Chamber Music Feature Print



George Crumb's "Black Angels" Revealed as a "Prepared" String Quartet

August 6, 2006 - Provincetown, MA:


On the stage are the four performers who constitute the Borromeo String Quartet — Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello. There are pickups on all four instruments and a microphone in lieu of a pickup in front of the cello. Three tables contain twenty crystal goblets. There are also two suspended gongs, two doublebass bows, and eight music stands perched two by two in front of each player. At the front of the stage is a huge black mixer with many connections; large but portable loud speakers are to the right and left of the stage. In the middle of the audience sits Jaehyun Ahn, an expert technician who will manipulate the electronics, assisting the quartet in the many sounds they will express.

The twenty goblets were assembled from the home of Nicholas Kitchen and Yeesun Kim, the home of Nick's parents in Durham, NC, the Garth Newell Fine Arts Center in Hot Springs, Virginia, and the local thrift shop in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Each glass has been subjected to patient testing for exact pitch and tolerance to the pressure of the bass and violin bows with which they will be played, and they have all been attached with duct tape to boards specially cut for them.

The score for George Crumb's "The Black Angels" is folio size (c.17"x22"), necessitating the double stands. Each performer has the identical music in full score, with its notations for thimble clicking, ponticello (on the bridge) playing, and even playing on the fingerboard, behind the fingers. The players' voices are used to shout and speak. and the performers must also click their tongues. Every page of "The Black Angels" is complex; each resembles in some ways medieval illuminations and is interesting and appealing visually. Beautiful as Chinese calligraphy, it would grace a living room wall if framed.

The titles of the movements of "The Black Angels" (which itself is subtitled "Images") are fanciful and short, as are the movements: "Lost Bells," "Threnody: Night of the Electric Insects," "Ancient Voices," "Departure," "Absence," and "Return."

Hearing and watching the Borromeo rehearse this amazing work was a fragmenting experience in the perception of sound, with many, many surprises coming seemingly from only the imagination. Expectation was not the mode for listening, but appreciation of the element of surprise. It was impossible to anticipate what sound would be used next in this music, although the overall blend was coherent. The mixture of the pure crystal reverberations elicited from the thin glass of the goblets by the horsehair was eerie, otherworldly, and sometimes so penetrating as to be unpleasant. The horsehair pulling sounds from the gongs was present more in one's tonal imagination, although it was a reality. The bowed gongs made very small sounds that grew a bit with the length of the bow's stroke. With its knocks and legatos and squalls, the electronic quartet — this is Crumb's designation for the strings used in "Angels" — forms a strange counterpoint to the natural lasers of the sound of the glass, a sound which in its clarity reminds one not only of lasers but of high boy sopranos.

As the Borromeo worked over and over with these sonorities in the rehearsals, their own increasing understanding of Crumb's tonal meaning became mine; slowly my restricted, fragmented comprehension grew into a thing of coherence and of beauty, an experience which remained and expanded into full appreciation and love of the work, culminating with the full performance I heard. The morning after the concert, the palette of sound — its gongs, spoken words, and strangeness of expectation — remained a coherent statement tinged with cacophony and fireworks, blending acoustic, electronic, and medieval suggestions.

The playing — by the entire ensemble — of the theme of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" on the fingerboard, near the scroll, and bowing down below those fingers, near the bridge, was a sensory experience both tonal and visual. Its echoes of ancient instruments made the experience unique in more ways than the visual disorientation.

The work involved in assembling the equipment needed to perform this works makes it clear why it is rare for it to be presented to a live audience.

However, the most intriguing effect of "The Black Angels" was yet to come at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. As the Borromeo danced into Beethoven's Opus 135, they first calmed the ear and then, in an unexpected gift to the listener, showed the Beethoven in its contrast to the Crumb in a new light, that of the sensory awareness present for the audience in this essentially joyous and still revolutionary quartet. The intricate sounds that Beethoven conceived in his deafness were in their way no less surprising now, nearly 200 years later, than the Crumb, written as it was in the 1930s. I thought of the movie 2001 with its tablet flying through space, unable to be cornered or stopped as it went evolving from one destination to another.

The words on the beginning page of the last movement of Opus 135 — "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" — took on a different intention in the wake of what we had just heard. The words and languages in the Crumb were used for their tonal suggestion. The tonal expressions (albeit non verbal) in Beethoven's words were sufficient in themselves, suggesting in syllables an addition to the music form that would be only part of the performers' experiences. They did not need complex philosophical rumination any more than the words employed by Crumb. People may provide explanations for the words in Opus 135 to satisfy themselves, but the sound alone is enough to convey the musical meaning, and the sound rests in the ears of the performers, who translate it into the tonal expression of the quartet. In the Crumb, the words themselves were spoken; in the Beethoven, only the rhythms and tones of the notes were perceived, yet the effect was similar....

This first presentation by the Borromeo pairing "The Black Angels" and Opus 135 was part of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival of which Nicholas Kitchen is Artistic Director. A second performance took place on August 10 at the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) Chamber Music Workshop, in New Jersey. The third will be in November at the New England Conservatory of Music* as a First Night Concert (held each month to present special music to the Boston audience at no cost). Lucky are the audiences that are able to hear these great works juxtaposed; the program allows listeners to make sound connections for themselves — and to create new connections suggested by these sounds. Surely both composers — George Crumb, who is very much present and alive in the 21st century, and Beethoven, who remains alive through the playing of his music— would have been delighted.

*"The Black Angels" will be repeated in Boston, in Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory, at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, November 6. The companion work will be Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Guitar Quintet. For more information, call 617/585-1122.

**The author is Director of the Duke String School, mother of Nicolas, and mother-in-law of Yeesun Kim.