Understanding George Crumb’s “Black Angel”

by yanru2013


Crumb’s work challenges almost every aspect of the definition for music. At the beginning of the course, we learned basic musical elements to be rhythm, meter, tempo, pitch, melody, dynamics, instrumental textures, harmony, tonality and form, etc. Crumb basically gives each of these elements a new meaning in his work, Black Angel. Many parts in this work are not written in bar lines, making it impossible to have strict meters. Therefore, this piece is highly free and depends on the interpretation of the performers. With exceptions of few fragments, the piece has no clear and consistent motifs, themes, or melody. It sounds like an experiment of dissonance intertwining with irregular beats in the rhythmic line. The use of instrument is also challenged in this piece, with the violins being performed in unconventional way that will make a traditional violin teacher turn pale. Personally I really appreciate the frank and unconstraint anxiety the piece displays. It reminds me of the extreme expressionist in the modernism era.

Compared with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Movement II, Black Angel does not have a form, a rhythmic pattern. While in Beethoven’s String Quartet the violinists play their instruments with conventional standards, Crumb developed several techniques producing sounds that we did not hear previously. These techniques produce a violent and grotesque quality for the piece. For instance, in some part, Crumb utilizes “scooping effects”, in which the high violins play fast glissandos to sound like crying and yelling; in other parts, Crumb also uses violins to imitate a flute by bowing their strings with the back of the bow (the wood). These new techniques add new feelings into this piece.

Black Angel has some underlying connections with Western Art Music traditions. For instance, I would like to label this music as a program music. Program music is a tradition of the Western Art Music, fully developed during the Romantic period. The title, Black Angel, and its subtitle, “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, gives suggestions for the audience to establish their own listening experience according to the music and to the implication of the program. My own interpretation of the piece is that this piece’s emotion and tension has some connection with the very concepts of “Black Angel”, “Darkness”, and“Profanity”. Without the program aspect of this piece, I would very like go to a different direction when try to make sense out of this piece. Thus this piece still has connection with Western Art music in the sense that it is a program music.