THE PLAGUE: A ROCK PHANTASMAGORIA

 

The Plague was my first composition for Electric Phoenix. In 1982 Terry Edwards approached me with the idea of writing one of four pieces about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Four Horsemen have stirred my imagination since childhood, and I was immediately enthusiastic about the proposal. Fresh in my mind were the vivid descriptions of the Black Death in the late Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. Ms. Tuchman's book about the fourteenth century was written as a way of dealing with the catastrophes of the twentieth; she reasoned that since humanity survived the devastation of the late Middle Ages, a time of unprecedented political and social confusion as well as natural and manmade horror, there was hope that we would make it through the 1980s and 90s. I envisioned a work about epidemic disease, also relating the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. It would be organized around the Decameron. Like Boccaccio's gentle folk, four Florentine rock musicians would leave their city for ten days to avoid the plague; the focus in my piece, however, would be on the disease itself, not the escape from it.

 

Beginning with Boccaccio and Tuchman, my research on the Black Death and other epidemic diseases took me through a vast variety of sources. Of particular interest and relevance for my purposes were Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill; The Author as Liar: Narrative Technique in the Decameron by Guido Almansi; Plague! The Shocking Story of a Dread Disease in America Today by Charles T. Gregg; and books on the Black Death by George Deaux, J.F.C. Hecker, Daniel Williman, and Philip Ziegler. Epidemic disease touches on virtually every negative aspect of human existence, including anti‑Semitism, religious fanaticism, pyromania, escapism, sexual anxiety, hysteria, and man's destruction of his environment. All of these nightmares make their appearance in this composition.

 

Rather than give the complete libretto in these notes, I have summarized the action, including only the principle poetic passages. Two portions of scripture are used: Revelation 6:7,8 (Revised Standard Version), which describes the appearance of the Fourth Horseman; and most of the third chapter of the book of Habakkuk (The Jerusalem Bible). I have used approximately a quarter of the fourteenth century Song of the Flagellants in an anonymous nineteenth century translation. In the center of the piece each of the four characters sings his or her poem from the Decameron. The Doctor's Art is by an anonymous colonial American poet in the 1740s, and Death of Rats is by a late eighteenth century Chinese poet, Shih Tao‑Nan, who died of the plague only days after writing these powerful lines. The second verse of the Bubonic Plague Song is by Tony Connor, whose helpful comments on the first draft of the libretto were greatly appreciated. The word "Pigmont" was coined by Meriwether Bruce in the summer of 1976. It is a frightful obscenity of nebulous and elastic connotation.

 

Considered in the most general compositional terms, the piece applies the symphonic method to the rock idiom. Much of the motivic material, and the harmonic structure, is derived from the folk song Rock Island Line. A prerecorded tape, which accompanies the four singers, consists of three tracks of backing vocals, all performed by Electric Phoenix; bass guitar; rhythm guitar; drums; and two keyboard tracks, performed on a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Korg 800 synthesizer. This tape was recorded before and after Christmas 1983. It was designed around the remarkable musical abilities of Daryl Runswick, tenor for Electric Phoenix and electric bass player without peer, to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude. In addition, he is an excellent keyboard player; we divided the recording of the two keyboard tracks between us, but the real rock playing is all his. The rhythm guitar track is performed by Ray Russell and the drummer is John Marshall. They are both well‑known studio musicians in London, and were members of the much‑heralded big band of English performers organized by Gil Evans. Russell is also a composer, and Marshall was the drummer of Soft Machine.

 

Structurally The Plague is a dramatic cantata, but I prefer to call it a rock phantasmagoria. The ability of rock music to deal with the fringes of human experience is well known, and rock is one of the few styles available to a composer which has sufficient energy to suggest devastation.

 

Neely Bruce 1984