String Quartet No. 1: The Music of Erich Zann

Here there is an entire world to explore. The indeterminate ending is wonderfully wrought. I really liked this work and hope it remains in the repertoire. Completely worth the purchase price. If you know chamber music you will love this work.

  • Overall: B B B B B
  • Quality: Q Q Q Q Q
  • Value:   V V V V V
  • Navona Records. Composed by Michael J. Evans. Performed by the Sirius Quartet. Based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Price: $9.99

Review by Reber Clark

February 22, 2017

It’s here! Serious Western Art Music utilization of HPL’s work.

I did not have a score, so many of the more technical aspects of the music were somewhat difficult to determine. I have included an overview first and if the reader would like to follow along I’ve included my “blow by blow” notes.

Overview: Thank Azathoth composer Michael J. Evans got the instrument right! It’s a viol (actually a ‘cello in this case), not a violin. Many who say they have read the story “The Music of Erich Zann” recall him playing a violin. It is not. It is a viol – an old ‘cello-like instrument that touches the floor which imparts resonance – an important story point I think. The illustration by Andrew Brosnatch that accompanied the publication of this story in Weird Tales gets it right as well (q.v.).

The piece is very effectively organized into eight “Scenes” and an Epilog. Each scene depicts a part of the story line. The music is melodic and beautiful yet eerie and determined.

The Sirius Quartet, it can determined right away, is an excellent group of musicians and a great choice for the performing ensemble. There seems to be a very well done combination of live string and bowing effects combined with a few effects that may or may not be done in post-production. Some remind me of the old Echoplex effect (a tape delay technique developed in 1959).

At the beginning I was struggling to find a unifying musical idea and thought things wandered a bit. However it is very apparent that the melodic, pretty, and poignant scoring is taking us on an intriguing journey along the story line of Lovecraft’s tale. Not only musical sounds but creepy scraping effects — bearing down heavy on the bow – and very intriguing and original sounds conspire to tell the story. Somehow it all seems to hang together, but I’m not sure how. It appears to wander a bit but still has my attention maybe because I know the story. For those who do not – not sure how it would come across. Yet it is fascinating and does not drift. It is to the point. The “off tunings” (tunings that vary from the overall tonality of the work) used are especially effective against the in-tune tremolo backgrounds. Some sections remind me of whale sounds. I was greatly impressed after experiencing flute-like and clarinet-like sounds coming from those strings.

As I listened the piece became more and more impressive and effective. Volume layers and very effective dynamic contrasts as well as the inclusion of an old Gypsy violin quote from Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás” give life and illustration to the work: “The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognized the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.” – HPL, “The Music of Erich Zann”

Blow by blow notes:

SCENE 1 Col legno battuto adds a foreboding touch. Subtle and effective.

SCENE 2 Viol again, a bit more active. Now we’re getting serious – the music is eerie and determined. Sound like we’re keeping things at bay. A touch of middle eastern scale, with two harmonic tetrachords joined by a link. Some pizz and stacc combined. Now tonal – a conversation? Good ensemble.

SCENE 3 Pizz sneaking? Steps? Cool echo FX not sure how produced. Almost like an old Echoplex. Nice tonal section in middle 3d of this movement. Maybe the old German musician’s story about himself? A bit of brightness – the story of the theatre? Back to the previous day situation the off-tuning of the lead violin is just right. Pulls in the right way against the ear. Echoplex is back – reason for Echoplex suspicion is the echo is in 3s.

SCENE 4 Melodic. Pretty. Poignant. Creepy scraping FX. Really cool sounds. bearing down heavy on the bow. Not sure which instrument is doing it. Creaking floor? Melodic yet suspenseful. Knocking, silence, could this be meeting the violist? Very musical then knocking? Maybe a theatre vignette? Was the knocking a conductor tapping his stand? Very intriguing sounds. Last 3rd very beautiful (watch the tuning). You think it’s going to be conventionally pretty and it takes some interesting turns. G.P. then slam and trem! Drama!

SCENE 5 A bit etude-like then to some dance-like vignettes. Vaporous ending.

SCENE 6 Odd bow FX. Not sure what they are – harmonies and bow hair techniques? Off tuning especially effective against in-tune trem background. Reminds me of whale sounds! Cool. Echoplex used well again. I love this effect – especially if it’s live. Feels live. Impressed after flute-like sounds here and clarinet-like sounds elsewhere. Wow!! End of 6. Bebe Barron score to Forbidden Planet! A few more whale sounds and FX. A microphone effect?

SCENE 7 Ostinato with solo violin and “off tunings”. Harmonious, whale sounds, Echoplex technique, very intriguing opening! Like it! Great build. Screams (in low guttural) unexpected and very effective. Knocking follows. Half way through a recap of sorts. Melodic, tonal. Beautiful.

SCENE 8 Scrapy FX. Volume layers very effective dynamic contrasts! Violin 1 & 2 trade off. Speed increase as does dissonance. Wow!! Chaos – FX – not sure if live or done in post – some probably in post. A bit reminiscent of “Ultra-Vivaldi” from Curved Air’s 1972 album “Phantasmagoria”. A return to Monti’s “Csárdás” for a bit –as an echo (a memory?) then a brief reference to the top. Very quiet ending. Nice resolution. Gentle yet persistent. Like a memory after a huge event. Beauty.

EPILOG Cold light of day. Repeated listening will be rewarded I’m sure. Entire world to explore. Indeterminate ending. Really liked it.