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Haunting Hymns for Halloween

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Looking for something other than “The Monster Mash” for your Halloween party? Try Kronos Quartet. Although they aren’t conducive to dancing, two of their CD’s, Black Angels and Night Prayers, are naturals for spooky ambience.

Night Prayers lends itself best to the purpose. The disc is a compilation of pieces based on traditional music from the Black Sea region: Tuva, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Armenia. This part of the world has long been associated with mystery,magic and the occult. It spawned the uber-sorceress Medea, the vampire myth, and, of course, Dracula. Not surprisingly, the tenor of its native music is just as spooky and eerie as its myths and folklore.

The disc begins with the growling refrain of the Throat Singers of Tuva, a nomadic group from the Western Ukraine, then moves on to the plaintive high soprano song of “Lacrymosa,” which takes its inspiration from the the Requiem of the Catholic Mass as well as from traditional music from Uzbekistan. The voice of Dawn Upshaw sings a dissonant melody accompanied by even more dissonant strings. The effect is similar to a witch casting her spell while demons swirl about her. Next, comes “Mugam Sayagi,” from Azerbaijan. It’s from an Islamic tradition and is supposed to express sensual longing. It starts out with a low, haunting melody and then escalates into a frenzied mash of strings that is worthy of the sound track of an Ed Wood movie. “Quartet No. 4″, is a tense piece from the Tatar region of Russia, suspenseful and less dissonant than the usual Kronos fare, but it, too, has that steely string sound interspersed throught that evokes images of bats and demons. “A Cool Wind is Blowing” is Armenian. Its melody, very Middle Eastern in tone, overlies a dissonant harmony that gives it a spooky feel without being too jarring. “K’Vakarat” is from the vocal tradition of the Jewish synagogue and is a beautiful, haunting, low melody sung in a tenor voice with a subdued string accompaniment. The final selection, “Night Prayers,” is from Georgia, and has a doleful melody typical of traditional Russian music.

Although its title suggests that it’s the more appropriate disc for Halloween, only a few songs on Black Angels have sufficient haunting ability, unless you want to count the sound of that old haunt Charles Ives singing a medley of battle songs that he composed during World War I. The first movement of the title track, “Black Angels” sounds like bats flying from Hell. It gets calmer in the second movement, but it’s still sad and haunting, and interspersed with those bat sounds, which return again in full cacophany in the third movement, whose last refrain is fittingly called “Night of the Electric Insects.”

The other most fitting Halloween tune on this disc is “Doom. A Sigh.” Written by a Hungarian and incorporating the lamentations in song of a now-defunct ancient Hungarian tribe that the composer recorded in the 1970’s. The piece would be right at home with those of Night Prayers. The songs of the Hungarian women are like voices crying in the night, (Rachel crying for her children always comes to my mind when I hear it.) and the percussive accompaniment duplicates the stacatto sound of machine guns. Sadly, this particular group of Hungarians were “removed” and “resettled” after the composer recorded them. They didn’t fit in with the communist regime’s vision for the country.

Less haunting, but more beautiful is the sixteenth century hymn “Spem in Alium” which portrays in music the story of Judith, the Jewish heroine who saved her people from the invading Babylonians, and Shostakovich’s “Quartet No. 8″ which, although it’s overall tone is mournful, has too many playful moments to be recommended soley for haunting.

They may be jarring to the ears and the nerves at any other time, but played on Halloween, these two discs can strike just the right chord.

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