I’ve never spent any time at all researching George Crumb’s “Black Angels.” To me, it’s always been this thing I like to play late at night, listening with headphones with the lights off. To say that the composition is dark is an understatement. It was written as a response to the Viet Nam war. There are many, many works of art that have come into being because of the collision of good and evil, with “Black Angels” being among the most fierce. Perhaps only John Zorns Kristallnacht inhabits the same realm of intensity and brutality.
In my short few hours of digging, a number of pretty interesting facts were unearthed. I found out that Kronos founder David Harrington was inspired to put together the quartet because of “Black Angels.” He wanted a group disciplined enough to take on all manner of modern composition. Some of Crumb’s influences aren’t particularly obvious (the sounds of his home state of West Virginia, for example), while others — Charles Ives — he wears on his composer’s sleeve. Crumb is also into numerology, so (not that I detected this) various repeated patterns represent certain numbers.
Ironically, I first got into the Kronos Quartet because of their album “Pieces of Africa,” the irony being that that recording was close to pop music in comparison to “Angels.” The very first movement of “Black Angels 1: Departure” is called “Threnody 1: Night of Electric Insects.” What I hear is pure evil. Was this intended to be peoples’ reaction to the arrival of the bombers? The napalm? The agent orange? No matter, it’s all ugly.
And yes, war is ugly. What’s amazing is that such beautiful (and frightening) music can come of it.