I put together my group String Power last May. I was inspired by my housemate’s extensive CD collection. Originally I intended to compose music in these various styles. But after listening I thought I could learn more by arranging the music. My ultimate goal is to absorb elements of this music into my own compositional style. It’s been a real treat putting on shows with these folks because they are superb musicians- they can basically sight-read anything I put in front of them and play with the right feel. Plus they are very enthusiastic. It’s not often that string players get to play music outside of classical music. And we enjoy playing with each other. It’s amazing to write something one week, then a week later walk one block to the rehearsal space and hear it played by the full ensemble, and two days later, put on my fancy orange bellbottoms (courtesy of Stuart Dempster) and perform it at a club on the lower east side. So far our hit seems to be Slayer’s Raining Blood- which I arranged last year. I doubt this arrangement will help me get a college teaching position (my ultimate goal) but it’s been fun. Here is a video of it. What follows is a long and rambling explanation of why I chose Slayer.
Why Slayer? My arrangement is ok- it still needs work though. And certainly the players are excellent- they can really pull it off. I could not have asked for more. But it still sounds like classical musicians playing Slayer because that's what it is. Many of us play other styles but there’s no getting around the fact that we are classical musicians at heart. And there is nothing wrong with that. I thought that if I transcribed Raining Blood for string orchestra it would sound a bit like Bartok. When you take any music out of its context you lose a lot of the original intension. Obviously, without Dave Lombardo’s drums and Tom Araya’s vocals a lot is lost. And I haven’t precisely recreated what guitarists Hanneman and King played either. What I want to do is tap into that energy.
Slayer means something to me. I’m not a big Slayer fan. I hadn’t owned any Slayers albums and I bought the CD in order to transcribe the tune. But I have had different peripheral associations with Slayer through people I’ve known. The Irish punk band I played in, Meisce, are part of Seattle’s punk and metal scene. Several of the members play in metal bands and we were always on the bill with those bands. So, as a fiddler in the band I was associated with that world though certainly not really part of it. I wouldn’t have attended those shows if I wasn’t in Meisce but I did pick up something from being there. It is more than just the sound. Like any community, the members of the punk scene share a similar outlook on life. It was never me, exactly, but there are aspects of that world that resonate with me.
These days there are a lot of musicians working in many different and contrasting styles. Being one of these musical chameleons enables me to gain some insight into how other people live. At 35 years old I still have not completely settled on an identity of my own. But I am determined to live life on my own terms and stay in touch with what is important to me.
Yes I want to be famous. Yes I want to be respected in my field. But I want to do it in my own terms. I want to create the music that I really feel most represents me. In order to do that I am trying out everything. And from that I can incorporate aspects of any musical genre that resonate with me into my own musical identity and personal style. I want to be open to everything. I want to be able to access any style of music and any lifestyle and consider it carefully with a completely open mind.
I visited some antique shops last week and it occurred to me that being a composer is not unlike being an antiques dealer. I thought about where these objects came from; probably from thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets. The antiques store owner purchases these items, no doubt very cheaply, and then sells them at a much higher cost. They take items out of one context and put them into another. Of course, even at a thrift store the item is out of its original context.
I think of Aaron Copland and Rodeo. He came across the fiddle tune Bonaparte’s Retreat. He dusted it off, shined it up and placed it in a ballet. Now Rodeo is more often heard as an orchestral work without the corresponding dance and people pay $100 a ticket to hear Bonaparte’s Retreat at Carnegie Hall. Copland removed it from its original context, played perhaps on someone’s porch and handed down from generation to generation and moved it into the concert hall. An antiques owner might find an old wooden toy at a flea market, recognize its potential value, clean it up and sell it for one hundred times the original price. The object has the same inherent value no matter what context it is in. The composer (or antiques dealer) makes an object appear to have heightened value because of the context it is in. Bonaparte’s Retreat has the same value whether it is played on someone’s back porch or in Carnegie Hall although it’s been moved from a “lowbrow” to “highbrow” context. The same is true for a wooden toy. Upper class people might not feel comfortable at flea markets and they won’t want to take the time to sort through lots of junk to find a gem. I like flea markets, back porches and rock clubs. I like the whole process of being at least peripherally involved in the original contexts where the music exists. I don’t consider any of it junk although I’ll admit I don’t like everything I hear.
I often think of the quote “Good composers steal, bad composers borrow”. It’s been attributed to Stravinsky and many others. I understand what it means to steal a musical idea- it’s a fairly straightforward concept. But what about borrowing? What does it mean to borrow a pre-existing piece of music? I mean, once you take it and incorporate it into your own music you can’t give it back. You took someone else’s music.
Appropriation has been going throughout the history of music. Mozart incorporated Turkish Janisarry (military) music (cf. Rondo Alla Turca); Debussy took gamelan music, Ravel took blues, Brahms took Hungarian gypsy music. Not to mention the countless variations on popular and folk themes that have been written.
So what does it mean to borrow music? I interpret that as taking pre-existing music without really incorporating it into your own style- to quote a piece of music as a joke, for example, in a piece of music in a different genre. So how does a composer incorporate music into their own personal style? Bartok was Hungarian. He spent the greater part of his life traveling around Hungary and elsewhere transcribing folk music. He considered himself as much, or more, an ethnomusicologist as a composer. So can we say that Bartok stole rather than borrowed from his folk sources? Stravinsky appropriated Russian folk themes in the Rite of Spring (as well as the Firebird and Petrushka). But he was Russian- this music formed part of his identity. What about the Ebony Concerto or L’Histoire Du Soldat- two pieces where he incorporated elements of ragtime and jazz? Did Stravinsky know enough about jazz to use it in his music and call it stealing rather than borrowing?
So stealing is ok but borrowing is wrong.
I think many of us can hear it when a composer has attempted to incorporate music of another style and achieved an awkward result. One dangerous move is to ask classical musicians to swing. Some can, some cannot. This feel is something I don’t think I have ever been quite able to acquire- as a jazz pianist or violinist. It is one reason that I decided not to be a jazz musician.
I never felt truly immersed in that musical culture. I had a few jazz records which I enjoyed. But nothing like my pianist friend from middle school. We went to different high schools. And our two school jazz bands had a bit of a rivalry. He was a true jazz fan and had every album by Ramsey Lewis and George Shearing and knew all the other great pianist. I liked Monk (but only had one or two albums) and I listed to a bit of Bill Evans and of course loved Herbie Hancock. I have to admit, my favorite of his music was Chameleon. I certainly did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and therefore felt like a bit of an imposter playing jazz. And this feeling persists today though I am considerably more knowledgable about jazz now then I was then.
And I do feel like an imposter playing Slayer. I am of course not a true metal fan. Although I do like Black Sabbath- and ACDC. I have never wholeheartedly embraced any one genre of music and learned everything there is to know about it. I listen to a little bit of everything and I know something about a lot of different types of music. I am a generalist.
If had to name one music as my true musical heritage it would be classical music. Because that is how I grew up. My parents were classical musicians who played chamber music every week. My dad would always play the piano after work- Mozart, Schumann and Chopin mostly, as well as his own compositions. My mom played in an orchestra (and still does) and many different chamber groups. I took violin and piano lessons. Music was the closest thing to a religion I had growing up. It provided (and still provides) a sense of community and camaraderie that I don’t get from any other activity in my life. And, while (I imagine) not having the level of spiritual connection that people who belong to a church feel, the act of playing music with other people is richly fulfilling for me.
But I strayed from the flock. Very early on I ventured outside of classical music into jazz and rock. And, when my grandpa gave me his mandolin, I tried out a little bit of bluegrass as well. But I’ve never settled on one musical style.
I am a jack of all trades and a master of none. I can fake folk music and jazz and rock- and what of those is really me? I can play classical music- and I love it. But I still wouldn’t call myself a dedicated classical musician. I don’t know every piece of classical music ever written. I only know the few pieces in my life that have really resonated with me. Many of those were pieces I’ve played- and some, like the Firebird (which I did play, actually, in a simplified version for children’s orchestra)- appealed to me viscerally. I remember dancing around to the Firebird when I was 10. I also remember, finding a record of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony. The album cover was appealing- black and red, some sort of abstract art. I think just the cover itself made me a Shostokovich fan. And then I performed the 8th Quartet- with the Nazi’s knocking at the door. And I heard the piano trio and the piano quintet. I was sold on Shostakovich.
Then I went to Berkeley and I found out the Shostakovich was passé. I had already written a lot of pieces that sound like watered down Shostakovich. I shouldn’t belittle my own music like that- I think my college pieces were very good- I still like them, even if they do sound like Shostakovich and Bartok.
Even at Berkeley I felt like an imposter. At Tufts I was one of very few student composers. So, even if some of the other Tufts composers knew and loved Feldman etc. I never felt too guilty for not fully immersing myself in his music or any other music (other than Shostakovich and Bartok- in fact I’d say I did not immerse myself even in their music).
But at Berkeley of course all the composers (and the musicologists specializing in modern music) all seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of every 20th century composer and every piece ever written. I was so behind. And most importantly, they seemed to have a genuine love of this music. I didn’t. I didn’t love anything- especially after finding out that Shostakovich was passé.
Why does any of this matter?
To be a composer means you create music. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how much music you have studied. It does not matter even if you know how to read music. It’s about you- your personal voice. But if you want to steal music- I mean really steal and not borrow- you had better immerse yourself completely in that music and that music must become part of your identity. It has to be part of your soul before you can use it.
My (white) friend once said that white people should not play jazz. I wouldn’t go that far. There are as many white jazz musicians as there are black jazz musicians—but which race can take more credit for jazz? Black people, of course.
But I understand the sentiment. The result of taking music that is not really part of you- “borrowing” it- is just unsatisfying music. I don’t consider it a moral issue. There are way too many real atrocities being committed in the world to attach moral significance to someone writing bad music
What is bad music anyway? It’s completely subjective. Of course that is a giant can of worms to open up- and thousands of highly intelligent people spend their lives trying to figure out what is good and what is bad and explain it in a highly sophisticated way.
All I am saying is that the result of someone appropriating music that is not part of their own culture is often an awkward, possibly ineffective piece of music.
After our last show, I received very enthusiastic feedback from one audience member who asked me if I was influenced by Bartok. He was referring, I assume, to the Slayer tune. Interestingly, one of the cellists in the ensemble is a real thrash metal fan and he said the Slayer tune is his least favorite. Anyone with real familiarity with Slayer’s music- anyone for whom Slayer has played a significant part in the forming of their musical and personal identity- would regard our Slayer cover as a very tepid, highly inauthentic and unsatisfying rendition. Real Bartok aficionados expecting to hear something like Bartok would probably be unimpressed by our take on Slayer as well. Yet it seems to be the most popular tune. Probably because of it’s kitsch quality- it really is a bit of a joke but done with respect to Slayer, and all that the genre represents. The joke is that, as classical musicians, we have not had the right background to be playing Thrash Metal (with the exception, perhaps, of our cellist). Yet, we do understand the intensity, the vitality and perhaps the anger in the music. And of course, the screaming at the end is always a big hit.
I put String Power together to demonstrate that string players, classical musicians in general, and classical composers- can express the same intensity and drive as musicians in other genres. Though we are not part of that culture, as human beings we do experience the same emotions and we have the same desire to express them.
I am still trying to figure it out. Yes I want to be famous. Yes I want to be respected in my field. Yes ultimately I want a job being a professor at a small liberal arts college; but most important for me right now is finding the music that I am most comfortable in. My plan is to take something from all of the music I am playing and writing and incorporate into my own style. And I don’t just mean the music itself- I mean the people who play it- I mean the attitudes towards life. I’m not talking about our string group since we are all classical musicians. I’m talking about musicians who play other types of music. Yes I will steal music. I will consume it- I will digest it- I will make it my own. I don’t want to borrow it. I don’t’ want to discover a Slayer CD, transcribe it and just paste it artificially into my music. I don’t want whatever I take from Slayer to be superficial. If I do end up using anything from Slayer- I want it to be organic. I want it to be part of my musical identity. I think of the arrangements I have done with String Power as ways of digesting these styles. It’s still superficial because I have not immersed myself in any of them. Some of them, like funk, disco and jazz, I have assimilated somewhat because my brothers listened to that music when I was growing up.
As I said, I have never felt I have had exactly the right feel for jazz and, since my knowledge of jazz is not encyclopedic, my jazz CD collection is paltry at best, I can never consider myself a true jazz musician. I will never be let into that club and my jazz feel will never be right. That is because I don’t love it. Although I have to say Lester Young, Miles Davis, Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, Mingus, Basie- when I put the CDs on I am moved. Yet at the same time I can’t name off every album ever recorded- and who played what on what, and what date and where the recording occurred. And I don’t listen repeatedly. I’m moved. Then I move on to something else. And months or years later I might come back to a CD and be moved again.
I want to live my life on my terms. I want to do what I truly want to do. I do not want to compromise. Of course, I probably will have to compromise in order to eat. I will again have to take a job I don’t want. But, ultimately, I want to truly know what kind of life I want to live and I want to truly know what my musical voice is.
In reality, I will probably always write in many styles. Many composers have done that. But still- I am hoping in the next few months I will settle on something. I will be able to say “this is me”. Then I can be more aggressive, make some professional quality recordings and really push my music.