Monday, November 19, 2007

Necronomicon -- the String Quartet!

I am not, as Dave Barry likes to say, making this up.

Last Thursday, I went to the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, here in Philadelphia, to hear the MirĂ³ Quartet perform a string quartet titled "Necronomicon." The MirĂ³ Quartet are four stunningly talented classical musicians and, in what is pretty much standard for such groups, presented two classical war-horses (Mozart's Quartet in D Major, K. 499, Hoffmeister, and Brahms' Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2) along with one contemporary piece, in this case John Zorn's Necronomicon.

The music itself was energetic ("Let's hope we don't break too many strings" one of the quartet said, before beginning), aggressively modern, and well-received by the audience. Tom Purdom, Grand Master of Philadelphia Science Fiction and local music critic, attended the performance with Marianne and me, and pointed out that this is a result of a new trend: Contemporary composers are willing to meet the audience halfway and audiences -- who like the thought that there's something happening in serious music today -- respond enthusiastically. A couple of decades ago, the contemporary composers were all academics writing for their academic peers, and audiences sat through their pieces in stony silence, as the price they had to pay for the good stuff.

I liked the music but I won't write about it, simply because I lack the critical vocabulary to do so intelligibly. But what struck me was how the piece demonstrated exactly how far Lovecraft had and had not penetrated into the culture. Obviously, his work has to have had broad influence, if it's gone so far that there's a string quartet named after one of his inventions. But . . .

There were five movements to the piece, titled Conjurations, the Magus, Thought Forms, Incunabula, and Asmodeus. Which, obviously, have very little to do with Lovecraft's style of horror. And in the introductory remarks, it was clear that the Necronomicon had been assumed to be a book of spells for the conjuring of demons. (The young man also defined Incunabula as "a book of spells," but the blame for that can probably be laid at the doorstep of our current educational system.) So clearly Zorn had not actually read Lovecraft's works, but only heard about them secondhand.

From which I concluded that Lovecraft has risen to the status of cultural celebrity, somebody who people have heard of but not read.

Or maybe not even that far. On the way out, Tom ran into a representative of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which sponsors the concerts (possibly the largest such program in the country, and among the cheapest) and asked him if he knew that the piece was based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

With a quizzical smile, the man said, "Who?"


john said...

Thanks for coming to the concert and glad you liked the piece. For the record "incunabulum" refers to a book or piece of printed material produced in Europe before 1501. The latin word means "swaddling clothes", literally the "hangings-over", often connoting "origin'. In book terms this refers to the early usages of the printing press. I figured for the audience, the image of an medieval spellbook was enough, and more to the point.

I have a double degree from Yale in Greek and Latin Literature and Archaeology--so I wouldnt cite the failure of the current educational system.

I am 36--thanks for thinking I'm a "young man", but not sure thats accurate.

I have read most of Lovecraft's works as a teenager and liked it on the whole. But as you concluded, Lovecraft per se was not in John Zorn's mind when he chose the title. The many "necronomikon"references to books, conventions and images in the contemporary fantasy community and the cultural connotation of the title was what he wanted to ride on.

Hope you come to hear us again,
John Largess
miro quartet

Anonymous said...

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