Black Angels (Crumb)

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Black Angels (Edition Peters, New York, no. 66304, copyright 1971), subtitled "Thirteen Images from the Dark Land", is a work for "electric string quartet" by the American avant-garde composer George Crumb. It was composed over the course of a year and is dated "Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)" as written on the score.[1] Crumb is very interested in numerology and numerically structured the piece around 13 and 7. The piece is notable for its unconventional instrumentation, which calls for electric string instruments, crystal glasses, and two suspended tam-tam gongs. The work references the second movement, Andante con moto from Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet.


The thirteen individual movements of Black Angels are divided into three large groups.

I. Departure

Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects (tutti)

Sounds of Bones and Flutes (trio)

Lost Bells (duo)

Devil-music (solo)

Danse Macabre (duo)

II. Absence

Pavana Lachrymae (trio)

Threnody II: Black Angels! (tutti)

Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura (trio)

Lost Bells (Echo) (duo)

III. Return

God-music (solo)

Ancient Voices (duo)

Ancient Voices (Echo) (trio)

Threnody III: Night of the Electric Insects (tutti)

The structure of the work displays the numerological elements important to Crumb, that is, thirteen movements, of which the seventh is the centerpiece. Further, the organization of movements displays symmetry and palindrome: the instrumentation of each movement follows a palindromic structure: 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4; the first, central and thirteenth movements are titled Threnody; God-music and Devil-music stand symmetrically opposite each other.[2]


Black Angels is primarily written for (in Crumb's words) "electric string quartet." Though generally played by amplified acoustic instruments, the work is occasionally performed on specially constructed electronic string instruments. The music uses the extremes of the instruments' registers as well as extended techniques such as bowing on the fingerboard above the fingers and tapping the strings with thimbles. At certain points in the music, the players are even required to make sounds with their mouths and to speak.

Each of the string players is also assigned a set of instruments to play throughout the piece. Some of the equipment requires specific preparation, such as the crystal glasses, which are tuned with different amounts of water.

Violin 1

  • maraca
  • 7 crystal glasses
  • 6" glass rod
  • 2 metal thimbles
  • metal pick (paper clip)

Violin 2

  • 15" suspended tam-tam and mallet
  • contrabass bow (for use on tam-tam)
  • 7 crystal glasses
  • 6" glass rod
  • 2 metal thimbles
  • metal pick (paper clip)


  • 6 crystal glasses
  • 6" glass rod
  • 2 metal thimbles
  • metal pick


  • maraca
  • 24" suspended tam-tam, soft and hard mallets
  • contrabass bow

Stage positioning[edit]

Crumb's score includes a diagram that places the four musicians in a box-like formation. Electric Violin II and Electric Cello are located near upstage right and upstage left, respectively, with their tam-tams between them. Electric Violin I and Electric Viola are near downstage right and downstage left, respectively, but are slightly farther apart than the other two musicians in order to allow full sight of the quartet. Violin I, Violin II and Viola have a set of crystal glasses downstage of them, while Violin I and Cello have maracas upstage of them. Each of the four musicians has a speaker next to him or her.

Cultural influences[edit]

The Kronos Quartet, which specializes in new music, was originally formed when violinist David Harrington heard "Black Angels" over the radio.[3] He thought Crumb's piece was "something wild, something scary" and "absolutely the right music to play."[4] It was the first composition Kronos performed.[4] The Kronos Quartet recorded the work on their album Black Angels.

"Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects" is featured on the soundtrack of The Exorcist.[5]

"III. Return - God-music" is heard in the television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on the third episode of the series titled "The Harmony of the Worlds".[6]

The record is mentioned by David Bowie among his 25 favorite records[7]

Author Elizabeth Hand drew many of the chapter titles for her dark fantasy novel Waking the Moon from the composition, and credits it in the "Coda" of the book


  1. ^ "Kronos Quartet". Retrieved 2016-03-25. 
  2. ^ "MTO 18.2: Johnston, George Crumb's Black Angels". Retrieved 2016-03-25. 
  3. ^ Elizabeth Farnsworth (3 December 1998). "KRONOS". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 9 January 2010. 
  4. ^ a b Yaple, Carol (2008). "Four Hundred Candles: The Creation of a Repertoire". Kronos Quartet. Archived from the original on 2009-02-01. Retrieved 2009-01-26. 
  5. ^ "George Crumb". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 9 January 2010. 
  6. ^ "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage". Retrieved 17 July 2011. 
  7. ^ "Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 21 January 2016. 

External links[edit]