Metal Versus Classical

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Article by Lance Viggiano

Metal, like nearly every form of contemporary western music, carries legacy traits from western classical music. Noting these inherited qualities and their contribution to metal’s identity is a fruitful venture worth study. Yes, some artists such as Emperor created music that may as well have been performed by an orchestra. Nevertheless there is a distinct tendency among metalheads to validate metal through this heritage. The logic behind this is eloquent and simple: Classical maintains an esteemed position and metal retains compositional/artistic characteristics of classical; therefore metal is good (insert adjective for good: High Art, Quality, etc.). This does a disservice to metal however as it forsakes the baroque for the succinct while deriving much of its power from textural aesthetics. Metal needs to be qualified and judged according to its own merits.

Both forms of music arrange motifs according to an underlying narrative. The pathos of western classical music is derived out of experiments in harmony that attempted to imitate a well ordered and intricately planned cosmos. The composer embodies the role of the One God who conceives and executes a nature in which each of its parts cooperate in accordance with divine law  or in the case of music: its score and story. Metal however is all about the riff; not just its position in the score but also the way it sounds and the way it feels. Downtuning a guitar, plugging it into a bass amp, and dialing the gain knob to its upper limit are not trivial or accidental decisions. The textural component gives the music body which allows for succinct motifs to achieve significance out of relative simplicity. On the other hand, classical must take on a ”notey” characteristic to give the music weight. The roar of an ensemble is a force of its own, yet it is comparatively tame next to the bludgeoning delivered by an amplifier and a few pedals.

Classical entices the mind with intricate and ornate patterns while metal ignites the heart by delivering an unabashedly barbaric, vitriolic and brash force of will. With each occupying distinct but equally valid dimensions of the human experience – The mind and the heart, respectively – it becomes clear that using one to validate the other does a great disservice to each form of music. Unplug metal and survey its patterns next to classical and one will find that it sounds as if it was composed by intellectually immature children. Plug classical patterns into metal and one finds that the need to make tonal sacrifices to retain clarity while distilling patterns down so as to be performed by fewer instruments results in sterile powerless wank which exists without proper support.

The Romantic movement turned its gaze back to the primacy of nature from the perspective of the civilized man who took all of his habits of thought with him; retaining his clear, distinct abstract patterns and hard mental boundaries. He walks at a distance from the forest so as to keep his boots from the blemishing mud and his coat from the shearing thicket. The Romanticism of metal walks barefooted against the cold soil, barely managing to escape the weather but never the bonds of nature. His damp stone refuge is aerated by a primate musk so thick that the festering gobbets and searing tendons of his kill cannot penetrate it. The civilized man understands nature as an idea from which he is blissful detached and divinely endowed to understand while the uncivilized man understands nature as an irrational outpouring of desire against which his only freedom is attained by projecting his own will against the world. Each vantage point offers a unique view of the same landscape. From that summit the artistry of metal ought to be discussed and ultimately, loved.

Classical and Pop Metal – part 4 (The Inner and the Outer)

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Article by David Rosales, 4th installment of a 7 part series.

When it comes to making music, people in general (including both audience and artists) tend to sum things up in “feeling”, or ways of looking at the world. That is all well, but it does not necessarily imply the way in which music is made, nor if this “feeling” of theirs reveals any worthwhile quality. What’s even more problematic is that although everybody may deduce from common sense that music operates at two primary areas, namely form and intuition, it is assumed that these are disconnected and that whatever the original feeling that produced them, the audience is free to interpret whatever they want from it, since music is completely free and completely subjective.

Be that as it may, the truth is that intention-feeling-intuition and the musical form that is produced by the artist are intertwined in a complex relationship. Most composers would describe their creation process as one in which they jump between abstract and concrete modes. The beauty of music is that there is no one-to-one relation between conscious thought and organically produced result, but there is, indeed, a causal relation that can be traced and generally pointed at with some experience and powers of observation.

We may start by defining two modes of creation, one in which the exterior, that is, the form, the sound, the pitch, etc.generates an idea, perhaps at the same level, or inciting a thought. This mode is akin to what the audience goes through when they listen to the music. The second one is one in which an idea, a thought or a general feeling moves the artist to find a chord, a sound, a texture or a structure that corresponds to what he is looking for to some degree (depending on talent, availability of resources, etc). While we can safely say that most creators will invariably switch between these two modes, the importance and weight they assign to each varies. This very way in which they think is crucial to the nature and character of the result.

This must not be confused with the methods of composition such as improvisation and strict arrangement, which are also usually used in combination by composers throughout the creation process at some level or another. Generally speaking, though, careless composers tend to improvise much more than arrange strictly, and superficial ones tend to follow an outside-to-inside stimulation predominantly, allowing the raw impressions of the music to guide it.

Those who err on the side of caution keep improvisation on a short leash and brainstorming carefully directed and observed, channeling it and augmenting it through strict composition. On a parallel line, the composer who follows an inside-to-outside thought process keeps the externalization of a consistent logic line in check so that they make sense as much as words, statements and sections in an essay do. It is no mystery both kinds of arrangements, verbal/written and musical, are called compositions.

“Good simplicity, not that euphemism for folly”

Classical and Pop Metal – Part 3 (The Natural and the Artificial)

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Article by David Rosales, 3rd installment of a 7 part series

The word “artificial” denotes anything that is made by man, and which would not otherwise occur in the natural world. Likewise, anything that is “natural” is something that belongs to nature, not a conscious product of human design. Art itself is artificial, as its name suggests, and this very definition has lead modernist artists to trip catastrophically into the pitfall of abstract thought: confusing reality with its verbal definition.

The premise of modernist art is that since all art is artificial, then it should not matter how far away from natural human perception we take the art. The idea appears to be logical, at least on the surface, but it has mislead generations of artists who ending producing worthless (but “interesting”) garbage. Alas, logic is not enough to make an idea compatible with reality, and incorrect or incomplete premises and assumptions will invariably lead to flawed conclusions. The mistake here lies in ignoring the premise that while everything that is produced by humans is artificial, the consumer is only a natural organism, which only has natural means of achieving this consumption or utilization. This can be said of anything that our species makes use of: chairs are made so that our bodies are comfortable, food is prepared in all sorts of way but it must have a degree of compatibility with our body lest it be inedible, etc. Everything that an organism will consume, utilize or interact with must have a certain degree of natural compatibility with the organism in question.

This can be said about more things than the most obviously physical. The mind itself must arise from the same “physical” universe, albeit at a different level of differentiation which science only partially understands. The human mind itself has its own tendencies and limitations that are independent of nurture, and in turn the input faculties also lie within a particular range. Furthermore, not only is there a limited degree in which they are useful at all, there are degrees to which each of these is beneficial or detrimental to the healthy growth of mind and body, which are two sides of the same coin.

Now, if sensory limitations were the only obstacles, then the second line of modernist arguments would be triumphant; they argue that one needs only be repeatedly exposed to the experience of modernist art so that the ear gets used to it and accepts it. This is admittedly true, since the human body can accept all sorts of torture. It can even take pleasure in things which are unwholesome or detrimental to it when they are designed to interact with natural receptors. Modernist art goes the other way and avoids these natural receptors, thereby coming up with an altogether incompatible interface.

The mind, the subconscious, however, has its own nature (by which is meant that it is made for a very specific range of activities and consists of a very specific range of abilities: pattern recognition, narrative, etc), and brain plasticity is not infinite. We are products of this world, and as such our mind naturally reacts to certain input in a certain way. Hence, art that attempts to be unnatural is not truly appreciable or perceivable as spiritual, as traditional art would. It can only be interpreted in a cerebral manner and perceived in waves of shock.

Western classical art has traditionally been about the connection of the human being with the divine: his own higher nature as an extension of the natural order of the universe in which it becomes an individual for a single cosmological moment only to return to the whole. Modernism, then, is not a classical art. Modernist music is not classical music. It is not because it rejects natural avenues and instead argues for an ultra-natural, ultra-sensory experience that produces rationalizations.

To close this topic, we can liken this distinction between classical and modernist art to the difference between the traditional esoterism of the ancients in which multiple meanings were layered in symbols and rituals aimed at revealing actual information to the thelemic magick of Aleister Crowley, which placed value on the experience rather than the actual content. The classical is holistic and self-contained, the modernist takes needs arguments and justifications to appear to have any value at all.

Classical and Pop Metal – Part 2 (Inadequacy of Existing Definitions)

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Article by David Rosales, 2nd installment of a 7 part series; read the first part here

Most people with no formal training regard pop as a subset of the many kinds of music genres they can possibly listen to that are not considered “classical”. This implies a delimited genre that is easy to listen to, particularly repetitive, and with a strong emphasis on catchy choruses that form the whole of the content. It’s considered superficial even by those who profess to love it, who do so in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It’s all about the fun, they say. Classical music actually has two definitions, but the popular take on it is that it’s boring and long-winded music written and performed by some old men and nerds at school.

Modern academia unofficially defines “popular music” simply as “everything that is not what we do”. Sadly, they impress upon this broader group the same restrictions that non-academics would on their particular “pop” genre. It is obvious to anyone who explores so-called popular music beyond The Beatles or Michael Jackson that this definition is more of a belligerent and dismissive gesture than a sincere attempt at distinguishing what is a much richer well of music. In short, it is an indirect way to claim the irrelevance of anything that is not academic music.

When confronted with this reality, either through accidental exposition (such as a music teacher dealing with the musical tastes of a classroom with varied musical backgrounds) or as a result of a casual debate, it is not uncommon to see academics jump through hoops to justify an out of hand prejudice or a forced humanist humility that will accept the most vulgar and banal musics as a valid expression of the soul. In either case, real discernment is sorely missing. Also, that the musical academic establishment hilariously wants to keep calling itself “classical tradition” when they have abandoned all but the most materialistic of the original precepts is a sign of their arbitrary and lazy attitude towards music that is not spoon-fed to them (oddly, a reflection of the same attitude of most mundane popular music listeners).

When we accept that music goes beyond mere forms, beyond parts and consists not only of the instruments, or the notes, or the intentions but is truly an entity completely apart born from these elements, we tacitly acknowledge that the terms used to describe genres most also go beyond the surface and take into account holistic considerations. For this, both current uses of the terms “popular” and “classical” music are not only unsuitable, but defined unevenly. While pop music is defined in very narrow and simplistic terms, classical music is considered this vast and unrestricted attitude that is only tied together “objectively” through the most superficial and politically-motivated arguments.

Those with a serious background in academic music would readily accept that correct distinctions have to lie at a metaphysical level, even though we must necessarily judge them through concrete notes and forms. It is here that the average person becomes bewildered, at a loss since he is no longer able to make universal egalitarian statements. The key to untangling this moral conundrum is to be truly scientific about the matter and take into account the context at several different levels, in which music develops. The distinction between the broad groups distinguished through our new “classical” and “pop” (to avoid using the noun) terms take on a much more abstract though still nebulous character.

That it is abstract does not mean that it cannot be decided or that concrete music analysis cannot be applied. It simply means that strong contextualization is a must, and that the fact that art can never be objective, because the whole of the human experience is itself necessarily subjective. This in no moment means that standards should be lowered, but that standards should be understood not at a superficial level of complexity, but in the interplay between intention and realization in proper context. For this, the concepts of natural and artificial, inner and outer, as well as transcendence need be discussed and understood.

Classical and Pop Metal – Part 1 (Banishing of Preconceptions)

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Article by David Rosales, 1st installment of a 7 part series
The terms pop and classical get thrown around pretty carelessly, with little regard as to what they actually mean as foreign meanings are imposed on them. It can be shown that most of these distinctions are quite arbitrary, even if they are meaningful indeed. What we should be asking ourselves is which of the definitions may provide a useful distinction that goes beyond the plain appearances or superficial glances at structure.

Music works at so many more levels than bare form (which is only the means and not the music itself) that the analysis typical of academia which focuses on either what I would call brute-force complexity or what they may deem “innovative” is problematic. Music history has proved that mere innovation, which more often than not is little more than momentary novelty, does not bring about long-standing results in itself. It may certainly result in long-standing popularity, but one may see that in these cases the “novelty” in question, as a concept, antecedes any natural reactions and feelings people may have to it.

A good example of this is The Rite of Spring, by Stravinsky. Its fans are usually music majors, more often than not, or amateur posers who are merely shocked by its reputation and how strange it sounds – how “different” it makes them feel. In each of the cases, the most immediate arguments for the greatness of this music will come in the form of cold musical analyses that point out its innovations in rhythm, or how “shocking” the character is. Basically, bombast and syncopated hip movements.

The same is true of metal or any other genre. Innovations and novelty come and go, the former being absorbed into the background as useful processes to express the metaphysical concerns that the particular music has, while the latter makes an impression and is left behind. As we recognize this universal rule of human-made music, or art in general, we come to understand that we cannot base definitions strictly on whether or not innovation is taking place as this also tends to be confused with novelty. Only time — and long spans at that — can truly prove the difference.

Finally, the biggest preconception we must get rid off to properly start this discussion is that the terms we mentioned before are actually defined. There is no complete consensus regarding what “popular music” strictly consists of. Furthermore, the term “classical” seems to be used as meaning both a period in Western traditional music, and what is actually modern academic activity which appropriates the former for itself as if some kind of crowning ceremony had taken place in which Beethoven bestowed power upon Wagner, who in turn anointed the likes of Schönberg. Let’s get rid of all such popular (ha!) assertions and try to arrive at useful terms.

The Classical-Metal connection expands

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For 20+ years, first with the Dark Legions Archive and next with the Death Metal Underground, the writers behind this site have encouraged comparison with heavy metal and two things: European Romanticism in art, music, and literature; and European classical music, which overlapped with Romanticism both in a specific time period and in themes it revisits even to this day. The similarities are abundant and apparent but offensive to those who want to believe the blues-rock spectrum was part of an authentic tradition, when in fact it was a commercial product simplifying earlier styles, and that — of course — metalheads cannot have any associations more profound than the sacred indie rock and its origins in 1960s protest music.

Now, others are taking up the call. Perfect Sound Forever, one of the oldest e-zines on the net, addresses the metal-classical linkage in an article in its current edition:

I’m here to show you that rock and roll and classical are very much relatives in an, albeit, diverse musical family. First off, the sort of person who enjoys classical music is the same sort of person who would enjoy metal or heavy rock music. Research by scientists at Heriot-Watt University has found that not only are peoples’ personalities linked to their taste in music – classical and heavy metal listeners often have very similar dispositions.

“The general public has held a stereotype of heavy metal fans being suicidally depressed and a danger to themselves and society in general,” explained Adrian North, the professor who led the study. “But they are quite delicate things. Metal fans, like classical listeners, tend to be creative, gentle people, at ease with themselves. We think the answer is that both types of music, classical and heavy metal, have something of the spiritual about them — they’re very dramatic — a lot happens. ”

Perhaps more will be known about not only the similarities between these genres, but — because every cause has an effect — what similar ideas or emotions motivated artists to make such similar music centuries apart.

Classical String Quartets for the death metal fan, fourth edition

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Today, we’ll visit string quartets from both the Romantic and Modernist eras. The purpose is to give continuity to the line started in the first few articles. We visited Beethoven and Shostakovich, then Mozart and Bartók, and for the last time we visited the respected teachers Haydn and Schoenberg. This time we visit one of the the Romantic heirs to the Beethovenian tradition, the writer of music with a very private character, Schubert, and the genius serialist composer Webern, one of the most (if not the most) outstanding students of Schoenberg.

 

Franz Schubert: String Quartet no. 14, Der Tod und das Mädchen

This quartet is dubbed after an earlier lied of the same name, whose main theme Schubert used as the theme for the the second movement of this string quartet.

 

 

Anton Webern: 5 Sätze für Streichquartett op.5 (5 movements for string quartet)

It is a common misconception that serialism is a more mechanical method of composition, because it s a method. While some (including myself) believe it is an unnatural (contrary to the Common Practice Period notions) method contradicting the physics of frequencies, it is, apart from that fact, as much of a valid and constrictive method as any other. No more, no less. It just follows a different set of rules. And because it is counter-intuitive for people unaccustomed  to it, compositions with this method may well prove to be even more demanding by virtue of this lack of familiarity the general public has with it – it has harder to make something that makes any sense for the human ear. In my humble opinion, the dependency on an ethereal pulse becomes paramount in this type of music.

Classical String Quartets for the Death Metal Fan, episode three

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Today we will visit the works of two great composers in their own right who were also the teachers, directly or indirectly, of other composers who are considered musical geniuses. These geniuses were Mozart and Beethoven after Haydn, and Webern and Berg after Schoenberg.

In a way, Haydn and Schoenberg represent opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the relation between composer and society. Haydn was employed by the Esterhazy family for many years, serving as personal composer for their events and whims. An honored servant, making music in the styles fashionable to the aristocracy. Schoenberg, on the other hand, was a product of a much different era, a century and a  half later, when composers had attained a position of independent eminence and power as a result of a process that had started in Mozart’s time and made more clear with Beethoven. Schoenberg’s attitude and music widened the gap between an artists pursuit of perfection and the audience’s taste and preferences.  This, of course, was a result of larger historical processes and not the work of a composer; Schoenberg was a result of these, not a cause.

Franz Joseph Haydn: Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross

Originally written for a classical orchestra as a commission for the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Spain, Haydn reworked this music intended as accompaniment for the mass as a string quartet at the petition of his publisher. Irrelevant here, but it is worth mentioning that the composer later adapted this work as an oratorio as well.

Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2

Powerful and particularly lyrical in its melodies, this quartet is unusual in its use of a soprano in its last two movements.  About this quartet, the composer says:

“I was inspired by poems of Stefan George, the German poet, to compose music to some of his poems and, surprisingly, without any expectation on my part, these songs showed a style quite different from everything I had written before.” – Arnold Schoenberg (1937)

The work uses a wide array of work tools, starting with a very late romantic feeling and moving into atonal experiments; the last movements in which all chromatic tones are used.

Classical String Quartets for the Death Metal Fan, A Second Look

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In order to help death metallers make a smooth transition into string quartets, the first edition of this series presented the reader with two quartets that are superficially and at least partially, in terms of a simplistic judgement of mood, akin to underground death metal. Today, we will venture into a territory that is equally relevant to metal, composition-wise, not because metal artists compose in this way, but as I suggested last time, because there are many ideas relating to refinement that could be extrapolated and applied in a death metal context. In order to make this transition smoothly, one of the quartets introduced in this second edition is still superficially dark in atmosphere.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 19, “Dissonance”

Nicknamed after the prominent dissonances right at beginning of the first movement, it was the last of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, who defined the classical way to write for string quartets. Even Beethoven recalls a before-and-after marked by the study of Haydn’s quartets. Mozart describes these quartets as “the culmination of a long and laborious effort” and many think it is the display of composer’s finest faculties.

As with any string quartet, the listener is encouraged to pay attention to each moment, absorb it, but not dwell on it. References to the exercise in dissonance application to an otherwise strict style can be found in other places in the quartet. A challenge may be to spot where this happens. We can start trying to wait for the moment in the second movement when the cello receives a leading line and the rest of the instruments play dissonant harmonies around it.

 

Béla Viktor János Bartók: String Quartet No. 4

An important influence to many from Benjamin Britten to King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, Bartók’s string quartets’ particular sound owed a great deal to the composer’s extensive field research on European folk music. Paul Wilson in his book, The Music of Béla Bartók, wrote that it was this research that allowed the composer to rid himself of the “tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys, leading eventually to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.”. The astute and attentive observer may note that this, Bartók’s fourth string quartet, uses no prominent themes (complete musical expressions in themselves), but advances through developing motifs (musical cryptograms) only.

Classical String Quartets for the death metal fan, a first look

circa 1800:  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827), German composer, generally considered to be one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition.  (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)shostakovich01

The purpose of this series is to present the death metal fan (and by extension, the death metal writer/artist/composer) with a look into great classical string quartets that evoke the same violent and stark atmosphere that is typical of death metal.

The metal fan is encouraged to look beyond superficial parallels or differences so that he realizes how these string quartets by master composers developed into a cornucopia of expressions, patterns and details. I wish this would also be an aspiration or at least an inspiration for the artist (or would-be artist) that has the chance of reading it.

Another good reason to listen to string quartets in general is that they tend to express a more sincere and private facet of the composer while also being a test to his prowess in composition.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Op. 133, Grosse Fuge

Originally written as the last movement of his Op. 130, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, this massive movement was once commented on by Stravinsky saying that it is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”. Stravinsky was referring to the absolute character of the music and its jarring disparity with temporal conventions.

 

Dmitry Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 118

The well-known dark personality of Shostakovich’s compositions comes through in distilled and intensified manner in his string quartets. In here we find a mature Shostakovich channeling visions of a personal hell. We can imagine his will to fight through and see the light at the end of the tunnel despite facing terror and dread.