‘instruments’ in it to jump to the forefront and remind me all over again what I love about Crumb’s vision and his innate ability to express it. There are sewing thimbles, glass rods, water glasses, paperclips and mallets. There are maracas, and tam-tams and bass bows – along with the usual two violins, viola and cello of the Quartet itself. It’s a whole choir of disparate voices, unified in chilling purposefulness.
This is music that sings and buzzes, it’s furious and sedate and it wails. Black Angels is not a work intended for surface solace, but rather of raw emotional expression. It is a piece of perfect intensity to acknowledge the singular mix of loss and pain and senselessness and reconciliation and resolve that is represented in our national occasion of Memorial Day.
Here’s the second movement – “Absence” – from George Crumb’s Black Angels.