Necronomicon — the String Quartet!

(Originally Posted Monday, November 19, 2007)

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 Miró Quartet perform a string quartet titled “Necronomicon.” The Miró 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?”

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