Irrelevant Troubadour


George Crumb, Unto the Hills; Black Angels
February 17, 2011, 7:03 pm
Filed under: music

Some people like gentlemen’s clubs, some people like turkey clubs, some people like billy clubs, but me, I like The TV Tropes Album Exchange Club.  This one’s a review of George Crumb’s Unto the Hills and Black Angels, which I’m evaluating separately since they’re separate pieces.

The one adjective I can think of to describe Unto the Hills is “spare” (that and “not on youtube”).  Spare like empty, treeless hills at midnight under a full moon; spare like a burned-out Appalachian ghost town. Spare, yet haunted: this is piece that is dominated by silence and negative space, and the sounds that stand out—the percussion, dissonant chiming, piano, vocals (which I quite liked; they seemed very pure), eerie strings, and occasional Scare Chord—seems like ghosts, barely at the edge of perception. This piece is like stepping into an abandoned house and hearing, in the back of your mind, the music that once played there. As such, the interpolation of the Appalachian folk songs really works, making the piece seem like a sort of a requiem for this rapidly vanishing culture.

As for Black Angels? I’m torn. I probably enjoyed this more than Unto the Hills as a piece of music, but it lacks the thematic import the other piece had. Perhaps I’m simply lacking context. George Crumb certainly realizes just how versatile a string quartet can be, using is as everything from a percussion ensemble to a punishing noise attack to a barely-audible musical sigh. Yet these disparate elements really didn’t come together as a whole for me. While I could appreciate, say, the dissonant noise assault that opens the piece or the mournful yet defiant hymn at around 10:30, I really didn’t know how to connect them to each other. I also wasn’t much of a fan of the shouted interjections; they seemed like a cheap shock than a real musical element. But then again, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t have the liner notes; it could be that the only reason I’m missing the thematic relevance of all of this is because I don’t know it. Then again, I don’t have any background material on Unto the Hills either, so I really don’t know.

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