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Does it Need to Sound Pretty? Part One

A. Kori Hill

If you study classical music, you’ve probably been told to take the edge out of your sound and make it pretty. There is so much classical music out there that sounds pretty, not only because of the harmonies and melodies but because of how folks are taught to play. But does classical music always need to sound pretty? Does presence of grit, whistles, pops, and harshness in one’s sound always mean poor technique? No! 

If you look at music from the twentieth century, there are a lot of examples where beautiful sound is chucked out the window. Listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad,” (1942) which became a requiem (a Mass for the souls of the dead) for those who were killed in the Nazi siege of the Russian city in 1942. Or his String Quartet No. 8 (1960), who he dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” Harsh, even ugly sounds were no longer ignored but embraced to express harsh, ugly times.  

West Virginia composer George Crumb leaned into this, especially in his Black Angels for Electric String Quartet (1970). The first sound you hear is harsh and brittle; totally nails-on-chalkboard annoying. Why would he ask musicians to make such noise?! Well, a few things. Crumb subtitled the work “Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli).” In tempore belli is Latin for “in time of war,” which is reference to the United States’ war in Vietnam. Black Angels has thirteen movements divided into three sections: I. Departure, II. Absence, and III. Return, and in Crumbs’ words is “a voyage of the soul.”  

There’s a lot going on in this piece: a commentary on war, and on the isolation of a journey in the afterlife. This is serious, unnerving stuff. So, Crumb doesn’t go for a beautiful, gorgeous sound. He goes with sounds that he feels best express the horror and uncertainty of these subjects.   

Crumb calls for the musicians to use extended techniques, play other instruments, and be amplified. Each musician has at least four other things they have to play. Examples include the violins and violas playing a 6” glass rod, 2 metal thimbles, and a metal pick; violin 1 and cello with a maraca; and the violins with 7 crystal glasses each. Extended techniques are when musicians play their instruments in unorthodox ways. For Black Angels, the quartet members play with their bow on the fingerboard, above their fingers! They also play their instruments with thimbles on their left hand and bow on the “wrong” side of the strings! Add electronic amplification, and the instruments that we think we know sound totally unfamiliar.  

It’s important to remember that folks create music to express a range of emotions and experiences. Not all of them are positive, pretty, or comforting. But it’s also true that sounds that make us uncomfortable aren’t so because they’re expressing something negative. It might be because you’re not used to those sounds. Come back next time for a look at some music that falls in this latter category.  

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