I study death.
A lot of days, I read about funeral customs, end-of-life care, the death industry, and I write about death and music. Contrary to what one might imagine, this reading is interesting, not usually depressing, and generally life affirming.
My interest in this topic came about during my doctoral studies at the University of Western Ontario. One of my answers for my comprehensive exams included a narrative analysis of George Crumb’s River of Life (2003), and I was drawn to the ways the piece commented on death. Despite its title, the songs in this cycle dealt with dying and the afterlife; it suggested a kind of symmetry and balance that conceived of death as part of life, necessary to make life complete. My analysis of the pitch structure supported this interpretation. As is typical of Crumb, the harmonic content features symmetrical set classes, aggregate completion, and a symbolic use of certain interval classes like the tritone. I was also compelled to analyze the music this way because of the seeming personal connections in the piece between the Appalachian folk songs and hymns, and Crumb’s identity as a West Virginian. The cycle conveyed a sense of death as a peaceful return home, and I posited that Crumb, in his early eighties at the time, would have found such a notion comforting.
While this project began as an exam answer, it grew into several conference papers, and I continued to work on it on the side, whenever my advisor was busy reading a dissertation chapter. Compared with my dissertation research on Rameau and the reception of Newton’s theories in the French Enlightenment, Crumb’s music and death provided much needed contrast, along with the chance to do score analysis (completely absent from my dissertation). When it came time to enter the job market, it turned out that having two very different research areas was a plus, and committees seemed to be attracted to this odd combination. In fall of 2014 my work on River of Life was accepted into an edited volume, Singing Death, about all manner of issues of music and mortality.
Unfortunately, I had to pause while editing the final draft of my essay for this volume because my father died in May 2015. The editors graciously granted me extra time away from the project in the worst periods of my grief, saying they understood that I needed a break from thinking about death critically when it had happened so close to me. Although unsure about whether I could continue in this particular research area, I found when I returned to it that the topic was richer and more personally rewarding than ever. My experience with grief revealed to me how poorly American culture equips us to deal with topics like death, grief, and mortality. By reading others’ accounts of how death impacted them, along with sociological accounts of American attitudes toward death, I realized I was not alone in my feelings. These authors dealt with topics that I wanted to talk about, but that mainstream culture seemed to deem off limits. I took comfort in reading about deaths in vastly different circumstances or periods of American history, and gained an appreciation for how honestly addressing my own feelings about death could improve my quality of life.
Being a part of Singing Death also alerted me to an entire subfield of the humanities of which I previously had been unaware: death studies. Once I knew that this field existed, I immediately knew it was the best way for me to situate the same issues in Crumb’s music. Death studies, which encompasses studies of death and mortality from various perspectives, specifies how death in the context of war is different, and how the mass deaths during American wars in the past have changed current cultural practices around death. I have been most attracted to discussions of ghosts or hauntings as part of cultural responses to death. Crumb’s music is full of ghostly content, whether abstractly in his choice of timbre, or explicitly in his titles, texts, and performance indications. With this framework in mind, I turned to two of his pieces about war to examine how these pieces commented on American wars or death during wartime.
Specifically, I have focused on Winds of Destiny (2004) and Black Angels (1970), and their relationships to the Civil War and the Vietnam War, respectively. My analysis of Winds of Destiny centers on how Crumb uses timbre and musical content to haunt listeners. I also draw on scholarship about death from this period about how the Civil War produced more causalities than any war before it (and many since). The mass quantities of dead in the 1860s led to the emergence of the modern funeral industry, and especially, the ubiquity of embalming. Aside from new funeral and business practices, this era also led to the government marshaling a sense of patriotism around the deaths of soldiers, as a way of coping with their deaths and maintaining enthusiasm for the war effort. Winds of Destiny does more than comment on the Civil War, however; it ultimately haunts listeners on an allegorical level, prompting us to consider the morality of more recent American military actions. Crumb’s Black Angels is well known, and though it does not explicitly deal with the Vietnam War, this war was central to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s that the piece comments on. Like the Civil War, the Vietnam War changed the way Americans viewed the deaths of soldiers. However, unlike the patriotism rallied for the Civil War dead, the losses in Vietnam became for many a symbol of the futility of Americans’ presence there. Their deaths were seen in some ways as meaningless and stood for the larger meaninglessness of the war. Black Angels haunts listeners on an allegorical level to consider these issues, while also suggesting deeper, cosmic consequences for the social turmoil of the 1960s.
Taking Judith Lochhead’s suggestion in Reconceiving Structure in Contemporary Music, I analyze Crumb’s music taking into account things like intertextual relationships, references, performance indications, timbre, and things generally considered “outside” the primary text. To be sure, this subject matter at times makes for awkward dinner party conversation. But ultimately the project enriches my life as it urges me to consider what it means to be alive, what kind of death I hope to have, and what it means to lose those we love.
Abigail Shupe is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Colorado State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario, and holds an M.M. in Music Theory and a B.M. in Music Composition from Indiana University. Her research focuses on issues of death and mortality in George Crumb’s music about war, and materialism and science in Rameau’s Génération harmonique. Her work has appeared in Theoria (Spring 2017) and in Singing Death (Routledge, 2017). She has served as the student representative for SMT’s CSW and currently chairs the Scholars for Social Responsibility Interest Group.