George Crumb – His Life and Work


A page from the score for Makrokosmos I (1972) by George Crumb.

American composer George Crumb died in February at the age of 92, something I only discovered a couple of months ago. Outside the USA he always seemed like an obscure figure, seldom mentioned in British newspapers (although The Guardian did run an obituary), with even a sympathetic magazine like The Wire only interviewing him once in February 1997. Well, I have a perverse attraction to the art made by overlooked mavericks, and I’d managed to accumulate several recordings of Crumb’s compositions after being alerted to his existence by Jack Sullivan’s profile in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), a book that Sullivan also edited which turned out to be a surprisingly useful music guide. Sullivan’s entries were invaluable at the time for discussing classical music and composers from an uncommon point of view, namely the degree to which various compositions might be considered a part of the horror genre, whatever the original intention behind their writing. Musicologists would dismiss such an approach as vulgar but I was pleased to read descriptions that for once used emotional words like “atmospheric”, “spectral”, “haunting”, or “chilling”, instead of the formal analysis of timbres and tone clusters that you find in sleeve notes; Sullivan even describes one of Crumb’s orchestral works as “a terrifying racket” which is exactly the kind of thing I like to be told if I’m going to spend time tracking down scarce recordings.


Cover art by Bob Pepper, 1971.

Not everything by Crumb belongs in a horror encyclopedia but his most celebrated composition, Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970), certainly does, a string quartet for amplified instruments augmented by glass and metal percussion. The opening section, Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects, is shriekingly violent, a response to the use of attack helicopters in Vietnam that also shows Crumb’s predilection for an evocative title. His Makrokosmos suites for amplified piano include sections with titles like The Phantom Gondolier, Music of Shadows, and Ghost-Nocturne: for the Druids of Stonehenge, while later compositions include Apparition (1979) and A Haunted Landscape (1984). The four volumes of Makrokosmos belong in Sullivan’s “spectral” category, with the performer(s) being required to sporadically shout, whistle and strum the strings of the piano. Unusual sounds and unorthodox approaches to instrumentation and performance were a consistent feature of Crumb’s compositions.


Cover design by Paula Bisacca, 1975.

For the curious or uninitiated, George Crumb – His Life and Work is a 28-minute compilation of pre-existing video pieces put together by Andreas Xenopoulos that provides a useful introduction to the composer. Extracts from an interview with Crumb are interleaved with examples of his music that include a few glimpses of live performance. I’m very familiar with the first three volumes of Makrokosmos but these extracts made me realise that I’d never seen them performed before, so I’d never considered the amount of times the pianists have to manipulate the piano strings while they’re playing the keys. Black Angels requires similar input from the performers—whispering, shouting, bowing tam tams and tuned wine glasses—something referred to by David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet in another interview extract. Black Angels is a particularly important part of the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire (I recommend their 1990 recording), being the composition that prompted Harrington to form the quartet in the first place. YouTube has a number of live performances including this one by Ensemble Intercontemporain. Play loud.

For a composer with a career spanning several decades, Xenopoulos’s compilation might have been longer but most of the extracts still seem to be present in full elsewhere. And while I usually dislike Christmas music, given the time of year I’ll direct your attention to Crumb’s A Little Suite For Christmas, AD 1979 played by Ricardo Descalzo. The piece wouldn’t have warranted a mention in the horror encyclopedia but it isn’t tinselly nonsense either.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic

Phantom Cities by The Sodality of the Shadows


Book by HV Morton (1926) not included.

I like night music, any kind of night music, whether it be the shimmering sonorities of Béla Bartók and George Crumb, Julee Cruise exploring the dark, or the rumbling atmospheres of Thomas Köner. Phantom Cities by The Sodality of the Shadows is night music of another kind, more musically determined than the numerous purveyors of post-Köner dark ambience, with a character defined by weird fiction. The latter quality is perhaps inevitable given the people who comprise the group: Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker have been running Tartarus Press for the past 30 years; Mark Valentine is an author and editor (and occasional publisher) of many story collections, and Jon Mueller’s name has appeared here in the past via the soundtrack CD for the Swan River Press edition of The House on the Borderland that I illustrated. Phantom Cities sidesteps Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City for an older lineage, looking back to Arthur Machen (the group’s name is borrowed from a secret society formed by Machen and AE Waite) and the spectral metropolis of pre-war London photographed by Harold Burdekin in London Night (1934). The music is slow, sombre and reverberant; guitars pluck notes from the embracing dark while Mueller’s drums maintain a funereal pace; sporadic squalls of feedback suggest a deeper darkness, the latent possibilities of unpeopled streets. Mark Valentine had an earlier musical persona as The Mystic Umbrellas but his contribution here is textual accompaniment in the form of 12 fictional pieces, some of which are read by Rosalie Parker over and between the music. This isn’t a collection of readings, however, the album may be taken either as illustration of Burdekin’s photos and the texts or as a work that stands alone. A soundtrack for the longer nights of encroaching autumn.

Phantom Cities
Strange Houses Of Sleep

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Smoke
Two albums
Thomas Köner

Weekend links 392


Art by Twins of Evil for the forthcoming blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

Images (1972), the film that Robert Altman made between McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, is the closest the director came to outright horror. A disturbing portrait of mental breakdown, with Susannah York in the lead role, and photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, the film has for years been so difficult to see as to be almost invisible. Arrow Academy will remedy this situation in March next year with a new blu-ray restoration. Related: Geoff Andrew on where to begin with Robert Altman.

• “[Johnson] is a paltry, utterly conventional, upwardly mobile, morally squalid parvenu who yearns to be taken for what he isn’t.” Jonathan Meades‘ vitriol is in a class of its own, here being deployed in a review of Nincompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson by Douglas Murphy.

• “These films, all preserved in the BFI National Archive, are known as Orphan Works. When the rights-holder for a film cannot be found, that film is classified as an Orphan Work.” 170 orphaned films have been added to the BFI’s YouTube channel.

Don’t romanticize science fiction. One of the questions I have been asked so many times I’ve forgotten what my stock answer to it is, ‘Since science fiction is a marginal form of writing, do you think it makes it easier to deal with marginal people?’ Which—no! Why should it be any easier? Dealing with the marginal is always a matter of dealing with the marginal. If anything, science fiction as a marginal genre is more rigid, far more rigid than literature. There are more examples of gay writing in literature than there are in science fiction.

Samuel Delany in a lengthy two-part interview with Adam Fitzgerald

• One of the books I was illustrating this year was The Demons of King Solomon, a horror anthology edited by Aaron French. The collection is out now; I’ll post the illustrations here in the next month or so.

• Mixes of the week: Routledge Dexter Satellite Systems by Moon Wiring Club, No Way Through The Woods: A Conjurer’s Hexmas by SeraphicManta, and FACT mix 632 by Priests.

• Also at the BFI: Adam Scovell on a film adaptation of MR James that predates Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968) by 12 years.

• At Weird Fiction Review: Jon Padgett on absurd degenerations and totalitarian decrepitude in The Town Manager by Thomas Ligotti.

• At Larkfall: Electricity & Imagination: Karl von Eckartshausen and Romantic Synaesthesia.

• It’s the end of December so the London Review of Books has Alan Bennett’s diary for the past year.

Aquarium Drunkard‘s review of the year’s best music.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Lotte Reiniger Day.

Robin Rimbaud is In Wild Air.

• Dream Sequence (Images II) (1976) by George Crumb | Images (1977) by Sun Ra | Mirror Images (1978) by Van Der Graaf

Let England Shake


Design by Michelle Henning, drawings by PJ Harvey.

An album that’s been a continual visitor to the Coulthart CD player over the past few months, Let England Shake was consciously composed like George Crumb’s Black Angels “in time of war”, referencing not only wars present but those long past. Coiled around the bellicose theme is a portrait of a nation whose patriotism is built on sand. England did shake this year, and the unavoidable correlation of PJ Harvey‘s words with the events of the summer makes her album stand in relation to 2011 the way The Specials’ Ghost Town did to 1981.

In addition to the CD, Let England Shake also comes as a DVD of a dozen short films by photographer Seamus Murphy, one film for each song. Harvey and Murphy have very generously put the full set on YouTube in HD. Follow the links below.


Let England Shake


The Last Living Rose


The Glorious Land

Continue reading “Let England Shake”

A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic


Bluebeard (1982) by János Kass.

I thought I might not be able to do a fresh playlist this year, so much has already been covered by the previous lists (see the links below to earlier posts).

The search for new tonalities and timbres in 20th-century orchestral music led many composers to produce works that sound like—and have been used as—horror film soundtracks although you’ll never find critical discussion acknowledging such a vulgar reaction. This is a very masculine list although some of the performers are women. I might have included Diamanda Galás but she was in the first list, as was Delia Derbyshire with her associates in White Noise, the subject of a longer post here.

The Isle of the Dead (1909) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Mentioned here a few days ago, Rachmaninov’s suitably sombre piece is one of many compositions to borrow the medieval Dies Irae hymn for one of its themes.

Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) by Béla Bartók
Frank Zappa once said that his initial response upon hearing the music of Edgard Varèse was “These chords are mean; I like these chords.” I feel the same about Bartók’s music which can get very mean indeed. The obvious piece to mention would be the Adagio from Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining. Instead I’ve selected Bartók’s only opera, a psychodrama for two performers and orchestra in which Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, explores the castle (which also represents her husband’s character) only to find everything there stained with blood.

Visage (1961) by Luciano Berio
In which Berio records his wife and frequent collaborator, Cathy Berberian, then dissects her vocalisations to disturbing effect. “Visage contains no singing, and virtually no words,” says Martin Butler. “The product of days of gruelling recording for Berberian (leaving her physically damaged), it instead consists of her laughter, moans and groans, snorts and wheezes, and gibberish, all brilliantly edited, filtered, distorted and mixed with electronic backing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the wordless voice. The effect is shocking and extreme, but also hilarious and touching – and often all these things simultaneously.”

Bohor (1962) by Iannis Xenakis
In addition to making some of the most thrilling and advanced new music of the 20th century, Xenakis chose great titles for his compositions, frequently unusual words. Bohor is a recording of layered sound sources that include a Laotian mouth organ, prepared piano, Iraqi and Hindu jewellery, and should ideally be heard with the sounds surrounding the listener. Intended by its composer to represent “the onset of madness”.


Design by Paula Bisacca.

Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by Themselves for Religious Reasons (1966) by Giacinto Scelsi
And speaking of great titles… The Italian composer uses orchestra, a choir and an Ondes Martenot to convey an ancient apocalypse. Part III was selected by Robbie Robertson (along with works by other composers listed here) for the Shutter Island soundtrack.

Lontano (1967) by György Ligeti
Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in three of his films. Lontano‘s piercing harmonics and growling chords prowl through The Shining together with pieces by Bartók and Penderecki.

Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970) by George Crumb
Many of the pieces here jangle the nerves but none more than Crumb’s composition for string quartet, glass and metal instruments, a part of which is used in The Exorcist. Composed “in time of war”, it’s a howl of despair whose opening manages to be even more disturbing than Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The 1990 Kronos Quartet recording is essential.


Logos (Rituel Sonore) (1970) by Igor Wakhévitch
“Sound ritual for pop group, mixed choir and magnetic tape.” The first album by the elusive French composer, a composition for a ballet, described by Alan Freeman as “a soprano singer, strange orchestral textures and percussives (drums, cymbals, gongs, etc.) blended with effects and processing. As the ominous percussion sets off with drum-rolls and ritualistic tension, the mood is of a looming anticipation of what is to come. Here we go through phases of weird swirling effects, vivid reverb and atmosphere. The tension becomes overpowering, yet we are led on…”

The Dream of Jacob (1974) by Krzysztof Penderecki
The Polish composer wrote for film soundtracks as well as the concert hall so it’s no surprise that his work can be heard in The Exorcist, The Shining and Shutter Island. The atmosphere of sustained malevolence in this piece is perfect for Kubrick’s haunted house. Whatever Jacob was dreaming about, it wasn’t pleasant.


Design by Heung-Heung Chin.

Necronomicon (2004) by John Zorn
A five-part composition for string quartet from Zorn’s Magick album.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Powell’s Bluebeard
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
A playlist for Halloween
The music of Igor Wakhévitch