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…


Stravinsky on Film

There have been few—if any—composers in the canon who were more aware of their public image than Igor Stravinsky. The classic 1946 portrait by Arnold Newman demonstrates this quite clearly, and will serve as our header image for the next couple weeks. Here is the photograph in full.

Be sure to also check out this modernist, avant garde interpretation of Newman’s image.

Debussy and Japan

Music is the silence between notes. — Claude Debussy

It could easily be a stanza from Basho (or at least a snippet from Cage’s zen-inspired lectures).

In La Mer, Debussy drew inspiration from the famous Edo-period woodblock print by Hokusai showing match-stick boats being tossed violently between monstrous waves. It’s a striking, kinetic, tumultuous image; it’s also highly naturalistic and, in a quintessentially Japanese way, defined as much by its negative space as by the turbulent action depicted. Debussy even went as far as to include a part of this image on the cover of the 1st edition of the score (below).

Debussy’s fascination with the East, particularly Japan and Indonesia, seems to be of a different sort than the exoticized thrill that surrounded much of the 19th century’s engagement with “the Orient.” Indeed, Debussy’s aesthetic orientation resonated deeply with the music and visual arts of Japan and, although to my knowledge the composer never attempted a style japon, his “glue-less” musical language bears striking similarities to the traditional Japanese arts.

Much of Debussy’s music eschews forward-thrusting, teleological development in favor of a static, sensual present. He courted stillness in a way that rubbed up against the maximalist tendencies of some of his (non-Gallic) contemporaries. In Japanese, this sensibility towards space is called ma (間), and can be seen everywhere from ukiyoe woodprints to garden design, flower arranging (ikebana) to shakuhachi music. It was a sensibility that Debussy shared.

In addition, the composer was exquisitely sensitive to tone color; a piece like La Mer employs a broad, subtle timbral palette that is, in many ways, much more spatial/environmental than structural. This too has an analog in Japanese music. The shakuhachi honkyoku tradition, for example, is carefully attuned to the aesthetics of “the single tone.” Rather than focusing on the relational “glue” binding phrases and sections within each honkyoku piece, players focus on sound itself as the most important single parameter of the music. This attitude is best summed up by the adage ichion joubutsu (一音成仏), “with one sound, one attains Buddha-consciousness.” In other words, the sound’s the thing, not the syntax. This idea probably would have resonated with Debussy, who once remarked that he loved development sections during symphony concerts because they gave him an opportunity to go out and enjoy a cigarette.

[To give you a sense of the timbral richness and variety of the shakuhachi, I’ll close with a video of one of my favorite honkyoku pieces, shika no tone (“The distant cry of deer”), performed by the masters Aoki Reibo and Yamaguchi Goro.]

Representations of “Nature” in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

[It’s been a while since we’ve posted a longer, essay-style piece so I thought I’d make another contribution to the genre to ring in the new year. Although Sibelius was folded into the last few pages of Vol. III, the first two decades of the 20th Century were his moment. I hope readers won’t mind this little backtrack.]

Sibelius’s music is all Nature.

– T. W. Adorno[1]

It is impossible to engage with the scholarly and critical literature on the music of Jean Sibelius without quickly running headlong into the idea of “Nature.” During the composer’s life (1865–1957) and all the way to the present, “Nature” has remained a pervasive category in the way people listen to and analyze his music, a fact based on a host of diverse and sometimes contradictory factors. Indeed, the terms “Nature” and “Natural” are often bandied about in Sibelius criticism and scholarship with such a degree of promiscuity as to render them facile and, in many contexts, meaningless, since nature in music is hardly a self-evident, stable category of phenomenological experience or theoretical analysis. For every writer, in other words, nature is something different. In his famously (and characteristically) dismissive remarks, Adorno employs “Nature” as simply a byword for the rustic simple-mindedness and Romantic naïveté he believed made the music of Sibelius so decidedly sub-par. For others, “Nature” refers to a form of musical iconicity of “nature-ness” and all that we associate with the concept (sublimity, profundity, fecundity, power, etc.). For others still, Sibelius is “natural” because he is an exotic cousin of the European family, an outsider from a peripheral, frigid nation that speaks a bizarre language. (Surely, someone who could rattle off a word like työllistymään is closer to nature than denizens of the modern, industrialized world.)

Continue reading “Representations of “Nature” in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony”

A Funeral Rite for Vol. IV

And now to the music. (IV, 10)

To the music indeed. Over the last couple of weeks, Zach and I have been wrapping up our comments on Vol. III (19th century). We both realized that the “wrapping” could indeed go on and on, and that we must move forward.

So here we are at the dawn of Richard Taruskin’s next volume, Music in the Early Twentieth Century (his account of the century comprises two volumes). And the first musical example we are introduced to is the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, first premiered in Berlin in late 1895. The movement is called Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rite”).

May I suggest sitting down, putting on the first movement of the symphony, and reading the first 20 pages of RT’s text? There’s no better way to get in the spirit—and trust me, you’ll finish the 20 pages before the orchestra finishes the first movement…

“Viderunt Omnes”

This clip features Perotin’s 4-voice organum cum alio setting of the words “viderunt omnes.” The original chant, which appears as the sustained tenor, is slowed down to a veritable crawl here – it takes over three minutes just to intone the syllables “vi-de-runt om-nes.” In the earliest scraps of notated polyphony the chant appeared as the melody; it’s dramatic to hear what happened when this process was turned on its head and the chant was put in the lowest voice. This sort of organum isn’t at all about the intelligibility of the text, for the surface level activity of the composition consists of highly coordinated melismatic (wordless) activity in the three upper voices. A few things strike me when listening to this repertory:

– The modal rhythms (trochaic, to be precise) lend “Viderunt Omnes” a rhythmic consistency and patterned regularity unavailable to composers up until the development of this notational technology. It’s not inaccurate to say that this trochaic meter actually grooves.

– The periodicity of Viderunt is patent – it utilizes repetition to amazing effect. It’s no wonder that Steve Reich counts Perotin among his major influences.

– The three upper voices all function in the same range, frequently crossing over each other and weaving in and out of the texture. It reminds me of three birds racing through the air in play.

For more of this piece, see the Hilliard Ensemble performing a particularly juicy section (the conclusion, with final chant) here.

Minnesingers, Wagner, and Metal [Updated]

As Taruskin recounts (I, 134-142), Richard Wagner recognized the potential in the stories of the historical minnesinger/meistersinger (German-speaking analogue of the trovères) and appropriated their caché for his operas Die meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser. But Wagner is not the only one to cash in on this potential. In a 21st-century example, In Extremo (a German medieval metal band) performs the popular minnesang “Palästinalied”, by Walther von der Vogelweide. The band is true to Walther’s melody and lyrics, in the original Middle High German (they get to three out of the twelve verses, then repeat the first). As you will see in the video below, they are also true to Wagner’s spirit of artistic liberty through a modern lens, complete with a shredding metal electric guitar solo, tatooed bagpipe players, and pyrotechnic explosions. And guess what? The audience loves it.


I put this video up kind of on a whim, because I was surprised by the ability for music that’s almost a millennium old to be relevant in the 21st century, and this video was so zany that I was simply flabbergasted by the find. But I have since become aware that it is potentially offensive to viewers, due to the song’s subject matter (the crusades), and the context of performance (Germans singing in a creepy—goth? occult?—way about the Holy Lands). Let’s just say that I wouldn’t let my son watch this video. It would be sure to give him nightmares. (He’s only 4 months old, but still.)

Clus or Clar?

Like Zach, I was intrigued by the genre of the tenso, which is fascinating not just as a social practice, but also for the content of the songs. These mock-debate songs addressed, among other things, whether a poet should adopt as his style of choice trobar clus or trobar clar. The former is a “closed” style, dense in construction and esoteric. The latter represents the opposite: a “clear” style that is by its nature simple, direct in communication, and exoteric. For instance, in one of these mock debates between Guiraut de Bornelh (the author of the verses and pro clar) and a colleague (dit.) Linhaure (pro clus), the arguments go something like this (in my own paraphrase):

Linhaure: There is prestige in artifice. If everything is accessible, then there would be no way to determine what is valuable and what is base. Don’t blame me; if someone doesn’t understand my poetry, it’s not my fault! “Provided that I produce what is best at all times, I care not if it be not so widespread […].” (I, 116)

Guiraut: But a song that reaches more people is loved by more people. And don’t equate simplicity with laziness; I labor more in crafting elegant simplicity than obfuscation, light than darkness. “Why compose if you do not want all to understand? Songs bring no other advantage.” (ibid.)

As Taruskin acknowledges, this conflict is an eternal one.* It touches all eras of music history, not the least of which is the 20th century, the history of which contains plenty of analogous battles: academic music vs. popular music, American art vs. Soviet socialist realism. On the trobar clus side, I think first of Schoenberg: “Because if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” (qtd. in Style and Idea) On the trobar clar side, I think of Shostakovich, who had to write music that was accessible to the soviet worker (or at least perceived as such) in order to keep his head.

A question to the collective wisdom: in your own research/experience, what are some other places where this debate has materialized?

* Of course the debate, in its polarization, is vastly oversimplified, and many composers (trouvères included) wrote in both styles.

Medieval Cutting Contests

One of the important genres of the troubadours was the tenso, a competitive form that allowed – indeed, encouraged – musicians to show off their most virtuosic poetic technique. Among the trouvéres of northern France, this same practice was known as jeu-parti, or “mock-debate.” In these contests,  judges crowned the winner as the “Prince” of jeu-parti, and we can assume the appellation came complete with bragging rights and vows from challengers to oust the reigning prince in the next contest. The great mock-debater of the day was a trouvére named Jehan Bretel. (The same phenomenon of competitive song-writing occurred with the Meistersingers of Germany.)

This is quite a departure from the liturgical tradition, where music served only the purpose of glorifying God. In fact, these early musical jousts might be the first documented case of music as sport. There’s a wonderful (and distinctly masculine) energy in the act of trying to out-technique an opponent in front of an audience. It sublimates something as abstract as aesthetic value and artistic merit to the whims of judges and audiences, in essence turning creativity into a kind of game.

This “competitive game” aspect of music making is alive and well. One only has to turn on the TV to see our own version of the Meistersinger contests, “American Idol.” In school music programs, especially marching bands (some of which are treated just like any sports team), young musicians go head to head in regional, state, and national contests to determine the “Prince” of high school bands/orchestras/choirs. Sometimes emotions run hot in our gladiatorial musical slug-fests (“Yo Taylor. I’m really happy for you. I’ma let you finish but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”)

To me, the best (or at least most fun) parallel to the terso contests in modern society are rap battles, where two MC’s get on stage together and face off with freestyle lyrical flows. A man with a timer is present to make sure each rapper is given an equal amount of time at the mic, and events are judged either by adjudicators or by audience reaction. Battle rappers improvise rhymes with the intent not only of showing superior verbal skill, but also demolishing the other rapper with ribald trash-talk. As a cultural practice, it bears many similarities to the African-American concept of “playing the dozens,” where young men face off in a good-natured way to dis the other guy to shame (“Your momma’s so …”). The two clips below feature master battle rappers Jin and Immortal Technique practicing the irreverent craft (and it does get irreverent, faint-hearted readers!):

So, who’s the Jehan Bretel of the 21st century?

Technologies of Transformation

One of Taruskin’s more philosophical passages, the aptly subtitled “What is Art?” (I, pp. 64-67), outlines in broad strokes the transition from music-as-activity to music-as-Art. Once a practice that existed entirely within the oral tradition, early notation was pivotal in codifying music and providing individual works with autonomy, a fairly universally regarded prerequisite for “art” status. Instead of the transitory, unpredictable nature of oral transmission and living, breathing musical practice, notation allowed for prescriptive snapshots of sound ideals. The manuscript was sound made flesh, and the very “thing-ness” of a notated page had the effect of elevating it to a higher status. When the printing press came along, allowing for numerous, easy copies of musical works, this process of reification intensified. As Taruskin writes: “The durable music-thing could begin to seem more important than ephemeral music-makers. The idea of a classic – a timeless aesthetic object – was waiting to be born.” (I, 65). The final step in this progression, Taruskin goes on, came with the invention and popularization of recording technology, which allowed people to own not just things that represent music (scores, notated music), but the music itself, the Ding an sich. “A recording of a piece of music is more of a thing than ever before, and our notion of what “a piece” is has been correspondingly (and literally) solidified.” (ibid.) Recordings are the ultimate tangible embodiment of music, and thus the ultimate step in their paradigmatic transfiguration into art.

Oh what has changed in the decade and a half since Taruskin wrote this. In many ways I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment: the recording is just another form of writing (“sound-writing” to be precise), only one that is much more powerful than notation in that it captures time itself, not just representations of music-colored time. In no other 20-year interval in history, however, has a paradigm of musical transmission come so quickly to its knees. The thing-ness of recorded music is, for all intents and purposes, presently dead. Proliferation and rapid adoption of digital formats like the MP3 have taken the physical object out of music consumption for a majority of people. They still have their recordings – fixed, solid performances of music – but the things attached to them have disappeared into thin air. In some ways, we moderns are returning to an earlier paradigm of music making with alarming, unprecedented alacrity.

As goes the transmission medium, so goes the art. Contrary to what Taruskin says – that today works of High Art are held in great esteem precisely because of their manifest thing-ness – today the traditional bastion of musico-cultural value, “the canon,” is collapsing all around us. The nature of this transformation is complex, but one of the major factors, I would argue, is the severe decline of the physical object in recorded music.

I want to return one last time to our favorite topic of the week – tropes. (And I swear this is the last post, all you troper-haters out there!) As Taruskin argues, thinking of tropes as art in the traditional definition is highly problematic. The same is true of sampling, as the legal and cultural firestorm over the technique’s very right to exist amply demonstrates. Much of the reason why these two forms are so problematic is because of the strange, complex message they carry about the media of transmission themselves.

The thing that intrigues me the most about tropes, and about sampling, is how fundamental the media is to the message. Here’s what I mean. The respective technologies of music notation and sound recording, by fixing musical practice into a thing, enable the subversion of the medium itself since an object can be cut, pasted, broken apart, rearranged, etc. It’s much easier to use an object for new purposes than it is to use an idea, which is what all songs were before they were figuratively “made flesh.” In both troping and sampling, the media itself (notation, recording) becomes the battleground on which musicians mediate these warping notions of musical meaning. Tropes (and sampled hip-hop) aren’t just captured by their respective transmission media – they are a product of their technologies. No music notation, no tropes; no sound recording, no sampling.

We should keep this in mind when attempting to draw straight lines through music history. The same technologies that helped reify music into Art also helped challenge the very notion of art and might, ultimately, lead to the collapse of cultural authority inherent in such a paradigm. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.