Notes from the underground

This week, our focus (yours as the loyal reader, mine as the rambling columnist) is on music that we think of as “sad”, “melancholy”, or even “depressing.” These are all similar terms, though the last specifically has to do with the effect of the music on the listener, while the former two are only of the perceived character of the music.

There are three reasons why we might apply these terms (or other similar terms) to a piece of music. The first is that we have an association with it that conjures up bad memories. Let’s say you’re an eighth grade boy whose girlfriend breaks up with you at a Bar Mitzvah while “Lady in Red” is playing- that’s certainly a harsh thing to do. You might have a negative association with Bar Mitzvahs in general from that point onward, but more likely is that you will think of “Lady in Red” as a sad song. Another kid at the party might have had his first kiss while that song was playing, making his association with it totally different.

The second instance in which we might think of music as sad is when we ourselves are sad. Certainly you’ve had the experience of listening to a piece of music that you love on more than one occasion and having completely different reactions to it each time. Sometimes music will keep your mood down, though sometimes it can certainly be uplifting.

These two cases are not what I want to consider this week. Instead, I’m thinking of music that most people would describe as sad outside of any context. I’m also not interested in music with words; the words themselves can dictate too much of the emotional character of the song. I want it straight – a collection of pitches that comes together as “sad” in one way or another.

For most of us, a minor key signifies either danger or sadness. You see this sort of emotional string-pulling in movies and on television all the time, though such associations long predate the invention of those media. But that’s not quite enough; there is plenty of minor-key music that is either neutral or uplifting.

I’d like to look at a particular CD to further consider this point: the Kronos Quintet recording entitled Black Angels (CD K75 3). This is among the creepiest, scariest, saddest discs ever made. Of the five pieces on the album, three are extraordinarily melancholy, though they work in very different ways. Kronos is one of the more popular classical ensembles in the world; they have a devoted following and have been involved with many interesting projects in an effort to reach a wider audience. Apparently, they also felt that the world was just a little too happy, so they released this CD.

The first work is the source of the album title, a 1970 string quartet by George Crumb, one of the more remarkable composers of this century. Crumb has a totally distinctive musical language; he is a master of sound in addition to music, constructing extremely intricate and delicate sound-worlds. Black Angels bears a subtitle, “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land,” and two inscriptions: “in tempore belli” (in time of war) and “Finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March, 1970.” Crumb was not playing around here. This is sad, sad music – though I haven’t yet described it.

Black Angels calls for the string players to also shout, whisper, whistle, chant, and play percussion instruments. At times, you feel surrounded by grating, hostile sounds, with musical lines that leave you lost and afraid. Crumb recognizes the vulnerable position of the listener, who seeks stability and order but here receives little. This is not to say that the piece is unstructured – it has a very specific, “magical” structure beneath the surface. But hopping as it does from buzzing ponticello sounds to icy harmonics quoting Schubert’s Death and the Maiden to solemn recitations of Catholic liturgy, there is a constant quest for a stability that is never attained. The result is a fitting memorial to the victims of the Vietnam War, as intended, and a hauntingly beautiful piece of music.

The third piece on the album (I’ll get back to the second) is Istvan Marta’s Doom: A Sigh, written in 1989. Technically, this work is based on two songs, but they are sung in Rumanian and the sound quality of the recordings is terrible- the singers are central to the songs, but it’s the sound of the singers’ voices that carry the work, not the words themselves. It may seem as though I’m walking on thin ice, here, but what makes this work so depressing is the absolute agony that the singers (especially the first, evoking her long dead parents) convey in their tones. It is hard to say at times whether what has been recorded is singing or crying.

I would personally say that this is a cheap compositional technique, and the whole thing comes across as powerful in the way that listening to Itzhak Perlman play in the Schindler’s List soundtrack is powerful- there’s so much emotion evident in the performance that it elevates otherwise unremarkable music to a new level. Here, Marta’s work with the recordings is well-crafted, but she is essentially an editor/accompanist to and for the singers on tape. Nevertheless, this work is extremely powerful on some level and certainly would not be identified as anything but “horribly depressing”.

I’ll also skip the fourth work on the disc for now and move to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8, dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” I have discussed Shostakovich in this column before, but it was a long time ago and I was covering a recording of his bombastic Fifth Symphony. This quartet is the other side of the great composer; mostly slow, brooding, and full of anguish. People always ascribe Shostakovich’s tendency to write sad and ironic music to his repression under Stalin, but while that certainly was a major influence on his style, I think he was also an extremely sensitive man living in a time of supreme conflict and devastation. This quartet is eloquent and refined, written at the height of his powers and an astounding statement. It is sad because it is simple and because it never loses its mood, one that could best be described, I think, as reflecting great loss.

The other two works on the disc are interesting, but not sad: Tallis’ 40-Part Motet Spem in Alium and a recording of Charles Ives playing and singing “They Are There!” with the Quartet playing backup. I’d rather hear Ives alone, frankly, but it’s nice to have those two breaks from what is otherwise an astonishingly melancholy disc.

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