MOSHING WITH MOZART
Article by Sam Tygiel
Metal and classical music for me will be forever linked. I started to become familiar with the classical repertoire at the same time that I was writing riffs for my first metal band and now I just can’t hear one without thinking of the other. There is a shared energy between the two genres and I often find myself attracted to the same qualities in classical music that I find compelling in metal. Metal is propelled by its bone-crushing riffs, destructive atmospheres, twisted and fearsome narratives and ruthless execution of punishing technique. A great band channels each of these attributes through their unique artistic vision in order to challenge the conventional and push the boundaries of musical expression.
In the same way, classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Krzysztof Penderecki and Arvo Pärt expand their art through the implementation of a dark and powerful energy that mirrors the ferocity of some of my favorite metal bands. I’m going to run through a few of my favorite classical riffs in hopes of giving you a little window into the way my brain connects my two favorite musical genres…
Heavy as a Sledgehammer
Metal is above all else, heavy. It is music that bores through to the deepest parts of our physical existence and pushes down on us with the greatest weight. Heaviness comes from all sources; from killer tones, to ferocious and punishing tempos, to meaningful and unexpected musical development, to charismatic, expressive performances.
When it comes to “heavy” classic music, the first composer that comes to mind is the Russian metal god Igor Stravinsky, whose early works comprise some of the most shocking and forceful musical experiences in the classical repertoire. The appropriately famous ballet, Le Sacre Du Printemps, or Rite of Spring is a groundbreaking experimentation in musical power whose 1913 Paris premiere incited one of music’s first recognizable mosh pits.
Stravinsky’s brutal rhythm and crushing harmonic structure, mixed with the uncharacteristic and purposefully inelegant choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky scared the living shit out of the early 20th century audience, inducing a full-fledged riot in the theater. While there is much debate as to whether it was the music or the ballet that so incensed the Parisian elite, the two artists were getting at something that was undeniably metal: the complete restructuring of the music and dance worlds through sheer, force, volume and physical energy.
If you’re not familiar with the Rite of Spring, take a listen to Stravinsky’s powerful rhythms and lush musical language in the excerpt below.
While Rite of Spring may have cast the initial stone and is the first composition that I would unequivocally refer to as “metal,” it may not actually be Stravinsky’s heaviest work. While most of Stravinsky’s early works were purely instrumental, his Symphony of Psalms for Orchestra and Chorus took the weight of his music to a new height, with his characteristically unsettling orchestral writing propelling his fierce approach to writing music for the human voice.
The opening movement alternates creeping, harmonized lines and powerful bursts of harsh, layered vocals, capturing the same kind of tension and no holds barred expression characteristic of a great death metal band. Take a listen to the opening salvo of Symphony of Psalms below, or skip to the 2:23 mark for some of Stravinsky’s heaviest riffage…
Submerged in Darkness
Metal is not, however, exclusively defined by its riffs and metal bands have always been striving to create convincingly dark and crushing atmospheres. Post-Whatever Bands like Isis and Godspeed You Black Emperor embrace lush and unusual sonic landscapes to stretch the imaginations of their listeners and create suitably dark and powerful backgrounds that fill each of their compositions with a sense of weight and importance. Estonian beard master Arvo Pärt indulges in similarly dark and haunting atmosphere, embodying pain, emptiness and desolation through expert use of dissonance and space.
For me, Pärt’s nuanced approach to texture and dynamics scratches the same itch as post-rockers like Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You. Pärt’s Te Deum employs a chorus, strings and a prepared piano (a piano with a whole bunch of shit put into to alter its tone and pitches) to create a truly moving sound world that completely envelops the listener. Skip to about the 23 minute mark to experience how Pärt deftly turns his subtle atmospheric string writing into an absolutely otherworldly crescendo…
Classical composers are also no strangers to the world of sickeningly unusual and abrasive tones, with many 20th century composers stretching acoustic orchestral instruments to their limits in order to create horrifying and heart shattering musical effects. These kind of pieces sink under a listeners skin, demanding the kind of unnervingly meditative listening experience required for a particularly incessant Sunn O))) recording.
Krzysztof Penderecki’s devastating Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, dedicated to those who died in the nuclear decimation that hastened the ending of the Second World War. Penderecki actually renamed the piece and decided on the dedication after he heard the piece performed because he was so struck by its visceral emotional impact. Check out how Penderecki’s unconventional string writing creates the same kind of brash, unfamiliar, and entirely soul crushing atmospheres achieved by modern drone and avant-metal bands in the video below!
Metal has always been performed by incredibly capable musicians and countless metal sub-genres rely on mind bogglingly technical music to up the ante and create the kind of intensity that makes listeners turn their heads in awe. Classical composers and performers have always had a love affair with virtuosity and there are a plethora of classical compositions whose sheer complexity and difficulty would put even the most prolific of metal shredders to shame.
I am not here, however, to talk about how Yngwie Malmsteen is obsessed with Bach and Mozart and to make fun of Rhapsody of Fire for their belief that all music would be better if we just re-arranged Baroque music for a metal band and a full orchestra. Am also not trying to convince you that classical music is even more technical than the latest Behold The Arctopus record. Instead I want to share how great classical composers employed explosive writing to create the same impression of weight and excitement that I feel when I listen to the awesome fretwork and uncanny precision of Fallujah or Animals as Leaders. One of my favorite virtuosic classical works is Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. The technical energy of the piece is focused into creating a convincing musical experience and is used economically to create musical contrast and alter the mood rather than just to show off. The ebb and flow of the first movement brings to mind the chaotic and exuberant musicality of a particularly focused Between the Buried and Me track. Take a listen from approximately 7:00-10:00 for a ferocious frenzy of sheer musical might, followed by an Opeth-like transition back to the softly erie opening theme…
Let Me Sing You the Song of Your Disembowelment
Metal is full of dark and twisted narratives. Whether it be the preposterously complicated and specific story of a Mastodon concept album or just the feeling of violence you get when listened to Pig Destroyer or Converge, metal always feels like it has a story to tell. Classical composers were no different and often their topics were no less gruesome, drug induced and self-indulgent.
Proto-metalhead Hector Berlioz was all kinds of insane and is best known for his 1830 out-of-left-field masterpiece, Symphonie Fantastique. While most classical music fans were happily humming along to the catchy melodies of Schubert and Beethoven, Berlioz’s programmatic symphony musically depicts an opium induced hallucination in which the composer kills his unrequited love and is marched to the scaffold by an angry mob and then beheaded. After his death he arrives at a witches’ sabbath where he is taunted and tortured by a host of demonic forces, the melody of his love now distorted into a grotesque mockery that he cannot escape.
Berlioz’s real life was almost as colorful and metal as his musical narratives. Upon learning that his fiancé was cheating on him, he bought a gun and disguised himself as a nun in order to kill his fiancé and her lover. At the last minute his resolve failed and, as the story goes, he instead tried and failed to drown himself. Once back in the land of the living, he eventually married the woman whom he fancied himself killing in Symphonie Fantastique. Another story tells that when she announced late in the marriage that he didn’t love her enough, he attempted to prove his dedication by producing a vial of poison and drinking it on the spot. The poison didn’t do the trick and instead left Berlioz living in misery, wishing for death to find him sooner rather than later. Listen to the chaotic closing movement of 19th century rock-star wanna-be’s iconic symphony and tell me that you don’t hear the furious weird-metal riffs of Lethargy mixed with the swirling theatrical flair of Ghost’s Infestissumam:
I like to think that through these intense classical jams, you can get a sense for why I hear metal in every classical piece and classical on every metal record. But then again maybe I really am just crazy. In any case, as genre labels continue to balloon out and the lines between styles are increasingly blurred, I feel like it is important to hear connections between what might seem to be completely unrelated music and to channel those connections in order to plow ahead in hopes of creating more pathways to experience, create and think about our music.
What did I miss? Post your favorite heavy classical pieces and challenge my selections, I know there are other classical music loving metal heads out there!
Sam is an active composer and performer; he currently plays flute and guitar for Maeth and writes contemporary “classical” music. You can listen to his heavy, riff filled compositions on Soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/sam-tygiel/sets/earthless) and his band’s meticulously composed metal works at Maeth’s Bandcamp page