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Evil Music – Transcript

Claire Blaustein - Reporter, Patricia Li - Producer, Vahan Baladouni – Audio Engineer

Ah, music. It has been called a divine gift, a blessing, and even the angels play harps and sing.

But what happens when music is..well..evil?

Composers may get their gift from a higher power, but they certainly don't restrict themselves to holy topics. Countless pieces of music have been inspired by the forces of darkness.
In Jaws, it isn't just the idea of blood and big teeth that makes this scary - the sound itself is threatening. It's creeping closer, closer, closer…
John Williams didn't invent that trick. In Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bare Mountain, the demons that haunt Saint John sound a lot like a certain aquatic menace.
This kind of chromatic motion, where the notes creep along in very small intervals, definitely lets you know that something BAD is coming.
But there one thing far worse - one interval so dark, so demonic, so dissonant, that it could only be called - the diabolus in musica - the DEVIL'S INTERVAL.

In the Renaissance era the tritone - those pounding downward jumps - were banned by the church for being too dissonant. And anyone who used them were suspected of heresy.

It might have been scary stuff in the 16th century, but today our ears are used to dissonances like that . So, new compositional techniques in the 20th century upped the ante a little bit. Like American composer Henry Cowell, in The Banshee.
The howling cry of the Irish demon Banshee means death is coming for someone. Cowell recreated it by scraping the interior strings of a piano with metal.

Music theory and technique may be pretty frightening subjects, but they aren't the only way to portray evil. Material from another source, like a poem, can bring out the devil as well.

Ravel's Scarbo from the suite Gaspar de la Nuit is based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand, which describes the maniacal cavorting of an evil dwarf.
"Oh! How many times have I seen and heard Scarbo…buzzing somewhere in the shadows of my bedroom, and the scratching of his nails raking down the length of the silk curtains around my bed!"

The devil has many forms, and wears many disguises, and some of them are terribly appealing.

In the same way, not all music that is associated with evil actually SOUNDS evil.

Some believed Niccolo Paganini sold his soul to the devil. In exchange he became the greatest violinist the world had ever seen. But the music he wrote for himself doesn't really sound that evil. It was just so devilishly difficult that he could not have come from anywhere else but the dark side.

And trading one's soul to the devil is not just something musicians can do - anyone can do it! In the story of Faust, the aging academic gave up his soul in exchange for getting everything he'd ever wanted, and what he wanted, was the love of the young Marguerite.

Franz Liszt used this story for his Mephisto Waltz, and here the devil takes on pleasant guises to tempt the beautiful young woman.
It's the beauty of this music that makes it so dangerous, because Marguerite is taken in, and her dance with the devil ends up driving her mad.

And Liszt, like Paganini and Faust, had his own flirtations with the devil. But his soul bought him fame as the greatest piano virtuoso of all time.

In music, as in life, the concepts of good and evil are hardly set in stone - nothing is necessarily as it seems, or in this case, sounds. But whichever end of the spectrum the music represents, it is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

For NPR's Intern Editon - I'm Claire Blaustein.


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