One of the most memorable panels from Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s 1960 book Open House for Butterflies features the line: “A screaming song is good to know in case you need to scream.” I’ve thought about that line a lot in the 4,932 days since 2020 began, and I am ready to sing like a fucking canary. Every sentence I type here that isn’t in all caps is a testament to my self-control, which is hanging on by a thread. I have zero interest in finding a solution to any of the world’s problems right now. There is no amount of text-banking, sound baths, or sourdough starters that will fill the great empty space that has been hollowed out inside of me in this absolute dumpster fire of a year. Instead, I’ve decided to give into the void and place my vocal cords on the sacrificial pyre, like Lulu, Kundry, and Laura Dern before me. This is not without precedent: Freud saw screaming as a useful means of identifying an object as painful. “The information of one’s own scream serves to characterize that object,” he wrote in Project for a Scientific Psychology. 20 years later, Arthur Janov expanded on the therapeutic use of screaming with his conception of Primal Therapy. For Janov, a primal scream was “at once a scream from the pain and a liberating event where the person’s defense system is dramatically opened up. It results from the pressure of holding the real self back, possibly for decades.” If you want to spend Election Day with me in the void, here are 15 screaming songs that are good to know in case you need to scream.
Dmitri Shostakovich: First Movement from Symphony No. 4 (1936) and Prokofiev: “The Battle on Ice” from “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)
If there was a time and place in music that presaged our own age of anxiety, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better example than Stalinist Russia. Written within a few years of one another, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 and Prokofiev’s score for “Alexander Nevsky” bookend the dictator’s Great Purge of dissent and opposition.
Shostakovich was in the middle of composing his Fourth when he was denounced in an editorial in Pravda, published under the direct orders of Stalin as retaliation for his 1934 opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” The premiere was subsequently scrapped, and it would be nearly 30 more years before the opening wails of disjointed discord signaled out in the concert hall.
Likewise, Prokofiev suffered under Stalin’s rule (his wife, Lina, even more so), although his score for Eisenstein’s film “Alexander Nevsky” didn’t have to wait until after Stalin’s death to be heard. Under the guise of Soviet heroism, Prokofiev is able to unleash torrents of anguish in the movie’s climactic Battle on the Ice scene. It’s a chilling anguish that makes for a good November scream.
Rebecca Saunders: “void” (2014)
You know how anxieties are heightened because we all now have 24-hour access to newsfeeds, the algorithms for which are trained to give us increasingly worse and worse news? And how psychologists say the best thing for us to do is to turn off our devices or close our browser tabs? Yeah, that doesn’t work. As Rebecca Saunders said, “Silence hides the existential.” Even when I’ve shut down my devices and try to do something beneficial for my body, I’m still caught in the invisible whirr of existential catastrophes. Saunders’s concerto for two percussionists, “void,” casts a floodlight on that silence.
Mohammed Fairouz: “The New Normal” from Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers” (2013)
A good screaming song for every time you’ve heard the phrase “the new normal” this year.
Edgard Varèse: “Arcana” (1927)
My nervous system’s baseline for most of 2020. Varèse obsessed over “Arcana” for a year and a half between 1925 and 1927, affixing a quote from 16th-century philosopher and physician Paracelsus to the score that begins: “One star exists, higher than all the rest. This is the apocalyptic star.” Our association with the word “apocalypse” with a world-ending event came long after Paracelsus (and, to a degree, even Varèse himself), but Varèse’s convocations of sound still create something as visceral and primal as the end of the world. Bring it.
Igor Stravinsky: Sacrificial Dance from “The Rite of Spring” (1913)
Before the Hårga screamed as their human sacrifices burned in ceremonial offering at the end of the horror film “Midsommar,” there was the final cry of Stravinsky’s “Rite,” as his own chosen one dances herself into oblivion. It’s horror and elation at the same time, and the shriek that comes when you try to cleave those two emotions.
David T. Little: Act II from “The Haunt of Last Nightfall” (2010)
Little’s “ghost play” in two acts, written for percussion quartet, begins with impulses similar to those heard in Saunders (which stretch back, in turn, to Varèse). But in Act II, the work reaches an unyielding five-minute cacophony of percussive electronics as the narrative enters the second day of the 1981 El Mozote massacre (carried out in El Salvador by military units trained and equipped by the United States). The wail is nonstop, but shifts in timbre. What’s first a scream that hits you in the back of the throat is soon a gutteral bellow that hovers between the spleen and the appendix, finally ending as a roar extending past the Achilles tendon.
Little’s point with “Nightfall” is not to condemn the massacre or those involved. Rather, as he writes in his program notes to the piece, “What we know shapes us, and whether I like it or not, I now know this.” So too does this howl shape us in ways that go beyond narratives of carnage and complicity. It’s a scream that never fully exits the body, a haunting never fully exorcised.
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Giuseppe Verdi: Auto-da-fé, “Don Carlo” (1867)
If Little’s “The Haunt of Last Nightfall” is a scream against the atrocities of tyranny, the riotous opening of Verdi’s auto-da-fé scene in “Don Carlo” is the other side of that Janus coin: the scream of the perpetrators. From the opening runaway rhythm, it’s a Verdian crowd scene delivered on an unprecedented scale. At times the righteousness of the Spanish Inquisition seems poised to devolve into a holy mess, the cohesion of the chorus lines hanging on by a thread. Verdi gives us the trajectory of moral values into moral vacuity which, with the right conductor and ensemble, remains an abjectly terrifying moment of music and theater.
Ustvolskaya: Symphony No. 2 (1979)
After studying with Shostakovich (he proposed; she declined), Galina Ustvolskaya lived her life in relative isolation. Such asceticism is full-throated in her music, with little in between the upper and lower limits of velocity. This is all present in her Symphony No. 2, which also showcases her penchant for religious motifs that weave hairshirts out of benedictions.
After 2020, I’m tempted to say that Ustvolskaya had the right idea all along, and have half a mind to spend 2021 in my own form of exile with nothing but a Mahler hammer and my own existential malaise for company. Gospodi.
Louis Andriessen, “Racconto dall’inferno” from “La Commedia” (2008)
Andriessen’s retelling of Dante’s Inferno infuses the composer’s sense for monumentality with a gingersnap of irony, reminding us that the boundaries between hell and earth are porous. His Dionysian dissonance is in full force with the opera’s second section: Cristina Zavalloni’s Dante moves from one circle of hell to the next, shrouded in explosive vocal lines and the screeches of an orchestra being pushed to its limit.
Eastman: “The Holy Presence of Jean d’Arc” (1981)
Julius Eastman wrote the program notes for the premiere of “Holy Presence” at New York City’s The Kitchen as a letter to Joan of Arc herself, speaking directly to her “integrity and boundless courage.” Eastman didn’t claim to match the Maid of Orleans’s passion, offering his music “like so many insignificant pebbles at your precious feet,” but he did consider it to be “a reminder to those who think that they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder.”
In this spirit, Eastman’s work for 10 cellos (which, lost in the final years of his life, was reconstructed from an archival recording at the Kitchen by Clarice Jensen) restores the fight to Joan, who was as much a soldier as she was a saint. The relentless descending cello lines form a battalion of beatitudes, positioning scream as sacrament.
Julia Wolfe: “Big Beautiful Dark and Scary” (2002)
Similarly to Eastman, Wolfe layers tension on top of tension here, building up to yet another build-up with just the faintest cry of a clarinet breaking through an apoplectic wall of sound. I have a great deal of affinity for that clarinet.
Alain: “Litanies” (1937)
For Jehan Alain (who was killed on the battlefields of World War II just a few years after writing this work for solo organ), the idea of a litany was the last resort of a soul in crisis. When reason fails, the next step is to seek deliverance by repeating the same supplications ad nauseam. Like Wolfe’s clarinet line, this plea runs into the same wall over and over again in an attempt to break through. The incantations don’t create spiritual catharsis; rather, in Alain’s words, they form “a devastating tornado, flattening everything in its way.” Go off.
Rossini: “È ver, gode quest’anima” from “Armida” (1817)
After two weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, Armida surprised her closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where they could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time. It didn’t end well. But the opera does, with unfiltered fury that convulses with melodious coloratura. That the text includes the line “Destroy all that remains” is a dramaturgical bonus—and quite possibly my New Year’s resolution for 2021. ¶
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