There is a fine line between scary and eerie, but in the selection of pieces below, I have attempted to make this distinction. I have drawn quite heavily on the works of the 21st and 20th Century perhaps because it is here we discover ourselves as listeners cast adrift from the familiar shores of music more closely stemming from the Western Classical Tradition. By this I mean the harmony in particular in these pieces tends to edge towards the unknown areas of music, making us feel uneasy, and creating that unwelcome chill that runs like ice down our spines when we experience it.
Eerie Classical Music
1. Gregory Ligeti; ‘Atmosphères’ (1961)
One of my favorite contemporary composers is Ligeti. His remarkable ability to construct dense, moving textural clouds of music is like no other composer I know. Ligeti has an extraordinary ear for gigantic, sonorous pieces of orchestral music, and ‘Atmosphères’ is no exception. Some of you may have already heard this work perhaps without associating it with Ligeti in the film of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘2001; A Space Odyssey’, directed by the visionary Stanley Kubrick. The piece is used to chilling effect in the film because it has an undeniably eerie quality to it.
Ligeti uses enormous orchestral forces in ‘Atmosphères’ including quadruple woodwind. Where Ligeti succeeded in the writing of ‘Atmosphères’ is to compose a work that feels as if it is still and timeless. Melodies, rhythms, and harmonies blend into galaxies of sound that stretch and flex like a beautiful, mesmerizing celestial phenomenon. You very quickly become lost in Ligeti’s labyrinth of sounds, unsure and enchanted by the masses of rich colors he conjures from the orchestra. It is otherworldly and unsettlingly brilliant.
2. Maurice Ravel; ‘Scarbo’ from ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’ (1908)
Ravel was not only a masterful orchestrator, but he was also a gifted pianist. His piano music is amongst the finest to have been written during the ‘Impressionist’ period of music. ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’, for solo piano, was inspired by the poems of Aloysius Bertrand and is structured broadly in three movements as follows: ‘Ondine’, ‘Le Gibet’, and ‘Scarbo’. The final movement is considered by many scholars and pianists to be one of the most technically challenging pieces of the piano music of the time, but this has not diminished its popularity.
Despite what you may already know about Ravel through his ‘Bolero’ or Piano Concerto, often a darker undertone crept into his later works. For me, the fairy-tale focus of Gaspard de la Nuit is not a sparklingly happy one, and ‘Scarbo’ chooses a malevolent goblin as its subject matter, making the whole piece decidedly unsettling. If you listen carefully, you can hear the goblin scurrying around, scratching the walls and dancing in the cold, silvery moonlight. It is a nightmarish scene that plays on the fears of children and adults alike.
3. Krzysztof Penderecki; ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ (1960)
Interestingly enough, Penderecki did not give the piece its title until after he had heard a performance. At this point, he was struck by the intensity of emotion the work contained and he resolved to give the composition a more meaningful title than 8’37” (as he originally intended).
It is an unusual, experimental work that Penderecki scored for 52 string players. The score makes extensive use of graphic notation and as such empowers the performers with a greater degree of interpretative freedom than conventional notation would. It is a chilling work containing intricate textural maneuvers that include extended playing techniques. These give the piece a haunted quality that in conjunction with the sobering title, leaves a lasting impression on the listener.
4. Gustav Holst; ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ from The Planets (Op.32)
‘The Planet Suite’ has become one of the most performed pieces of orchestral music. Holst composed the score during one of the most troubled and violent decades, 1914-1916, and the echoes of war resonate especially in ‘Mars’. Holst chose to depict the astrological characteristics of each planet and its influence on the human psyche. The orchestral forces Holst scores the work for are large and for ‘Neptune’ include two female choruses that include alto and soprano parts.
The clever aspect of this is that Holst places the two choruses off-stage, unseen by the audience. This in itself gives an icy, eerie timbre to the piece. ‘Neptune’ is the last of the planets Holst composed and is subtitled, ‘The Mystic’. The music evolves in a slow glistening fashion, full of evocative harmonic subtleties that create an other-worldly image.
5. The Sinking of the Titanic – Gavin Bryars (1969-72)
The sinking of the Titanic is an event that perhaps due to the film, resonates with many people generations after the event. Such was the tragedy and avoidable loss of life, that it has inspired poetry, films, and Gavin Bryars score that existed purely as a page of types of instructions without any notation. The score is quite experimental in sound and aims to capture the sounds of the band who played as the ship sank as well as the imagined music continuing one through the cold water long after the gigantic ship had reached the ocean floor. The combination of textural ingenuity and the gradual emergence of the piece ‘Autumn’ that the band played makes this composition sinister, somber and shadowy.
6. John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
This is the most recent composition to be included in this article but one I feel is of great significance. Adams chose for his subject matter the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11. The piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic only six months after the disaster that cost so many lives. Adams reportedly did not hesitate to accept the commission and felt the need to compose something related to 911 that reflected how he felt and address the desire to give something back to humanity.
In the score, Adams aims to capture the sense of the otherworldly, the collective presence of ancient souls, and solitary spiritual reflection. The piece is in no way intended to be descriptive but to create a place or time for reflection, contemplation. By using recordings of different voices reading out the names of the victims, Adams creates a mantra-like effect that draws you into the music. It is a composition that embodies the solemnity, sadness, and loss of 911 that is difficult to listen to but essential none the less.