Rock Meets Classical, Part 5: Interior City

Now that I’ve shown how classical quotations and concepts can be used in progressive rock, I’d like to share how I used these things on my debut album, Interior City by The Gabriel Construct. I didn’t become a real fan of classical music until I was in college, and my time spent there heavily influenced the album. American composer George Crumb lived right by my school, and his music was frequently performed on campus. He taught composition to my teacher, Gerald Levinson, who was also a student of Olivier Messiaen. I learned all about Messiaen’s music from Professor Levinson, and was deeply impacted by it.


During my first year in college, I got to see the debut performance of a new book of George Crumb’s American Songbook - arrangements of American folk songs, hymns and spirituals for soprano, amplified piano and percussion orchestra. It was like nothing I had ever heard - the completely unusual and spacious arrangements of this music seemed to come from another world, and the effect was downright haunting. Here are two videos from that concert:



At the time, a student was learning Crumb’s "Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik: Ruminations on Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight" for his senior recital. Every so often, I would hear him practicing the piece late at night and completely forget what I was intending to do. I don’t know how many hours I spent lying on the floor, spying on his practice sessions, because the music made me completely lose track of time.


"Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik" was created for a project where pianist Emanuele Arciuli asked a number of prominent living composers to write solo piano variations on Monk’s tune. You can listen to the final album here, and read more about it here. The album includes pieces by Gerald Levinson (my teacher), Milton Babbit (author of ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’, as discussed in Part 1), David Crumb (George’s son), Uri Caine, and more, all assembled into a giant suite - but it does not include George Crumb’s piece, which ended up growing into a much larger work, too big to fit on the album.


Listen to Arciuli’s performance of Crumb’s piece:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


I was particularly inspired by the ‘Incantation’ movement (see the beginning of part 2), which features two very low fifths in the left hand, oscillating in regular rhythm below free inventions on Monk’s piece in the right hand. In the same year, I also saw a performance of Messiaen’s two piano work "Visions de L’Amen’", which also overwhelmed me. I found it staggering and incomprehensible at the time, but it left me deeply fascinated and a little bit scared. The first movement, ‘Amen de la Creation’, is a long, slow buildup where the two pianos play seemingly unrelated material.


Both of these pieces left a huge impact on me, and I wanted to explore some of the things I learned from them in my own music, and so I wrote "Arrival in a Distant Land", the opening track on Interior City:

This song combines ideas from Crumb’s ‘Incantation’ movement and Messiaen’s ‘Amen de la Creation’ with free improvisation and vocal music. Messiaen was also an amateur ornithologist, and one of his favorite pastimes was the transcription of bird song into musical notation for use in his music. In my ‘Arrival’ improvisation, I quote his nightingale song, which can be heard in the violin part in ‘Liturgie de Cristal’, the opening movement of his "Quartet for the End of Time".


I previously discussed how I quoted Messiaen in "Ranting Prophet", the second song on Interior City, at the end of part 3 of this series. However, that is not the only classical quotation in this song. The first violin solo (during the chaotic triple solo at 1:00) quotes the first movement of Bartók’s sixth string quartet. Sophia plays a much longer violin solo to end the song (3:55), in which she quotes the second movement of Bartók’s second string quartet. The song itself actually started as a leftover piece of my own string quartet, which you can watch Sophia & friends perform here.


The third song on Interior City, "Fear of Humanity", also features the influence of Messiaen. The song’s opening chord progression is a six-chord sequence of parallel chords which increase in density throughout the song. They begin as four-note chords (0:00), expand into parallel diatonic clusters (featuring 6 of the 7 notes in the diatonic scale) in the second half (3:30), then become chromatic clusters where each note contains 10 out of the 12 chromatic tones in the 14-part violin chorale which ends the song (7:15). The ‘overtone chord’ voicing of this chorale is inspired by the way Messiaen frequently wrote extremely dissonant harmonies in his orchestral works but made them sound quite pleasing by placing the most dissonant notes in an extremely high register.


The rhythm used at 3:30 and 4:44 of the album’s closer, "Curing Somatization", was also drawn from Messiaen. You can hear this rhythm in the piano part from the aforementioned ‘Liturgie de Cristal’, or in the woodblock part at the start of the fourth movement of his "Turangalila-Symphonie". This song also features reprises of almost every other song on the album.


If you’re interested in learning more about the construction of Interior City or seeing the full sheet music, I’ve written a series of blogs about the album which can be found at You can also stream the album at Bandcamp , Youtube or Spotify.


Purchase Links:


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