Ear Supply: Diabolus in Musica

Anything you may read in program or liner notes about George Crumb’s 1970 Black Angels—the numerological structure (it’s all about 13s and 7s, apparently), the Beethoven references, the “Dies irae” quotes, the Vietnam War subtext—will likely be pushed right out of your head by the manic scrabbling of the work’s opening bars. (“Night of the Electric Insects” is this section’s title, and that sums it up.) In this 19-minute work for string quartet—with help from amplification, gongs, maracas, and bowed water glasses—Crumb seemingly poured every shocking idea he had about what a quartet should sound like, and the piece still sounds arrestingly freakish today.

Violinist Stephen Bryant, who’s playing the work Friday night on the Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] concert, says “All of our traditional training is pretty useless . . . Crumb managed to go far outside the box. I’m playing a col legno [with the wood of the bow, not the hair] riff, and in a different rhythm I have to chant . . . We have glass rods we press against the string to make different sounds; we pluck them with paper clips.” (There’s a cute video on YouTube of the players practicing on the glasses.) As a young violinist discovering the then-new work, Bryant ate it up: “At 24, it made a big impression . . . I listened to Black Angels every day.” Another young musician floored by the piece was the Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington, who says it was the work that inspired him to found the group 40 years ago here in Seattle—the link between the classical tradition he’d grown up with and the “virtuosity and electricity” of the rock-guitar school of Hendrix.

The cellist for that inaugural concert, by the way, was Walter Gray; now a SSO veteran, he’ll be the cellist for Black Angels here, too, joined by violinist Emma McGrath and violist Sayaka Kokubo. A word of warning from Gray: “In the old days we had a reviewer leave because of the volume! In the [Benaroya Hall] lobby I don’t know how far we can push it, but wait and see.” Also on the bill: music by Kalevi Aho, R. Murray Schafer, and pioneering minimalist Morton Feldman. Benaroya Hall, Third Ave. & Union St., 215-4747, seattlesymphony.org. $20. 10 p.m. Fri., Jan. 31.

 
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