A Deconstructive Reading of George Crumb's

Black Angels

George Crumb's Black Angels is a piece which presents the polarity of good versus evil. Because of the hierarchy that Crumb sets up, it is an ideal piece for deconstructive analysis. This essay will begin with an introduction to deconstruction, traditionally a analytical technique applied to literature. Secondly, it will attempt to explain why deconstruction works well for music analysis. A close reading of the good versus evil polarity in Balck Angels will show that Crumb has set up a free play between good and evil in this piece.

Introduction to Deconstruction

Deconstruction was a development lead by literary theorist and philosopher, Jacques Derrida during the late 1960s. Deconstruction upended the Western metaphysical tradition n response to the theoretical and philosophical movements of the Twentieth Century including: Husserlian phenomenology, Saussurean and French Structuralism and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Put simply, deconstruction is a critique of structuralism. More elaborately:

``deconstruction is a method of textual analysis and philosophical argument involving the close reading of works of literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics and anthropology to reveal logical or rhetorical incompatibilities between the explicit and implicit planes of discourse in a text and to demonstrate by means of a range of critical techniques how these incompatibilities are distinguished and assimilated by the text.``(Groden, s.v."deconstruction")

Derrida argues that metaphysical systems are ‘centred' structures that depend on a logic according to which the centre is understood as both present in and independent of structure. The relationship between centre and structure appears as a hierarchical opposition in which one term is understood to embody the truth and the other is seen as a pale copy.(Childers, s.v. "deconstruction) Deconstruction focuses on these binary oppositions within a text. Its task is three fold, deconstruction must first show how the oppositions are structured hierarchically. Secondly, deconstruction aims to overturn the hierarchy temporarily, as if to make the text say the opposite of what it appeared to say initially. Finally, deconstruction reasserts both terms within the non-hierarchical relationship of difference.(Groden, s.v."deconstruction") As a result, deconstruction celebrates a limitless interpretation of meaning which is no longer anchored in any signified concept.

Derrida and Music

Deconstruction can expand easily to include music because Derrida's views of language transfer comfortably to music and especially well to music analysis. Deconstruction is primarily concerned with an analysis of the text. As a field which is primarily concerned with a close reading of the notes, deconstruction is well suited to music analysis. Music and language share a lot of similarities, for example both music and language are temporal processes. When one reads a sentence the full meaning often does not emerge until the end of the sentence. Listening to a musical phrase is much like reading sentences. When listening to a phrase of music its meaning is not apparent until the phrase has been heard completely. Even then, as with reading, the meaning of a musical phrase can be modified for the listener by later signifiers. Both music and language depend on context to create meaning; meaning is never identified with itself.

Sometimes a deconstruction of music is even more effective than language. Derrida states that no particular sign can be regarded as referring to any particular signified, we are unable to escape the system of signifiers. This works extremely well for music because it is impossible to pin down one particular meaning for music. Music's absence of meaning fulfills Derrida's theory of unqualified presence. Like language, musical meaning is not always found in terms of origin, it is often seen in terms of goals, towards which all other meanings are advancing.

Black Angels

The score to Black Angels is inscribed: "finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)" The date of the piece, 1970, was the height of the Vietnam war. For Crumb, this piece is essentially about good versus evil through continual allusion. He conceived the work "as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world." Beginning with the title of the piece, Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land), Crumb states that "the image of the ‘black angel' was a conventional device used by early painters to symbolize the fallen angel."(Crumb, cover) The black angel, in other words is the devil or evil in the good versus evil polarity. The titles of the movements continue the good versus polarity: the fourth movement being, ‘Devil-music' and the tenth movement, ‘God-music'.

Crumb states "the numerous quasi-programmatic allusions in the work are therefore symbolic although the essential polarity - God versus Devil - implies more than a purely metaphysical reality."(Crumb, cover)

The overall structure of the piece is held together through a numerological construct of which the numbers 7 and 13 are the deciding factors. The numbers 7 and 13 representing good versus evil to Crumb and make up the palindromic design of the piece. The numbers 1, 7, and 13 are key points in the symmetrical arch form, ‘Departure, Absence, and Return' which in themselves are allusions to rebirth and redemption.(Gillespe, 23) The numbers are also expressed in terms of phrase length, groupings of single tones, durations, and patterns of repetition. Crumb also draws on the numbers 7 and 13 as "an important pitch element - the ascending d#, and a and e also symbolize the fateful numbers."(Crumb, cover) Within the score there are several occurrences of chanting the numbers from one to thirteen in German, French, Russian, Hungarian, Japanese and Swahili. Of course, the date of the piece also contains several allusions to the numerology.

More direct allusions to the good versus evil polarity occur with Crumb's quotations. Firstly, his quotation from Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet is turned into a Renaissance style with, Pavana Lachrymae. There are several references to the Latin sequence Dies Irae "Day of Wrath". Conventional symbolisms occur with the diabolus in musica (the interval of the tritone) and the trillo di diavolo (the ‘devil's trill').(Crumb, cover)

The use of electronic amplification with its distortion is significant to Crumb's notion of reaching out to the world beyond.(Schwartz, 257) In most instances (especially obviously electronic instances, the electrified sections of Black Angels represents evil.

Although it would appear upon first inspection of Black Angels that Crumb has hierarchized the idea of evil in this piece he has in fact set up the binary opposition so that the good and evil rely on and inhere within each other. Listening to the piece reveals that good is actually much more present than evil, however the evil is always existing in some form. When the evil is present, it actually serves to define the goodness. In terms of numerology, it will be shown that in addition to the numbers 7 and 13, the number 3 plays an important role in structuring this piece. The number three is particularly significant because it represents the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The number thirteen also has particularly important religious connotations with 13 representing Jesus and his 12 disciples. Although instances of using 13 as a structural force in the piece is intended to represent evil, it in fact can be seen to represent good.


From the very beginning of the piece, specifically the title, it is clear that Crumb wants to bring the idea of evil to the forefront. The title Black Angels is a direct reference to the devil and therefore evil, yet even within this title the idea of good and God are present with the image of the angel. With, Thirteen Images from the Dark Land, Crumb emphasizes the 13 movements with its evil connotations as well as focuses on the idea of darkness, also an evil connotation. But, as mentioned above, the number thirteen has important Godly connotations. Crumb's decision to use electric string quartet is another focus on the unnatural and it will be shown that the use of amplification and distortion is used to promote evil in this piece.

The first movement, Threnody 1: Night of Electric Insects focuses on darker manner with the idea of threnody and night. Throughout the piece the presence of the electric insects motive indicates the presence of evil. The use of electronic amplification and distortion in this movement is pure evil. Threnody 1 is made up of predominantly melodic tritones with +2nds and few -2nds. Harmonically, the movement is mostly made up of semi-tone clusters, with some variation. The focus on the ‘diabolus in music' and the use of semi-tone clusters gives this movement an evil feeling. However, the repetition of motives in this piece focus around the number 7, a number which has good connotations.

Sounds of Bones and Flutes, the second movement, provides an absolute contrast to the previous movement. Clearly this movement is to draw allusions to good. Firstly, it is a trio consisting of violin one, violin two and cello. The trio aspect being important because it emphasizes the trinity. Each phrase in this piece has three components again insinuating the trinity.

The example above shows the first section col legno battuto section in violin two and cello, the second ka-to-ko chanting section, the third element being violin one's melody.(Crumb, 2) There are a lot of allusions to religion in this movement starting with the opening which Crumb requests to sound like "quasi Tibetan Prayer Stones" the focus on prayer draws an allusion to God. Also the religious is invoked with the chanting, "ka-to-ko". The sense of specific notes being used is lost with the emphasis more on rhythm except for the violin 1 melody which is thirteen notes consisting of a tritone enclosed by two +2nds. Although containing important evil allusions – of thirteen notes and the important interval of the tritone – this melody is a lot less threatening than those of the previous movement.

Lost Bells continues with the good nuance. The idea of bells immediately draws associations of church. The performance directions state this movement is to be played "remote, transfigured" Transfigured has major religious connotations meaning to make more spiritual or elevated especially implying that of Christ. The use of harmonics throughout make the tone colour of this short movement extremely ethereal with the implying heavenly meaning. In terms of numerology the numbers seven and three are important to this piece for durations of events. The cello and violin two have seven statements of the harmonics between them and violin two closes with a seven note melody. This is not to say that evil is not present, the cello's solo melody is made up of thirteen notes.

The fourth movement has major evil connotations beginning with its title, Devil Music. This movement is an accompanied cadenza for solo violin one named, "vox diabolo". It is the use of electronics and distortion that make this violin's cadenza devil music. Crumb indicates that he wants the violin to increase the bow pressure until the pitch becomes pure noise. When the solo music is not cluttered with tritones it is being distorted to give it its evil connotations. The quotation of Dies Irae occurs in this movement played by the violin and viola in pedal tones:(Crumb, 3)

"Pedal tones are produced by moving the bow very slowly while exerting great pressure. Since various ‘partials' are obtainable, the player should calculate carefully distance from bridge and bow pressure in order to produce the lower octave." (Crumb, 3) The incredibly low range of this quotation implies the devil's home, hell.

Danse Macabre continues with what should be an evil sound yet as the performance instructions indicate, "grotesque and satirical", evil is present in a satirical manner. Danse Macabre is almost humorous connotation of evil. This movement does not sound as diabolic as the previous movement due to the lack of distortion that was present in Devil Music. The "Dies Irae" is heard again, although this time plucked in the violin 1 and cello making it seem much more humorous than evil. The devil is present because the melody line and harmonies in violin 2 are tritone after tritone. The movement ends with chanting the Hungarian numerals one through seven, avoiding a full connotation of evil.

The sixth movement, Pavana Lachrymae is a very short trio for violin 2, viola, and cello. The sound of this movement returns to the ethereal colour as Crumb quotes Schubert's string quartet, Death and the Maiden. The movement is to be played "grave, solemn; like a consort of viols a fragile echo of ancient music." The sound of ancient music brings with it religious connotations. Pavana Lachrymae is tonal, based on open fifths throughout again stressing the good undertone. The movement is not free of evil however, the numerology is 13 under 13. The insect sounds from the first movement, one instance of which is played for thirteen seconds, also have evil insinuation.(Crumb, 4)

Threnody II Black Angels is very much like the first movement with its trills, electric amplification and tritone sequences. The numerology is focused around the number thirteen with thirteen being called out in Japanese, Russian and Swahili. The movement ends shouting the numbers one through thirteen in German amongst tutti tremolos.

The eighth movement, Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura, is good although evil is still present. The movement is prefaced with solo obligato introduction of insect music, then played for a duration of 13 seconds once the Sarabanda begins. Before the Sarabanda starts Crumb asks for a three second duration of each note of the insect music before violin one, viola and cello enter. This movement is the mirror movement of the 6th movement, making up the overall palindromic structure. The melody is the same, only this time it is embellished. The insect sounds throughout marked pppp and ppp are a reminder of the presence of evil, also maintained by the numerology of the piece: 13 over 13. Overall, the tonal, Renaissance, chorale feel of the piece gives it religious connotations.

Like its mirror movement, Danse macabre, Lost Bells shares the ambiguity between good and evil. The numerology itself indicates this ambiguity being 7 times 13. The title, Lost Bells, is suggestive of the church. Although the title implies the tradition is lost, the bells are presented in violin two. The second violin is asked to play the instrument like a guitar allowing the harmonic tones are to ring like tiny bells in open fifths. Durational pauses are for three seconds marking the presence of the trinity. The counting from one up to the number seven in French is suggestive of good, however, the violas accompaniment to this chanting is reminiscent of the insect sounds indicating the presence of evil. Ironically, the players are asked to wait thirteen seconds before starting God Music.

The tenth movement, God Music, unlike the other palindrome relations is the direct antithesis of the Devil Music. Significantly Crumb starts the third section, Return, with God Music. Crumb has saved the most ethereal sounds of the whole piece for God Music. The use of what he calls the glass harmonica - the bowed crystal wine goblet filled with water produce exact notes which are intensely celestial. Violin one, violin two and viola bow the crystal glasses to produce minor triads in root and first inversion. Both violin one and violin two use seven glasses, while the viola uses six. The cello's melody in this movement is the voice of God. This melody is profoundly calm through most of the piece except for 2 bars where it is obvious that even God is angry.(Crumb, 7) The anger is marked by increased dynamics and rhythm.

The Ancient Voices movements, number eleven and twelve are difficult to analyze in terms of good and evil. Their significance relates more to ancient music than to the good versus evil polarity.

The final movement of the piece, Threnody III: Night of the Electric Insects undeniably marks the presence of evil. The movement opens with four overlapping statements of the insect music, each held for the duration of thirteen seconds.(Crumb, 9)

The dynamic marking pppp makes the evil seem disembodied and incorporeal, as Crumb has suggested with his performance notes at the beginning of the movement. The insect music is made up of dissonant intervals such as tritones, major sevenths and major elevenths. The movement goes on to repeat the evil material from the opening of the piece. Crumb then returns to the thirteen second durations of insect noises as before accompanied by the whispered chanting of the numbers one through seven in Japanese. The movement ends with the voice of God in harmonics played by the cello.(Crumb, 9)

The presence of evil is not lost as the cello is accompanied by the insect music. The final duration markings of the piece both signify good: seven and three second intervals. The piece closes with the bowed tam tam (evil) and then glass bells which play the melody from Sounds of Bones and Flutes. The ambiguity continues until the end with to whispered statements in Japanese of the number seven ending with one statement of thirteen.(Crumb, 9)

Throughout Black Angels it has been shown that Crumb neither intended the piece to be about good or evil, but a free play between the two polarities. He is able to achieve the free play by many means including numerology, tone colour, motive, quotations, intervals, trills, electronic amplification and distortion.


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