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Hear the Infernal Sounds of H.P. Lovecraft

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The stories of H.P. Lovecraft, one of horror fiction’s forefathers, have influenced artists in all disciplines from authors like Stephen King and Jorge Luis Borges to film directors like Guillermo Del Toro and John Carpenter. But, did you know that Lovecraft has also inspired composers?

Composer Ryan Ingebritsen composed a Lovecraft inspired work –  Reparametraization 5: The Music Of Erich Zann – that premiered at Constellation in Chicago in 2015.

The piece, scored for baritone violin and electronics, has been years in the making. He originally composed it for himself and string player Erica Dicker several years ago. Together, they form a duo called Elementary Princess of Evil (a name inspired by Dungeons & Dragons). But, each member of the duo went solo for the last several years, since life has pulled them in different directions and to different parts of the country. After years of being apart, they reunite for the premiere of Reparametraization 5.

Ingebritsen explained that “H.P. Lovecraft has been supremely influential on me as a composer.” In fact, his first major work for orchestra was inspired by Lovecraft’s most famous short story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in his Weird Tales (1928).

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Reparametraization 5: The Music Of Erich Zann takes its subtitle from a story by Lovecraft of the same name. In the tale, a student rents a room below a musician who plays in a local theater. Though often he plays folk tunes, the musician also plays otherworldly music on his viol as he sits before the window of his garret apartment. The student observed:

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.H.P. Lovecraft ('The Music of Erich Zann)

To create music that sounds as if it is from another dimension, Ingebritsen uses a computer to control effects with which Dicker, dressed as Erich Zann himself, interact. Another performer represents the student who observes Dicker/Zann.  Video created by artist John Boesche conjures up images of the “seething abysses of clouds.”

“Electronic” music sometimes sounds like a bunch of noise to classical music lovers. Ingebritsen explained that there’s method to his madness. “If you think of Jimi Hendricks and all of those pedals he used to distort the sound of his electric guitar, he said, “I am essentially doing the same thing with a computer.”

The composer controls some parameters of the instrumentalist’s performance, such as amplitude or frequency, and he reimagines them electronically. “How loud they’re playing affects the pitch, so it gets resynthesized with itself. The more intense the playing gets, the more intense the re-synthesis becomes.”

To provide an appropriate Lovecraftian simile, Ingebritsen said, “The violin is like a creature with one head, and then becomes a creature with many heads.” You can hear a sample of the “extradimensional” sounds the performers create  below:

Like the works of Lovecraft, Ingebritsen hopes that his music allows people to understand that, “the world is not as simple as we see it. There are things that humans can’t understand or grasp, and to experience them might drive us insane.”

We often think of music as being extremely linear, since it is a time-based art. But, the composer said he likes trying to create “something that we can’t perceive in a linear fashion, something that doesn’t from A to B and B to C, but from A to X and then over to T and then splits three ways, but that still all happens within the context of one fluid motion.”

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The concept of performing music from another dimension goes back further than The Music of Erich Zann, however. Lovecraft’s story might have been inspired by exisiting pieces of music like the famous “Devil’s Trill” sonata by Tartini.  De Lalande tells of the genesis of Tartini’s infernal piece:

One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and – I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.”De Lalande ('Voyage d'un François en Italie')

In the tradition of the “Devil’s Trill” sonata, several composers have created infernal music of their own based upon The Music of Erich Zann. Right here in Chicago, composer Raymond Wilding-White premiered a piece by the same name at DePaul University in 1980. About a dozen other musicians have created works based upon the short story, though Ingebritsen has refrained from listening to them so that they do not impact his own creative process.

Reparametraization 5, as the title suggests, is one in a series of pieces. Each is scored for electronics and a solo instrument, including the flute, piano, trombone, and percussion. Click below to hear his Reparametraization 1 for flute.

Each of the Reparametraization pieces are composed with specific musicians in mind, Ingebritsen said. So, for Reparametraization 5, he is excited to collaborate with Dicker playing the baritone violin. He says the instrument “has a dark and rich sound that gives this piece really interesting effects.”

Since the duo “gravitates towards darker, doom, metal-y sounds,” choosing Lovecraft as the inspiration for this particular Reparametraization seemed natural.

That the piece premiered near Halloween is pure coincidence. But, it couldn’t make for more seasonally appropriate music. Also billed on the premiere is a world premiere by composer John Zorn jumalatteret for voice and piano.


For more information about the premiere performance of Reparametraization 5 and jumalatteret, vist Constellation’s website.

  • Rey Esparza

    Jimi Hendrix was/is a very famous person. (I.e. it just jumps out when we read “Jimmy Hendricks” here.) Also, “Weird Tales” was a magazine, not a Lovecraft anthology.

  • Erich Mazon

    I’m shocked that the folks on this site didn’t know that, esp the Jimi typo 🙁