Philip Glass tells a funny story about his days as a composition student in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. At the time Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 Tone 'Serialism' Composition Method was the only legitimate path to follow if one was a composition student. The music produced by this strict, contrived compositional method is generally so alienating to audiences that it only appeals to composers and academics that get more intellectual than aural satisfaction from it.
Glass’ story perfectly illustrates this.
In a Julliard Student Composition concert one particularly dense, complex work was being performed to the general displeasure of the audience’s ears. Glass amusingly observed how he saw one student turning to another to declaim without any hint of irony ‘This is actually a much better piece than it sounds.’
Glass uses this story to illustrate that when academic composition reached this point it broke the camels back and so by the late 60’s and early 70’s many composers were breaking away from the Schoenberg method to return to tonal and modal music, thus liberating the rest of us future composers.
It’s not quite as simple as that though, since there now exists a whole subculture around this kind of Composers’ Composer music. This is music that certain types of composers, normally a large majority of those who study composition academically, tend to appreciate for the technical aspects more than the actual musicality of it. Such works are usually defined by pretentious titles, complex technical programme notes and a dry, academic approach which favours technique way above intuitive composition methods. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are ‘free improvisation’ works where anything goes and everything is left to Cageian chance.
In both circumstances 'composery' composers tend to act very interested indeed, in fact they’re often heard to say with Steve Davis like drollness ‘That was very interesting’. Very rarely will such music illicit an emotional response ‘That really moved me’, ‘That gave me great joy’, ‘That was really exciting’ etc. In this sense this kind of music is really unique in the general music world. What other form of music is composed with such an emphasis on the intellectual over the emotional? Some modern jazz is getting to this point, but it's a fine line.
If you’ve ever been to a standard symphony orchestra concert where a new work by a contemporary composer is performed there’s a 90% chance the music will fall into this category of 'composers' music'. Curiously the general audience appreciation for such music is very different in Ireland and the UK than it is in the home of classical music, central Europe.
When Irish and British audiences first encountered arrhythmic, atonal serialist based music in the early 20th Century they reacted with horror. Now, 100 years later, audiences have become so used to the fact that their evening of Mozart and Brahms will be interrupted by another ‘awful’ contemporary work that they seem to lazily accept it and politely applaud the music and musicians when it’s over. The one or two enthusiastic yells one might encounter after all such performances are undoubtedly coming from the eggheads in the crowd, the composery composers.
On recent trips to see the Berlin Philharmonic I noticed a curious difference in the audience response to more ‘intellectual’ technical music. They seemed to really appreciate the technical aspects of the music and gave a long ovation to a solo violinist who performed a hugely technical violin concerto which seemed to me nothing more than a technical showpiece devoid of any emotional depth. Upon speaking with a German colleague afterwards I raised this issue and he confirmed to me that modern German audiences not only have an appreciation for technical, intellectual music, they often have a preference for it over emotional, intuitive music.
Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or perhaps it’s just a reflection of how the central European classical tradition has moved so far from its roots in folk music into the world of academia that audiences are losing sight of the intuitive, emotional and natural human characteristics of music. Germanic audiences it seems, place technical perfection way above the very emotional response that less technically conscious music can provide.
I’ve often found myself bored by technically ‘perfect’ performances and technically brilliant compositions because the concentration of the artist has gone 100% into perfecting the technical aspects at the expense of spontaneous, emotional responses. Classical music competition winners so often fall into this category, technical perfection is awarded over emotional genius.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this strange, scientific musical sub-culture is the dogmatism that still plagues it. Practitioners of this form of music tend to be hopelessly elitist, like Pierre Boulez. Their way is the ONLY way forward, they are the true innovators, the true composers of new music and anyone who doesn’t buy into this is either openly mocked or treated with a kind of silent, shunning disdain. They’re treated as intellectually inferior and unenlightened.
The reason I mentioned Philip Glass at the start of this article is that he is usually the number 1 hate figure for the composery composers. They can't get any intellectual stimulation from his music because it is, in relative terms to the music they appreciate, incredibly simple. When I was a composition student I found myself drawn to his music simply because I liked how it sounded, the technical simplicity of it didn't bother me.
However I did become very self conscious about the fact that it was just not 'cool' for a composition student to say they liked Philip Glass. It was something to be embarrassed about. I remember giving my first radio interview as a young composer and it took me a huge effort to overcome an almost paralytic fear of telling the interviewer that Philip Glass was one of my favourite composers. But I did and more and more I've learnt not to be ashamed of that at all. Glass is a compositional genius, he has done what so few composers have been able to do, create a distinctive, instantly recognisable and contemporary sound from the most basic of building blocks. The fact that he earned worldwide fame and fortune from it is a testament to his perserverance. He was an obscure composer driving a taxi for a living until his early 40's!
So to return to our composery composer types and their dogmatic followers, what such people often fail to understand is that composers and audiences who reject the way of the composers’ composer are often just as, if not more intelligent as they. Some of us have even gone to great lengths to try to gain an appreciation for such music, spending hours studying it in college, sitting patiently at concerts, reading the technical notes in detail, always waiting for that revelation, that Eureka moment ‘Ah yes, now I get it!’
The truth is however, for the vast majority of people, no matter how intelligent they are, they are never going to appreciate such music, no more than they’ll appreciate complex mathematical equations or other scientific theories. Composers’ composers do not compose music as 99% of humanity defines music, instead they either create scientific sound or something more akin to performance art where the theatricality and social implications of the artistic statement are much more important than the actual sound of the music. The emphasis is not on musicality, on moving people emotionally with music, the emphasis is on making a scientific or pseudo-intellectual statement through sound.
Due to this I like to make a clear distinction between what I do and what they do. I compose music, music that is meant to be listened to and appreciated on an emotional level by those who listen to it. If some fraction of the audience gains intellectual stimulation from it that’s all well and good, it’s not in any way the aim however. So if I ever compose a work where the only response from listeners is an intellectual one, then I have failed in my duty as a composer of music.
Composers’ composers do not compose music in the traditional sense. They create scientific sound or sound art which will only ever be appreciated on an intellectual level. For this reason I believe such ‘music’ should be evaluated and disseminated in a completely different sphere. Funding and support for scientific/academic music should come from the scientific/academic community, not the Arts community. Then the more theatrical, performance art music, so inspired by John Cage, should surely be supported as performance art, a form of theatre rather than a pure style of music composition.
There are certainly audiences, though small, for such forms of music, so I’m not advocating censorship of any kind. Instead, for the good of all concerned, I’m advocating the creation of a clear line of distinction between the different composition aesthetics. After all, I don’t want my music compared to Pierre Boulez’s music, it’s not just a different style of music we’re involved in, it’s a whole different vocation, he is a sound scientist, I’m a music composer. He doesn’t care if people enjoy his music emotionally, I do and I’m not ashamed to admit it either.
And before anyone levels that old chestnut that I must be therefore compromising my art to appeal to an audience, my retort is straight and simple. I only compose music that I would like to listen to myself, if the audience appreciates the music, as they often do, all the better. If I compose a piece that I don’t enjoy listening to yet composers’ composers do, then I have failed and compromised my art.
Composers like me are as uncompromising as so called ‘uncompromising’ atonal composers. We just have different ideals that we refuse to compromise.
24 June 2014
A defining moment in my life in music came when I was aged 11 or 12, sometime around 1988-1989. Iron Maiden appeared on Top of the Pops, performing Infinite Dreams from their now classic Prog-Metal album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It must have been my first exposure to the music style that would dominate my teenage years, Heavy Metal.
Soon afterwards I was consuming all the Iron Maiden records I could find. Then., as I entered secondary school, I found friends and solace in the Heavy Metal world. It was the perfect foil for all the teenage angst that I couldn’t avoid.
Soon I learnt about Metallica and their magnificent And Justice For All album, this led to Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Anthrax’s Persistence of Time, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and of course I was led back to the godfathers of the genre, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
As I grew older there was an expectancy amongst my disturbed elders that I’d ‘mature’, heavy metal was just a phase and I’d grow out of it. For a while I actually followed along, even selling on some of my treasured Heavy Metal tapes in the hope that it would signal the dawning of this magnificent mecca called ‘maturity’.
This period also coincided with the decline of the golden era of heavy metal in the 90’s. For me it began with Metallica’s Black Album. Their commercial peak may have made them megastars but I’ll never forget that crushing disappointment after I’d excitedly rushed back to my Mum’s flat from the record store to play the follow up to the great And Justice For All. So much hype surrounded the album and the smash hit Enter Sandman that I expected to be blown away, but I wasn’t, in fact, I think I got angry. This wasn’t Metallica that I’d grown to love. Their new producer, Bob Rock, had turned them into stadium rock sell outs. I should have expected that from the man who produced Bon Jovi!
Soon after, when Bruce Dickinson announced his departure from Iron Maiden, it truly signalled the end of an era and the dawn of a new era dominated by sub genres of Heavy Metal that really didn’t do much for me. Death Metal, Funk Metal and the worst of them all, Nu-Metal.
So at that point the heavy metal teenager in me went into hibernation and I entered the ‘serious’ world of music academia and contemporary composition where the mere idea of Heavy Metal music is generally treated with disdain. (With the exception of this pioneering Academic!)http://www.veooz.com/photos/jGxcgx0.html
Then, in the mid-2000’s things started to change, word came out that Metallica were doing shows dominated by their great 1980’s back catalogue and they’d got a great new bass player to boot in RobertTrujillo. Living in London at the time, I decided to take my fellow composition student Shu Wang to see them. Here we were, two so called ‘serious composers’ rocking out to Metallica. Shu, being from China, had never been to a rock concert before, she almost went crazy with excitement!
Around the same time Iron Maiden had regrouped with Bruce Dickinson and another member who’d left, guitarist Adrian Smith, to herald a spectacular new version of Iron Maiden with 3 lead guitarists. I went to see them at Earls Court, something akin to seeing Thin Lizzy in Croke Park if poor old Philo was still alive. I’ll never forget the energy of the concert, sitting as I was high up near the rafters, the mosh pit below was like a scene from the Lord of The Rings!
At that moment I realised Heavy Metal isn’t just a teenage fad, it’s an addiction that stays with you for life, unless you consciously contrive to get rid of it.
Now, aged 37, I’ve come full circle and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that my youngest sister, just turned 17, is a bit like I was at that age, a devoted heavy metal teenager. (She also likes Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but I’ll forgive her that!)
Once I found out that she enjoys Iron Maiden as much as I do I vowed to bring her to see them play. So I checked their tour schedule and found them performing at what I can only describe as the mother of all Heavy Metal festivals, Nova Rock_ in Austria. Not only was there Iron Maiden, there was Anthrax, Slayer, Sepultura, curiously The Prodigy and the Godfather’s of Metal themselves Black Sabbath, amongst a host of newer bands and some Nu-Metal survivors best avoided.
So that was it, I decided to bring her for her birthday. A big risk you might think, bringing a 17 year old to a heavy metal festival. Could I handle the responsibility? Could I keep her away from the inevitable drunken fighting and general mayhem?
Drunken fighting? At an Austrian music festival? You gotta be kidding me. Lyrical content and general loudness of the music aside, it was decidedly civilised!
You see rock music festivals in Europe are a much different proposition to those in Ireland, Britain and the USA. People actually behave themselves and trouble is rare. They go along to have a good time ‘listening’ to music and seeing their favourite bands on stage. So at Nova Rock I saw exactly zero fights, I witnessed perhaps 2 people that were obviously drunk, I saw no lewd sexual behaviour other than a couple of guys harmlessly streaking.
It was, believe it or not, a friendly, positive, happy family event. YES, a family event. You see there’s now a few generations of Heavy Metal fans. Those original Black Sabbath fans are now grand-parents, those original Iron Maiden fans are now parents and they’ve brought their kids up in the heavy metal lifestyle and, some hideous tattoos and dodgy Death Metal bands aside, the kids appear to be turning out alright.
The only worry I have is for the genre itself. It appears to be in a bit of stagnation. My sister, being a teenager, is naturally attuned to the top younger metal bands of the moment and we got to see some of them. Trivium, Arch Enemy, Avenged Sevenfold, Miss May I.
All the bands sounded to me to be too derivative of other bands I knew when I was a teenager. Originality and imagination seems to be sadly lacking. The prevalence of that grunting Death Metal vocal style that I never warmed to was particularly lamentable.
Maybe I'm just getting old, but now matter how much any of these bands grunted or wailed none of them could match the power of Slayer, whose original members are all now in their 50’s. Tom Araya may not be able to head-bang anymore due to a back injury, but my God, Slayer put in a powerful performance, perhaps the ‘heaviest’ heavy metal show I’ve ever seen. I never got to see them when I was a teenager, a big mistake given this showing. I should’ve seen them at their peak. However they’re really not far off their peak at the moment. The so-called Godfathers of Speed and Death Metal remain head and shoulders above their followers and produced the standout performance of Nova Rock for me.
The festival was an interesting test to see which of the older bands still endured. Anthrax, performing surprisingly early on the main stage, showed they still have the energy and skill of old, however their music hasn’t dated quite as well, less timeless and more of its time than Slayer. I’d be much less likely to revisit their old records than Slayer’s.
The one act that really didn’t fit the bill was The Prodigy, never a metal band, they did pioneer the use of loud, metal style guitars in Electronic Dance Music. For Nova Rock they noticeably tried very hard to emphasise this rock edge, but it just came across as dated and that they were trying too hard to please the rock-biased audience. The Prodigy is a dance music band, a classic one at that, perhaps they should stick to their strengths or just call it a day.
Iron Maiden is the one metal band I’ve never really lost touch with. I’ve bought most of their albums as they’ve come out, except the nadir that was the Blaze Bayley era, before Bruce returned to vocal duties. I’ve seen them live several times, including last year in Barcelona. So their headline performance on the Saturday night wasn’t a life affirming experience for me like it surely was to my sister. To her, she was seeing true legends of the genre on stage for the first time. They didn’t disappoint the nostalgia seekers in their set, sticking almost entirely to their classic 80’s repertoire, with the exception of their only post 80’s certifiable classic ‘Fear of the Dark’ from 1992. What’s most impressive about them is their continued energy and conviction, the band still play like men possessed, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray play beautifully melodic solos with all the virtuosity of yesteryear whilst Janick Gers is a true showman with all the rock guitar tricks in the book. Drummer Nicko McBrain is still as mad as a brush, pounding away at his kit like Animal from the Muppets and Steve Harris has hardly changed at all from the young, distinctive bassist who stood at the front of the stage in that Infinite Dreams Top of the Pops appearance. Most impressive of all though is Bruce Dickinson, he still runs about the stage with so much energy and is singing better than ever. Whilst some singers lose their range with age, Bruce still hits the high notes, and perhaps hits them with less strain than he used to. 35 year on Iron Maiden still rock, it’s official.
The real festival headliners though were the real legends of the genre without whom the festival and most of the bands wouldn’t exist, Black Sabbath.
When I was a heavy metal teenager Black Sabbath were still around, but they weren’t touring with Lord Ozzy Osbourne, they’d another singer whose name escapes me. Back then the prospect of me ever seeing Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler on stage together was practically zero. However, here, at Nova Rock, three of the original Black Sabbath members were back together on stage as part of a triumphant reunion. To a heavy metal fan that's like seeing Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on stage together again.
The one question mark over it was whether Ozzy could still cut it, after all he seems such a shambles on his dubious ‘Celebrity’ TV appearances. Once they hit the stage though most of the fears were laid to rest, Black Sabbath proved why they are the Godfathers of heavy metal.
The template of their songs is quite simple, Tony Iommi’s timeless, catchy and deeply heavy riffs mostly doubled up by Geezer Butlers powerful, pioneering, dirty bass sound are given a thunderous backing by drummer Bill Ward on the original recordings. Ward is the only original member absent from the 2014 line up however he is ably replaced by Tommy Clufetos who produced an epic, impressive drum solo in the middle of the set. Rock cliché it may be, but it wouldn’t be a Black Sabbath set without at least one drum solo!
The main question mark lay with Ozzy, could he still hold his own as the original heavy metal front man? Well, mostly yes he could, whilst he occasionally fell flat with his vocals and his timing during the slow sections of the bands title song ‘Black Sabbath’ was suspect, he’s still an endearingly crazy front man, he still can get the crowd riled up and he creates a joyous, celebratory atmosphere from the stage that contradicts the doom-laden nature of the songs, yet energises the audience and the band.
The one thing that really struck me though is exactly why the Black Sabbath sound defined the term 'Heavy Metal'. The sound they create is exactly that, 'Heavy' and 'Metalic'. Interestingly, speed seems to dominate most metal since the late 80's, however Black Sabbath play a form of music clearly derived from the blues that is rarely very fast. It's mostly a dark, loud, slow form of blues and that's what makes it feel so heavy. Sabbath provided a lesson to their proverbial Godchildren, you don't have to be relentlessly fast and aggressive to make great Heavy Metal Music.
Ozzy, Tony and Geezer may be old men in their 60’s by now, but they still have the energy of much younger men, they’re clearly enjoying this perhaps final phase of the Black Sabbath story.
One of the most telling moments of the show was when the usually stone-faced Tony Iommi hatched a smile. The old masters are clearly enjoying this twilight of their career and how could they not when they have an audience of tens of thousands cheering along and celebrating their legacy.
For me, and numerous other Heavy Metallers no doubt, seeing Black Sabbath live with Ozzy at the helm was akin to seeing The Beatles or Led Zeppelin reforming and actually defying their age by putting on a great show.
If it wasn’t for my sister following in my foot-steps by becoming a heavy metal teenager I may never have caught Black Sabbath live. But now I can tell my heavy metal grand-kids, ‘I saw Black Sabbath’!
No matter how old you get or how ‘serious’ your professional endeavours become, if you become a rock music fan in your youth there’s a rock n’roll flame in your heart that’ll never die out.
If, like me, you end up composing music for orchestras and string quartets that heavy metal influence might even occasionally crop up in your compositions. Like in this piece
Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock N’ Roll can never die……….
This is Dave Flynn's personal music blog. All posts are written by him!