Stravinsky and Heavy Metal

I played “Bleed” by Meshuggah to my dad, who’s a massive fan of Stravinsky, and he asked me “How can you possibly listen to such tripe?” This pissed me off, because I strongly believe that metal and classical are 2 very very very closely related genres. In fact, some classical is heavier than most metal. I wish he’d see the similarities.  — M, on Yahoo Answers forum

I stumbled upon this post in a forum and couldn’t help but smile. Discovering a masterpiece of early-century musical modernism through the Swedish extreme metal act Meshuggah might not be the most orthodox path to a lifelong interest in classical music, but this kid is in no way alone. As a matter of fact, a Sony Masterworks reissue of a mid- 70’s recording of the Rite with Pierre Boulez was, at the age of 14, my first “classical” music CD purchase. Why this piece? And why did I interrupt my steady diet of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains in order to listen to this thin, bespectacled Russian? One word: Metallica.

In the mid-90s, Metallica began citing “The Rite of Spring” as one of their major influences in rock and guitar magazines. (Right alongside Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.) After this surprising recommendation, record stores across the country started getting scraggly-haired kids inquiring about some dude named Stravinsky. I’m sure I’m not the only person who went to the CD racks hungry for the sounds of this proto-heavy metal wizard. And he even wrote music about a virgin sacrifice – how hardcore!

It may seem risible to compare Stravinsky to Slayer, but heavy metal music has a long and distinguished history of borrowing from classical music virtuosity. (Robert Walser’s book documents this in droves.) The extreme complexity of certain metal song structures, along with their emphasis on musicianship, rhythmic density, unusual modes (thrash and death metal love to dabble in Locrian and Phrygian), and sounding “primal” aren’t far off from this masterpiece of Franco-Russian fauvism. Just as Stravinsky “maximalized” his unique blend of modernist techniques in the Rite, metal is a rhythmic and timbral maximalization of standard rock signifiers: make it faster, more distorted, and louder than its rock predecessors, and you’ve got heavy metal.

But beyond the topical observations and the passing similarities of subject matter (ritual sacrifice seems to be a timeless theme), “M” from the Yahoo Answers boards might be on to something. Taruskin writes of the “Sacrificial Dance” movement of the Rite: “More than in any earlier number, the metric processes of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ are ‘mosaic,’ concretized in specific, discrete, and (above all) minuscule musical ‘tesserae’… And he left the articulation of the irregularly spaced downbeats his sequences of tesserae elicited to the most elemental force of all – to volume alone, as expressed by the bass instruments and percussion, especially the timpani, which in this dance achieve the status of a terrifying, buffeting force of nature.” (IV, 184) 14-year old metalheads, here’s what Prof. Taruskin is talking about (complete with appropriately dark, trippy visuals):

This sort of mosaic rhythmic structure is common in extreme metal: take a “riff”; offset it by some unpredictable, odd breaks; mix up the time signature to throw the audience off your scent; bang some drums, make some unholy noise, and voila! In fact, that’s exactly what Meshuggah’s doing in “Bleed”: here’s a video of the band’s guitarists playing the opening riff and discussing how it works.

Great ear, M! Maybe you’ve got a future in musicology…

16 Comments

  1. Tool tends to use complex meters like 5/4, 7/8, 4+5/8, and even (I think) 19/16 – but the basis for their metrical complexity is Indian tala, not Stravinsky…

  2. Zach,

    Interesting post.

    But I wonder how those teens might react to, say, Debussy’s ‘Prelude To The Afternoon of A Faun’ or ‘Pelleas et Melisande’?

    Don’t you think they would also gravitate towards these two masterpieces for their subtlety?

    1. I did and now I am writing a dissertation on Les Sons from Debussy’s Preludes. There are a great deal of links between metal and classical I love this article.

  3. “But I wonder how those teens might react to, say, Debussy’s ‘Prelude To The Afternoon of A Faun’ or ‘Pelleas et Melisande’?
    Don’t you think they would also gravitate towards these two masterpieces for their subtlety?”

    I personally doubt that teens are going for subtlety. In teaching an undergraduate music appreciation class the glazed looks are already spreading on their faces before the flute has finished its languid melody. Not enough is going on to attract attention. Stravinsky’s “Dances of the Young Girls” on the other hand has all the right ingredients, especially the fact that it drives forward, always. Plus, some have seen Fantasia when kids and imagine the fighting dinosaurs.

    1. I think I agree with you, Matthew. This isn’t speaking for all teens, of course, but the coloristic subtleties of Debussy lack the immediacy of pounding drums, dense, loud orchestration, and sophisticated yet primal-sounding rhythms. Teens are used to a thick and rhythmically propulsive soundscape, whether it be heavy metal (like Tool), Lady Gaga, or Kanye West. I don’t think that Debussy is too nuanced for them necessarily, but it’s much further from the sonic model that is ubiquitous in youth culture. They’d have to work a little harder to “get it.”

      1. “Teens are used to a thick and rhythmically propulsive soundscape…”

        I mostly blame Phil Spector for that — but in another sense, also Wagner.

  4. Zach,

    I think the entrance of Fasolt and Fafner in ‘Das Rheingold’ with those banging timpanis would be an even better piece for teens than the Stravinsky… Don’t you think?

    Or how about Siegfried’s Funeral March from ‘Gotterdammerung’?

    .

    1. Absolutely! Other pieces on my teenage playlist include:

      Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite
      Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 (especially 2nd mvt)
      Shostakovich Sym.5 (finale)
      Messiaen’s Turangalila (though this one might be a bit too strange..)

  5. We have recently learned that the American Musicological Society is hosting their upcoming conference at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. On June 8, 2010 employees at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco went on strike and called for a boycott of their hotel. We write to inform members of the AMS about the dispute and respectfully ask your organization to relocate the event to a different venue and to not eat, sleep or meet at the Hyatt Regency.

    The members of Local 2 have been struggling to renegotiate a contract that secures affordable health care and retirement benefits. In San Francisco, and in cities around North America, Hyatt Hotels is squeezing housekeepers, dishwashers, cooks, bellpersons, and others harder than ever, trying to lock in ever-higher profits as the hotel industry grows. In wage and benefit agreements over the last several decades, we have forgone larger wage increases to keep our medical benefits affordable for ourselves and our families. Now Hyatt is pushing proposals that would lock workers into a permanent recession even as Hyatt benefits from the economic recovery.

    Recent multi-city strikes represent a major escalation in a labor dispute involving Hyatt and its billionaire owners—the Pritzker Family—who have been the target of a number of major demonstrations in more than a dozen cities across North America this summer. Hotel workers have endured months of chronic understaffing and excessive injury rates. Now Hyatt has become an obstacle to the recovery of working families. While many hotel workers live in poverty, the Pritzker Family cashed out over $900 million in their sale of Hyatt shares in November 2009.

    On January 18th, 2011 Hyatt workers took to the streets to defend their Legal Fund from Hyatt hotel management. The Legal Fund protects members from evictions and foreclosures and facilitates legal immigration (citizenship, work permits and family reunification).

    In recent negotiations, Hyatt went backwards in their pension proposal and it has become abundantly clear that this labor dispute is going to continue well into next year.

    The AMS and its convention patrons are caught in the middle of this contentious labor dispute. The dispute will continue to escalate as will demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience actions and the on-going boycott, until workers secure a fair contract. AS members of the larger Bay Area Community we ask you to respect SF Hotel Workers and encourage your organization to avoid the labor dispute and meet at an alternate venue.

    For more information about hotel labor disputes in San Francisco, you can visit our website at http://www.onedaylongersf.org. Please contact us to address any questions and so that we may assist you in moving to a hotel not subject to a labor dispute.

    Sincerely,

    Powell DeGange

    415.864.8770, ext. 759

    Meetings and Conventions Department

  6. Funny how some of my friends ask howcome I listen to metal and study “classical” music.
    Virtousism and metal are good friends, but latetly I’ve been listening for other musical factors in composition of this new wave of music.
    Harmony is an important factor. Metal bands tend to use jazz or modern harmony, but sometimes come up with a good, complex progression (Try King of those who know by Cynic or Or’ghin by Zhabareth).
    Rythm is becoming even more complex in “Djent” (genre in metal).
    But what really gets me thinking is that slowly some metal bands are looking for complex interpretation, not just dinamic variety, but also color change (like in most french music, specially Debussy) (Jetpacks was yes by Peryphery and Watch over you by Alter Bridge).
    So perhaps we are evolving, not just in loudness, but also looking for new music to be born and more complex way to play the instrument … and if we are traveling to the world of interpretation, then perhaps we are also evolving in expression and aesthetics (kinda scary to think about knowing that most of this bands search not for sublimity or sublety like Zack said, but for hate and violence).

    I find this a very interesting topic, given the fact that music will be a form of art, or craftmanship, and suddenly some street-educated guys are looking for art and not just a hobbie. Perhaps we are also evolving in the level of intelligence and emotions felt by a non-musician produced or bred by music.

  7. Zach,

    When I saw this posting, my face lit up. I’m a graduate student finishing my Masters program and looking into doctoral musicology programs. I’m also in the process of reading through The Oxford History of Western Music. But how did I become a musician in the first place? What pulled me into this life long journey?

    I played in a metal band for eight years.

    There is not a day that goes by when I don’t find a connection between the two genres. I believe that in a generally post-literate society, the internal musical drive, call it what you will, spawns highly creative music completely outside of the construct of what trained musician produce. The most interesting aspect, though, is that this music bears many of the same characteristics of the music we spend time analyzing in an academic setting.

    I also find it interesting that in reading other posts, many of the musicians reading this post have the same preferences for metal bands that I do, most likely because they are the bands that bear these characteristics. Groups such as Periphery, TesseracT, Textures, Circles, Circle of Contempt, The Contortionist, Last Chance to Reason, Animals as Leaders, and many other are all worth listening to if you are attempting to find a connection.

    Thanks for posting this and if you ever have any questions about metal, I would consider myself to be a subject matter expert with formal musical training, of course. Have a wonderful day!

    -Daniel F. Smith

    1. Agreed.
      I’m finishing my major in voice, looking for a masters in art song and oratorio. I’ve found many interesting things in djent and metal in general that haven’t been done in formal music.
      Perhaps the future of music is not in a conservatory, though with that knowlege music can improve, no matter what genre or style. Music always evolves for the best.

  8. Reblogged this on Hannah's Piano Studio and commented:
    I attended the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Petrushka and Firebird on Saturday evening. Who knew it has also inspired heavy metal bands?!

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