What do we actually celebrate on Halloween? It can be hard to remember – especially now the commercial extension of the holiday stretches through all of October. It might seem a bit drained of content, but with these musical selections we hope to capture what lies underneath it all. All Hallows’ Eve is a moment when the dead come alive, and are with us.

1 Olivier Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum

In Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) Olivier Messiaen captures the essence of this festival most readily. As in all festivals of pagan origin, the ancestors are present and guide us. Messiaen’s work was written ostensibly as a memorial to those who died during the Second World War, but its dead are all the dead, for all time. Messiaen imagines their transformation, heralded by Christ, resurrected, for whom death has no more sway. The dead rise gloriously and are given new names, in the joyous concert of the stars. By the conclusion of the piece, in the fifth movement, Messiaen presents a whole crowd emerging from the gloom, with one voice. The rhythm of the gong animates them and gives them motion and purpose, as they process heavenwards.

In Et exspecto Messiaen manages to combine elements of his own idiosyncratic Catholicism with the most general of French culture, La Toussaint – the day when chrysanthemums line the catacombs and cemeteries. As in other Catholic countries around the world, the dead have imbibed all the qualities we associate with the pagan ancestors: they counsel the living, but need help. They require tribute and prayer. And at the end of Et exspecto we hear them speak.

2 Harry Partch: The Delusion of the Fury

Around the same time Messiaen was writing Et exspecto, the highly original US composer Harry Partch was completing what is arguably his magnum opus, The Delusion of the Fury (1966). Partch’s is a musical world entirely of his own making – a corpus of percussions, stringed instruments, reed-organs and harmoniums built from scratch, using harmonic principles of Just Intonation which set them apart from the rest of Western institutional music. His is an art connected with a more ancient world of performance, where music and dancing and singing and acting were all blended without boundaries.

The Delusion of the Fury is based on the fifteenth-century Japanese Noh play Atsumori. After its instrumental introduction, the drama presents the story of a remorseful warrior who has killed another, returning to the site of the killing, to meet the spirit of the man he killed. The dead man, after meeting also with his living son, renounces his anger in death, to find reconciliation with both his descendent and his murderer. Partch’s music is of lyric dance – and the death-dances of the Delusion are the best he ever wrote. Not so much ritual as actual drama, Partch’s work is also a little didactic. It seeks to illustrate for us our delusions, and what attitudes of mind we must correct – if we are to reconcile with our ancestors and our own mistakes in life.

Catrinas of the Día de los Muertos, inspired by the illustrations of José Guadalupe Posada
© Tomas Castelazo | Wikimedia Commons

3 Liza Lim: Machine for Contacting the Dead

Australian composer Liza Lim has a unique ability to capture the expressive within the solemn ritual. Hers is an ecstatic music, of animal spirits and spiritual violence. Her Machine for Contacting the Dead (2000) is a large-scale ensemble work with bass clarinet and cello soloists. The direct inspiration for the music was the tomb of Marquis Yi in central China, excavated in the 1970s. The tomb is an “elaborate marker for the boundary between life and death,” Lim writes. “It is not merely a resting-place signifying a single ‘cross-over point’ but elongates the process of transition through a multiplication of ritual spaces.”

The Marquis was interred with a huge orchestra of instruments – sixty-five bronze bells, chime stones, zithers, drums, panpipes and flutes. But most strikingly and frighteningly, he was also buried with twenty-one young women: his concubines, dancers and musicians.

Lim’s work, at root, attempts to communicate with these women – particularly in the central movement, “Memory body”. Lim uses this constantly proliferating music not just to capture the submerged court-music of Yi’s tomb, but as a machine to speak directly to the women who were buried alive alongside it. The music is like sonic archaeology: digging forcefully into the ground, to reach these ancestral spirits. To fight on their behalf, to grant them the power they were robbed in life.

4 Karlheinz Stockhausen: Luzifers Tanz from Samstag aus Licht

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s gargantuan opera cycle Licht dramatises virtually every aspect of human experience under the sun. With each opera a modular assemblage, one for each day of the week, Samstag (Saturday, 1983) is the day of Lucifer, one of the cycle’s three main characters along with Eve and Michael.

The opera culminates in the third scene, a grand dance of death for bass soloist, solo trumpet and piccolo, and wind ensemble. It is Lucifer’s dance on Earth, wherein Lucifer stands in front of a giant human face, directing groups of wind performers contained within, who dance out the various parts of the human visage – left and right eyebrows, left and right eyes, left and right cheeks, the wings of the nose, the upper-lip etc. After enough of this monstrous display, Michael, Stockhausen’s hero and most closely autobiographical character, arrives to protest and causes everything to stop for a lyric trumpet solo. The music resumes, but after several protracted further sections and a final tutti, the music overwhelms the musicians’ negotiated time limit, and the orchestra decides to strike.

Stockhausen’s own unique sense of humour shows through in this scene, perhaps the ultimate explosion of the Totentanz. For Stockhausen, Lucifer represents everything that is worldly and compromising, here to distort and destroy the heavenly and pure. Not just death and decay, but disappointment, limitation, contradiction and bathos. Yet apart from being evil, Lucifer is also a trickster, a humorous and deeply human figure – without him, nothing would ever happen at all. He is the animating figure in the Stockhausenian pantheon.

5 Silvestre Revueltas: Sensemayá

So much of Silvestre Revueltas’ riveting music could be appropriate for a festival like this, but the joyous dance of death, sacrifice, and renewal of Sensemayá (1938) is irresistible. Based on the Afro-Cuban poet Nicholas Guillén’s poem of the same name, it depicts a Palo Monte religious ritual in which the snake “with eyes of glass” is sacrificed, entangled on a stick (enreda en un palo), the religion’s namesake.

Revueltas conjures a transcendent dance of renewal and rebirth, signalling the traditions of enslaved Afro-Cubans being presented to their masters. Perhaps the reality of enslavement, as a kind of living death, is what animates this particular danced rebirth. And at the same time, the voice of every past generation is conjured by Revueltas’ remarkable dance, which while Afro-Cuban is also quintessentially Mexican. As perfect a musical summation of the Día de los Muertos as exists anywhere.

José Guadalupe Posada’s “Gran calavera eléctrica” (Grand electric skull), c.1910
© Public Domain | Library of Congress

6 Éliane Radigue: Trilogie de la Mort

Before a remarkable series of late compositions for acoustic instrumentalists, French composer Éliane Radigue’s music was written for the ARP 2500 synthesiser. The Trilogie de la Mort is one of her stand-out works for this instrument, layered over itself in many simultaneous recordings on tape. Each individual piece within this trilogy – Kyema (1988), Kailasha (1991), Koumé (1993) – presents a different vision of the “intermediary states” between life, death, and rebirth. The first part is inspired by texts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, travelling through birth, death, bright light, crossing and return. The second part draws from an imaginary journey around the most sacred of Himalayan peaks, Mount Kailash. While the third part is inspired by ashes, “where Death comes to life, where Death becomes birth. Actively recommencing – eternity of a perpetual becoming.”

Radigue’s music might sound static, but its real activity is in the perpetual motion of interactions within the high partials and beatings, tiny fluctuations and movements within the sound itself. Partially hearing impaired, Radigue’s hearing adapted to be drawn towards these partials and interactions. In so doing she caught the frequencies of the world beyond this one, accessing those aspects of experience that cross over from our space, through the intermediary spaces, to the space next to come.

7 Pauline Oliveros: Ghostdance

Pauline Oliveros was a composer uniquely suited to understanding joyous and spiritual collectivity, with so many of her works requiring collective sonic meditation amongst a whole group of performers. This project, Ghostdance (1998), a collaboration with choreographer Paula Josa-Jones, was directly inspired by the Día de los Muertos, which Oliveros and Josa-Jones attended in Chalco, along with the composer and ethnomusicologist Arturo Salinas.

Beginning with the sounds of a flock of grackles roosting in the trees in Chalco, the sounds of Oliveros’ accordion and “expanded instrument system” zip and dart through the soundscape. Voices, synthesiser, accordion all intertwine as the music progresses through a series of ritual dances. Culminating in the “River of Folk Dance” (Rios Folkloricos), a darting antiphonal melody in thirds (like so much folk music of Mexico), and finally the “Last Time” (Ultima Vez), the music sinks back into the clouds of diatonic harmony and sustained voices, perhaps suggesting the liminal spaces between this world and the next.

8 Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 10

In the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna has a whole quarter devoted to its dead. And like all Viennese of his generation, Gustav Mahler’s world was proliferated with ghosts, a society whose life force derived from its ever-closeness to sudden departure. From the resurrection of the Second Symphony, to the song of the night in the Seventh, to the Kindertotenlieder, for Mahler this inverted life-force – Todeskraft – was always near.

Yet it is the Tenth Symphony (1910) that offers the most profound rumination on the always-fluid passage from this world to the next. From the start, with the lone violas isolated on an infinite plain of limbo-like blankness, the symphony is Mahler’s most transcendently ghostly. It presents life in the past tense; we are always at the edge of its disparition. The third movement is a purgatory, constantly circulating, without border – all life is held here in temporary stasis, without time. The second and fourth movements are a pair of Totentänzen, their prominent brass heralding the prophetic times. (Mahler, despite being a man of this world, was also a self-styled prophet of the next.)

However it is the terrifying fifth movement in which the symphony receives its culmination – with the world-closing bass drum, bass tuba climbing from darkest profundity, horns holding the world in their maws. At the centre of the movement is an extraordinary moment for the trumpet, held as inverted pedal above the fray with maximum intensity and stillness. What it signifies defies words. One feels it contains the ending of everything. A machine for contacting the dead – but also a machine for departing from the world of the living.