Niccolo Paganini: Virtuoso or Devil?

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Niccolo Paganini: the name is well known among violinists. He belongs to the exclusive club of musicians known as virtuosos.

Sickly since his birth on October 27, 1782 in Genoa, Paganini’s virtuosity was astounding. He began playing the violin at age seven at the insistence of his father, Antonio Paganini. Antonio Paganini was a mediocre mandolin player who forced his son to practice long hours. At the age of thirteen, Niccolo was sent to study with a famous violin teacher named Alessandro Rolla. Rolla, upon hearing young Niccolo play, refused to take Niccolo as a student because he claimed he could teach Niccolo nothing.

Niccolo continued playing and performing in his native land, and soon received a reputation of being the best violinist in Italy. People began to speculate about Paganini’s great talent, and began to wonder about his gift. Paganini became known as a “Hexensohn” or witch’s brat (de Saussine, Paganini 113). Paganini’s demonic reputation became so widespread that his talent was often attributed to the belief that he had help from the devil.

Paganini began touring Europe when he was in his early forties. At the time, no one had ever seen or heard anyone, or anything, quite like Paganini. For a time, Paganini capitalized on this difference by encouraging the rumors of his supernatural abilities. It was common for him to arrive at a concert in a black coach drawn by black horses. Paganini himself would wear black. Schwarz states that Paganini would enter the stage late, like a non-terrestrial creature, and bow to the audience(Great Masters of the Violin 181). Paganini’s stage presence increased the rumors of his dark affiliations and the rumors soon became outrageous. One of the most popularized reports explained his extreme dexterity with one string. Schwarz explains that many believed Paganini had been imprisoned for a love affair with only his violin for company. One by one, the three upper strings broke, leaving only the G-string. Paganini soon learned to play on the G-string alone because of his imprisonment (Schwarz 176). Paganini tried to dispel these myths later in his career, but it was too late. Paganini became known as a “technical wizard” (Schwarz 179).

Paganini’s technique was outstanding and unusual, but it was his satanic bearing which caused great crowds to attend his concerts. Schwarz states that “It was more than technical wizardry that attracted the masses: there was a demonic quality as well as an enticing poetry in his playing” (Great Masters of the Violin 181). One instance of superb technique being mistaken for supernatural guidance was the “duel” between Lafont, a famous French violinist of the time, and Paganini. Lafont had volunteered to give a joint concert with Paganini; however, people gained the impression that the concert would be a contest. Paganini was the unofficial “winner” of the contest. Schwarz states that Paganini “won” by improvising during the concert by adding octaves, thirds, and sixths (Great Masters of the Violin 172-173). Paganini was always eager to showcase his technique. Sachs states that Paganini, at a concert in Paris in 1832, played his Sonata a movement perpetual at an amazing twelve notes per second (Virtuoso 33). Most people find it difficult to imagine twelve notes in one second. Paganini managed to play twelve notes in the same amount of time it takes for most musicians to read twelve notes. Paganini’s talent extended from the mere mechanics of technique to innovations in technique.

Paganini is the father of modern violin technique. One innovation Paganini began is the practice of memorization. Violinists before Paganini always used music during a concert. Paganini, on the other hand, would boldly walk onto the stage, shake back his long black hair, place his violin under his chin, and begin to play without the aid of music. Audiences were astounded. They marveled at the thought of one man memorizing an entire program of music. The current practice of memorization was attributed to Paganini’s supernatural abilities. Paganini’s innovations were recognized as early as 1829 by the German violinist Guhr. Schwarz summarizes Guhr’s theories on Paganini’s innovations into six categories:

  1. scordatura, which is the mis-tuning of strings to enable the violinist to play in another key without shifting;
  2. unorthodox bowing, such as bouncing the bow on the strings;
  3. left-hand pizzicato, which allows a violinist to create the staccato sound without using the bow hand;
  4. an extensive use of harmonics;
  5. using the G-string for entire works;
  6. bizarre fingerings (Great Masters of the Violin 196)

All of the techniques listed above were new and created sounds never heard before. These new sounds which Paganini created caused audiences to react favorably, even if they thought Paganini was possessed by the devil.

Paganini’s appearance completed the image of the satanic violinist. Paganini’s dark hair and pale face contrasted, giving him an ethereal aura. The loss of his teeth in 1828 gave his face a sunk-in appearance, which added to his ghost-like image. Few concert goers were left unmoved by a performance given by Paganini. Boerne, a German poet at the time, described his impression of a concert given by Paganini: “It was a heavenly and diabolical enthusiasm, I have never seen or heard its like in my life” (Schwarz 185). Paganini’s ability to entrance an audience can be attributed to his physical appearance and to his technique.

The myth surrounding Paganini lingered even after his death on May 27, 1840. Since Paganini had refused the final sacrament, he could not be buried. His remains were kept in a basement for five years until his family petitioned to have them buried. Many people speculated on his refusal of the sacrament. Some said he did not believe that he would die, while others said he was a non-believer (Sachs 32). The result of his refusal of the final sacrament once again raised the question of Paganini’s origin.

Paganini’s origin was not in Hell as the myth propagates. Paganini’s accomplishments were due to his diligence and hard work. Few realize the amount of practice required to perform effortlessly. Paganini had the gift to not only create beautiful music, but to create an entertaining performance. At the high point of his career, every concert Paganini gave was sold out. The sensation Paganini created in the 1830’s can be compared to the Beatles invasion in the early 1960’s. “Paganini Mania”, like “Beatle Mania”, caused a change in the music style of the time. However, Paganini can also be compared to Elvis Presley, who began to lose popularity during the last few years of his life. Paganini, at the time of his death, no longer created the image that he had earlier in his career. However, in spite of all the rumors, Paganini managed to originate a style of music which is still alive today.


A Selected Bibliography
Saussine, Renee de. Paganini. New York: Hutchenson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1953.

Sachs, Harvey. Virtuoso. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

Schwarz, Boris. Great Masters of the Violin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Two DIY Metal Books

Brief thoughts on two recent metal-related books, both small-print-run, DIY affairs:

A Salute to Heavy Metal Band Name Origins by Blair Gibson

Remember that book that was a list of every heavy metal band name gleaned from MySpace and Metal-Archives? You can get the real deal here instead: author Blair Gibson went out there to active bands and asked them to describe the origins of their names. And he gets them, time after time, for a fascinating study of detail that also reveals quite a bit about heavy metal. For example, the number of bands who picked word lengths and vowel distributions to make a good logo, or the number of tributes to earlier bands. Some stories are just bizarre and show us how bands ended up with enigmatic band names that are meaningless to the rest of us. Others make perfect sense and show a systematic approach to finding names that fit multiple criteria. For the casual reader, this book is probably doomed to the coffee table because it’s so easy to read if you pick up and start on a random page, or skim for favorite bands. However, it provides such a rich background of insight that it will fascinate die-hard metalheads and rock historians alike.

Glorious Times: A Pictorial of the Death Metal Scene 1984 – 1991 by Alan Moses and Brian Pattison

For good or ill, there is an obvious old-school revival afoot. Amidst all the vinyl lust and reformation mania, the hocking of the dusted-off thoughts and artifacts of the first generation of death metal ‘zine writers was probably an inevitability. Glorious Times, then, makes Alan Moses (Buttface ‘zine) and Brian Pattison (Chainsaw Abortions ‘zine) the trendsetters in what could easily become a highly active take on the metal nostalgia game (see the forthcoming Slayer ‘zine compilation and excitement surrounding it for proof).

Despite the “pictorial” label, Glorious Times instead features dozens of exclusive, band-submitted narratives and pictures supported by the authors’ collections of rare photographs. The tales look to be included in the book warts-and-all — editing, grammar and spelling — as submitted by the contributors in text form, and were solicited from a number of closely-related US bands, with a few stragglers from Europe called on to fill in the gaps. This creates something of a thread to be followed: one sees several names and faces pop up throughout the book regardless of the focus at any given point, which enforces a sense of camaraderie and makes a lot of the tour horror stories and rehearsal anecdotes that much more personally appealing and amusing.

While the above makes for enjoyable casual reading, the layout is unfortunately disjointed, rendering the “pictorial” side of the book distracting from the literary effect. The photo subjects are mostly well chosen, and the originals of high quality, but many of the images are bafflingly distorted from their original aspect ratios, are confusingly labeled or are oriented hastily with little regard to their context in the space of the book. It’s really too bad, as it undermines a lot of the documentary potential; a bit of caution with the aesthetic aspect, particularly for such an emphatically visual work, and this could have been legendary. Instead, it comes across as a fine idea with some haphazard execution that hurts its lifelong bookshelf appeal.

Why I’m a Hessian and not a metalhead

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There are many books, movies and CDs that float through our lives.

When we really like many of a certain type, we may identify with them. “I like Romance novels! I like disco!”

If you like the music, you’re a metalhead. You like to buy certain things and listen to them.

If you like the ideas behind the music — the lifestyle, the worldview, the imagery and most importantly, the spirit — you need to use a word that means you are more than a consumer of metal music.

You’re a Hessian. Derived from California slang from the time when Slayer were starting out, this term refers to the mercenaries who fought for both sides during the Revolutionary War — from Hesse, in Germany, they had long hair and fought like demons.

Obviously, this term belongs with the person who loves the abstract ideals of metal!

Anyone can be a metalhead. For under $100 you can get a starter collection, and if you hit the thrift stores, you can pick up some classic ironic metal tshirts for under ten bucks.

If you really want to appear extreme, you can go the ‘kvlt’ route and buy up classic releases on ebay, then refuse to like anything that has more than two chords.

Or you can be an Opeth fan and talk about how profound and progressive your music is.

Either way, you’ve bought yourself an identity with your cash and time.

But is that really a commitment? Nope, because you can whip that identity off in 30 seconds. Put the CDs back on ebay (where they seem to recycle; wonder why). Give the tshirts to Goodwill (same situation). Take the posters off your walls, buy a Miles Davis CD and a beret and you’ve got a new lifestyle.

But to be a Hessian means you identify with the ideas and have made them your own, just like when you find a philosopher who answers part of the question of life for you. You become a Schopenhauerian, or Nietzscheian, or Kantian — perhaps all at the same time.

Being a metalhead is just too easy. Being a Hessian takes commitment. I don’t begrudge those who want to pass through metal on their way somewhere else, and in fact cheer them on if they recognize this fact. But it’s the Hessians who always impress me.

Burzum – Belus

ANUS came out a couple weeks ago with a giant defecation on the new Burzum. People immediately complained that we hadn’t heard it, were being judgmental, and all sorts of silly stuff. What they didn’t realize is that you can hear a lot of things without officially owning them or getting them from the label, but you’re not going to do anything to hurt your sources. All of that changed last night, of course, with the official leak of the Belus master and 2LP version.

You want the tl;dr on the new Burzum? “Sounds good, soulless and disorganized.” This album has no direction but Varg is so adept at making simple riffs pretty that you want to drink it down. Cold, sweet, vast in flavor like a Snapple — but after listening to it a few times, you end up thinking: why am I doing this? This is no different than watching TV, going to a megachurch to hear about my immortal soul, or buying wallpaper. It’s pretty but has no direction so it ends up being like all other drone albums: a basic theme that picks up detail as repetition increases, then trails off into nowhere.

If you want music to replicate the experience of watching cheerleaders attempt to act out Macbeth, this might be for you, but not likely. Riffs are based on simple harmony and well-composed, but go nowhere, incorporating at random influences from Russian black metal, Ukranian black metal, German speed metal, Terrorizer and random death metal. A good deal of this shows the tripartite influence of Swedish melodic death metal, Slavic drone metal, and the American style of black metal flavored indie rock. The first track “borrows” the melody from the title track of one of the keyboard albums. Two of these tracks are obvious Uruk Hai do-overs.

The final track sounds like Sunn o))) doing their version of Burzum. Makes me wonder if the label and his Russian handlers didn’t sit him down with recent black metal blockbusters and try to get the trained monkey to make his own version. The musical ability here is precocious as always, but the raw material fed into the machine is gunk, so what’s output is really well-adorned gunk.

When you hear it, notice how simple the riffs are relative to the fills, trills and decorations that space them. It’s like dressing up a turd until it looks like a Faberge egg, from a distance. But when you get close, or listen to it a dozen times, you’ll see the difference.

40 Candles upon the Altar of Heavy Metal

If we say that the average life-expectancy age in the western world is 80 and simplify things a little further by positing that half of those years are spent asleep during the night, then we’ve only got about 40 years to do some real, serious living. It’s been that many years to this day since Black Sabbath released their debut album, as good a day as you’re going to get to hail the 40th anniversary of Heavy Metal, and every single one of those years has been spent wide awake through procession of the daily sun and the darkness of the night. Heavy Metal arrived at a time to sentence a generation of delusion to death and confront the rest of modernity with the weight of reality and the power of the occult. A lot of newer generation listeners entered the Metallic planes of hell through bands that were breaking away from Heavy Metal’s Rock formalities and Blues atavisms, giving an impression that the older music was in most cases obsolete. From the moment that Sabbath had arrived and Satan unveiled his majestic black wings, the spirit of Metal was unlocked like a Pandora’s box that held all the secrets from the past and future, and the subversion of the present ensued, encoded in the language of the riff! Let us mark this unholy day with the truest celebration of Heavy Metal imagineable, as Devamitra introduces his epic compilation chronicling this wise and powerful art-culture:

History has become obscured, for few are interested to learn and explore the dawn of the barbaric and romantic sounds of metal music. All sorts of glam and joke bands are mistaken for Heavy Metal, which they aren’t, and many even believe there was never any serious merit, dark insight or focused direction to Heavy Metal in the past. The “Anvil of Thor” compilation was created to aid discourse on death metal and black metal with a friend of mine, as our musical learnings were composed in entirely different moulds and I wanted him to see the language of heavy metal with its forms, symbols and motion at least partially from my perspective. “If you don´t know the past, it´s impossible to understand the present.” Listening to these tracks in the preferred order as they appear in the playlist file, it should be easy, for example, to see how the tritone blues of Black Sabbath and the poetic narrative of Judas Priest contained the suggestion of high energy riffs as they appeared in occult bands Mercyful Fate, Death SS and Angel Witch, consequently mutating into Doom Metal in Trouble and Candlemass, Speed Metal in Slayer and Metallica and Epic Metal in Manilla Road and Manowar. This isn’t quite a “best of Heavy Metal” but one of the possible paths of seeing through core visions, techniques and moods of Heavy Metal music. For old heavy metal fans, it will hopefully revive fond memories of these sinister and majestic LP’s and for others, broaden the perception and hopefully bestow surprises.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akt3awj_Ah8

Vektor – Black Future

Were the year 1988/89, when Speed Metal was making it’s final, most definitive statements of dystopian frenzy and technical invention, the reverberations of this music would undoubtedly be traced back to places like Canada and Texas, detecting the names of Voivod, Obliveon, Watchtower and dead horse among others. Certainly not Arizona, where, in Vektor‘s case, these sounds have travelled to and eventually merged in an energetic experiment of nuclear fusion. To some, the last few years have been good times for Speed Metal and saw a resurgence of bands trying to capture the spirit of the 80′s. In reality, this was one of many niched exercises in nostalgia and the long out-of-date fruits of useless bands like Evile, Merciless Death, Lich King and Municipal Waste reflected the trivial trend with sounds of supreme tackiness. Vektor are among the very few in revitalising Speed Metal, creating more than just a retrospective and methodological account of that genre’s heyday. ‘Black Future’ is a work that honours the past enthusiasm for innovation and musical proficiency, thus having a mind of its own to render this music for present and future audiences.

Voivod is the most visibly emblazoned influence on this band’s aesthetic, touching everything from the logo to the trademarked discordance and the futuristic scenes of technocratic dissolution it portrays. The Obliveon influence is quite explicit also, as there’s a lot of complex and unconventional movement of individual notes that resembles some kind of robotic Pagannini-droid, disembodied from the more rhythmic sections to emphasise the Classical aspirations of this band where melody is concerned. The rhythmic sections also stress this connection via. Metallica and their revolutionary instrumentals such as ‘Call of Ktulu‘ and ‘Orion‘ (there’s even the odd riff-a-like worked into the otherwise unique and beautifully crafted compositions). These songs flow very well through the course of the album, arranged much like one would theoretically expect it to sound had the band announced that they’ve written a ‘concept album’. It progresses from scenes of human conflict, chaos and error to glimpses of dark matter and the expanses of space hitherto undiscovered, mutating the neoclassicism into crescendos of high-end, sci-fi movie score material. Vocals are piercing shrieks that sound like the most ultrasonic intonations of Destruction with a touch of Absu. The drumming is really skillful but, as with the guitar-work, is almost over-indulgent at times, bringing undue attention to staple techniques like galloping kick-drums and shredding, though these occasions are few and far between and in any case, it’s infinitely more enjoyable to hear such exponentiated energy where it really belongs.

This album took us by surprise as 2009 was drawing to a close, capping off a year filled with more quality albums than the discerning Metal listener of recent years is used to. Vektor’s grasp of their ancestry is profound and combined with an epic concept and insane and elegant musicianship, ‘Black Future’ plays out like some cosmic race towards entropy with mankind in the driver’s seat.

-ObscuraHessian-

Metal on piano

People always told me that I liked metal because of the sound. Well — that was true; however, it wasn’t the whole story. I liked the music too. When I got further into the genre, people would bring me the LATEST COOLEST THING EVAR and when I figured out that 99% of those were soulless shallow trash with some nifty quirk or aesthetic tacked on, I started telling people that good music was production-agnostic. You could play it on a kazoo, on a synthesizer, or on a tuba, and good music will still have whatever it was made you like it.

Here in my view is the proof — complex metal classics played on piano, sounding like a progressive rock interpretation of classical music:

Although Varg Vikernes is normally a bad source for information about reality, he did tell us how he saw his music:

When forced to take a stand I say today that it’s metal music. Metal with roots in classical music. – Interview With Raped Ass of Christ ‘Zine

Metal with roots in classical music. Classical music, most like the Romantic and modernist kind, with its roots in traditional music and transcendental thinking. And you can hear the proof of it when you translate your metal to piano playing.

More Texas churches burn

Now we know what Varg Vikernes was doing when he was supposed to be making quality music:

The East Texas faith community is on alert again after two more churches burn to the ground. There have been nine suspicious church fires since the beginning of the year -seven have already been ruled arson.

“It could be one person, but we feel it’s probably more than one,” said Alexander.

“There are a lot of things that haven’t been stolen that could have been,” said Alexander…it’s obvious that whoever’s doing it, the intent is to destroy the church,” said

“It’s a Baptist, a Methodist, what type of church…black, white, it’s a church and they’re burning them,” said Smith County Fire Marshal Jim Seaton.

KLTV

What they’re alluding to is that many church fires occur to cover up thefts, for insurance money or to gain pity for the persecuted church or its congregation. This means that of all the church arsons out there, very few are actually ideologically motivated. This appears to be different.