Classical and metal experiencing same paradigm shift


Over the past decade, metal and related genres have shifted toward a highly technical perspective on instrumentalism. Where earlier genres valued the primitive and passionate, bands now tend to begin with a grounding in jazz and progressive rock theory and expand into metal.

This raises the bar for entry into the genre, but on the level of mechanics only. Corresponding, creativity seems to have declined in the genre, perhaps because artists with something to communicate — a.k.a. “content” — now face an uphill path toward technical perfection before that content will be accepted in the genre.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the classical genre as well. Like metal, this niche genre struggles to keep existing fans while making new ones and not becoming “dumbed-down” like everything else in popular culture. As a result, it has become perfectionist on a technical level, perhaps to the detriment of content, notes an article on the evolution in classical music.

Today’s classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.” A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician’s downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.

This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians’ creativity: they’re too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, “the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness.”

The article goes on to discuss the impact that technology has had on classical music, namely a lowering of concert attendance and less of a tendency to purchase albums in favor of individual songs. This development threatens the mainstay income of classical musicians, and has driven them toward entrepreneurial ventures including pop music hybrids. While this particular source feels this is a positive development, many of us are not so sure.

When commerce takes over any given form, whether art or music or writing, it tends to increase the tangible factors of quality while decreasing the intangible ones, like content or profundity. This in turn drives artists toward increasing degrees of triviality and novelty in an effort to distinguish themselves, with the result that few focus on quality of expression beyond the technical at all.

Simultaneously, the knowledge of technical precision becomes democratized or spread widely at low cost, which means that soon the genre floods with highly proficient players who may have no ability to compose, improvise or otherwise contribute anything but “new” recombined versions of what previously existed. In metal, this has been a death knell; let us hope that for classical it is not the same.

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17 thoughts on “Classical and metal experiencing same paradigm shift”

  1. witten says:

    Well, it seems like the remarks about classical music are made regarding instrument players, and in that case the ability to compose or improvise has not been important at least since 20th century. And personally I don’t care very much about newer players
    (or singers or conductors), unless I want to go to a live concert. I already have Furtwangler and Melchior records, so why would I buy another lesser “interpretation” of Beethoven or Wagner?

    In classical music the core repertoire of masterworks is so insurmountably great that people resort to endlessly re-interpreting them. At some point it’s bound to happen that records are not going to sell as much: what is the marginal value of the 936th Beethoven symphony cycle? Or the 58th Ring cycle, which features singer who are one fiftieth as good as the giants of the ’30s?

    In metal, while the core classics are great and deserving of their status (though the canon has not been rigorously formalized yet, you know roughly what I mean — Burzum, Darkthrone, Enslaved, Helheim, Incantation, Demigod, etc.), I think there’s still room for improvement, on a compositional level. Sadly I don’t see it happening.

    1. trystero says:

      A strong point regarding classical music, it is mired in its own canon. Indeed, who would care for endless reinterpretations unless they truly bring something new? Consider Wendy Carlos – Switched on Bach, especially Brandenburg #3. Completely ignoring the wonderful phrasing, just the fact that it was the sounds of a Moog made it one of the more popular releases in the genre. Yet it is often dismissed by many classical musicians, critics and afficiandos as a trifle.

      The musician, as in the professional level instrumentalist, is not that important to classical music; at least in cases where they are not ultimately responsible for interpretation or composition. The dearth is at the level of the composer as well (this article does not touch upon why that may be, nor does it need to). Whatever the reason or reasons, this weakness has been most prominent from the early 20th century onwards. Perhaps that is a clue, perhaps it is merely incidental.

      Metal is luckier in a way I think for not being so formalized and still being very much in culturally, especially amongst young creators. Things look bleak in times of stagnation, but there is still room for hope.

    2. Poofledoodle says:

      Yes, though I think the “characters flaws” of the classic metal albums are part of what makes them so great. They straddle a weird line between “art” and adolescent pulp. I don’t think the academic world could ever understand that.

  2. lilim says:

    Topically I was just today re-listening to an interpretation of Immolation I remembered finding here years back

  3. Richard Head says:

    Good article, good read, appriciated.

    Horowitz came to mind. He rarely stuck to the written music precisely, would speed up and slow down or go from playing extremely loudly to using a very delicate touch. Basically he expressed the written music as best he understood it, and thought it would be best understood. More people should play like him.

    1. admortemfestinamus says:

      Don’t like him sentimentalizing the shit out of Scarlatti though. Or out of anything. Any recommendations in case I haven’t heard the best of him? I’m still a bit disillusioned after sitting through the highly acclaimed ‘Horowitz and a bunch of primates in Moscow’ recording.

  4. yoyomahabrahma says:

    Asian mentality

    1. 1349 says:


      1. yoyomahabrahma says:

        Asian classical musicians and metal bands are mechanical. The same is trait is in the west but on a different scale.

  5. Lord Mosher says:

    Ok guys, it’s already September and need to get busy writing our Best Of 2014 lists already! So what do we got so far?
    1.- Sammath – Godless Arrogance
    2.- Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls
    3.- Rigor Mortis – Slaves to the Grave ( cross my fingers).
    4.- Burzum – The Ways of Yore
    5.- Graveland – Ogień przebudzenia
    6- ¿ ?

    1. BB says:

      Domains – Sinister Ceremonies

    2. Deaf Today says:

      Question – Doomed Passages
      Sorcier des Glaces – Ritual of the End

    3. Rotten Ralph says:

      Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness
      Heresiarch – Wælwulf EP

      Maybe these ones too but I haven’t heard them yet:

      Vallenfyre – Splinters
      Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread

      1. phallus says:

        New Vallenfyre is crap, don’t bother. New Desecresy is listenable and deserves a mention.

        1. tiny midget says:

          iced earth plagues of babylon. and iron maiden – ancient memories

          1. BB says:

            Iron Maiden? Really? That’s just CoF with clean vocals!

  6. Anthony says:

    Classical went down the shitter way before metal even existed. Have you ever listened to Gershwin or Schoenberg? Fuck that noise.

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