Full of Sound and Fury: Connections between Mahler and Modern Metal

by Jess Albertine
Most critics are so prone to discussing this music in generalities that anyone unfamiliar with a particular composition would be led to suppose that it, too, was full of sound and fury signifying nothing. This is the stuff of living music.- Aaron Copland (paraphrased)

When studying classical music from before 1900, we are surrounded by an impressive amount of idealism. The music that makes up the bulk of commonly played repertoire comes from the Romantic era, which largely advocated what we have come to think of as Beethoven’s idealistic, heroic conquering of any obstacles. Looking back at it from a post-modern perspective, it seems strikingly naïve. How can we say the hero always wins, or that there even is a hero? We all saw what happened in the World Wars, Vietnam, the constant wars in Africa and the Middle East, and countless other tragedies. There were no all-conquering heroes there, and no way to win without taking more than a few hits along the way.

For the past 50 years, Americans in particular have looked for music that we could relate to, where idealism is met with sarcasm, and beauty is present alongside the macabre. As we become more open to discovering new genres of music, we hear a broadening range of styles on a regular basis. The common trends in the different genres that individuals can find enjoyable have some strong backing: in 2008, Professor Adrian North, of Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University, conducted a study of over 36,000 people worldwide, looking at what personality traits were possessed by fans of different musical genres. “I was struck by how similar fans of heavy metal and classical music really are…. Apart from the age differences, they were virtually identical. Both were more creative than other people, both were not terribly outgoing and they were also quite at ease.” North also described classical and metal fans as revealing an avoidance of idealistic tendencies. “The darker side of human emotion is emulated by composers and heavy metal rockers alike. There is a definite cross-over.”

So how did classical music culture go from Beethoven the Hero to direct comparisons with metal culture, the embodiment of the anti-hero? The answer lies in the growing acceptance of social critique and music’s ability to critique its predecessors. As Europe became industrialized at the turn of the century, it became acceptable to question the world: women’s rights, working conditions, racism, Christianity, everything could be examined for faults, where before it was just How Things Were. Some cultural aspects stood against the changes, like the Catholic Church, trying to hold on to a disappearing world. But others, like music, shifted to become a stick being poked at society in general. Classical music became known as a genre that was willing to critique convention when the need arose. In this concept and others like it, we find strong similarities with metal.

After reading about North’s study, I started to wonder what else connects classical music with heavy metal on a level noticeable to fans. The topic is a key point in the understanding of how music reflects changes in society. Why do I, a classical flautist-turned-composer, get just as excited, in the same ways, about going to see Killswitch Engage as the Atlanta Symphony? What is it in the music that lets that happen? Now several years later, I discovered the classical music that best enables the study of these connections. Among classical composers, one in particular stands out as having the potential to resonate with both classical and metal listeners: Gustav Mahler, famous for possessing a tumultuous reception history, being a Jewish conductor in Vienna, and writing music that is intense, demanding, and dripping with enough irony to satisfy the most cynical metalhead.

Aaron Copland’s 1925 letter to the editor in the New York Times, “Defends the Music of Mahler,” shows one of the first critical views on the reception of Mahler in the US. It begins with the acknowledgement that New York critics think “Mahler, as a composer, is hopeless,” and that his music at times is “bombastic, long-winded, [and] banal…. What our critics say regarding his music is, as a rule, quite justified, but it is what they leave unsaid that seems to me unfair.” He goes on to describe things he deems admirable in Mahler’s music, including orchestration and a unique voice, in terms brief enough for the 22 sentence argument. Toward the end, he explains a point that, if a few nouns were changed as I did in the quote at the beginning of this paper, could just as readily describe metal:

That Mahler has on occasion been grandiloquent is undeniable, but I fail to find any bombast whatsoever in “Das Lied von der Erde.” Most critics, I believe, would agree with that statement. Yet they are so prone to discussing Mahler’s music in generalities that any one unfamiliar with that composition would be led to suppose that it, too, was full of sound and fury signifying nothing…. such things as the first movement of the Seventh symphony, the scherzo of the Ninth, the last movement of the Fourth and the entire ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ have in them the stuff of living music.

Here, making excellent use of a reference to Macbeth, Copland sets the stage for what becomes one of the main principles of metal and its common philosophy, nihilism: in the acceptance of painful things, in fury, we find life. But at the time, the “bombast” found in Mahler’s music was certainly not received and valued as it is in both Mahler and metal today.

Copland’s description of Mahler’s reception 14 years after his death is typical of reactions found up through the 1960s. According to Leon Botstein, before the 1960s “Mahler’s life and aesthetic agenda were easily construed as mirroring the qualities of an epigone, a late exemplar of an antiquated neo-Wagnerian Germanic romanticism whose grandiosity and emotionalism sounded dated.” In other words, in Copland’s time, a period of neo-classicism, it was cliché and annoying to create expansive, passionate music like Mahler’s. Another related point to keep in mind is the presence of heavy anti-German sentiment during those years; it was pointless and unpatriotic to endorse the music of a composer who was known for trying to fit in with German society.

K. M. Knittel describes another aspect of Mahler’s reception during his life, focusing on his Judaism in the strongly anti-Semitic turn-of-the-century Viennese society. She argues that while the most widely accepted view of Mahler as a conductor is energetic to the point of being neurotic, it is actually very difficult to tell how Mahler conducted because most first-hand accounts are so sharply colored by the fact that Mahler was a Jew. The few surviving reports from other countries describe him as having the “…absence of fussiness or superfluous motion” necessary for comfortable, focused conducting. The contradicting reports prove nothing more than the fact that Mahler could never be taken seriously, as either a conductor or a composer, by people who had grown up with the typical Viennese prejudices. As a Jew, he was on the outer edge of the social groups he worked constantly to please and entertain.

The reception of metal brings up many similar points. The fact that the academic study of the genre in a formal paper must be explained is evidence enough of its marginalization. No one would question the study of Mahler, but pairing it with studying those crass men with nasty long hair who keep screaming all the time isn’t quite as understandable. Looking at the Dark Legions Archive, a website of very well-written articles, reviews, and information on metal, we see the perspective of metal fans about the public reception of their own music. “As young metalheads, we recognized the total lack of critical information about the genre. People either dismissed it, or used it as a product for morons, and no one listened to what the bands and fans were saying. Those who hated it were only too happy to perpetuate stereotypes of its stupidity and encourage ignorance of the better material,” the same way Copland describes Mahler’s critics as ignoring his better works in favor of generalizing its inadequacy. Equal in philosophical value, but far stronger in clarity, to Adorno, the authors of the Dark Legions Archive consistently address two of the main issues found in the reception and music of metal as well as of Mahler: power and validity.

“Popular music does not offer another genre with the power and sincerity of metal,” states the Dark Legions Archive in an article on why metal fans should try listening to classical music. Beyond popular music, they ask, what is left for metal fans looking to branch out? Classical. The article recommends 8 albums as suggestions for some classical dabbling, including Bruckner Symphony No. 4 (“the first ‘heaviness’ on record,” see this performance from 7:56-8:42 for a suitably heavy excerpt) and Paganini’s 24 Violin Caprices (“Perhaps the original Hessian, this long-haired virtuoso wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the devil, and made short often violent pieces that made people question their lives and their churches”). In the reasons for listening to these pieces, we can see the aspects that the author finds most important in the number of times certain themes are mentioned—power: twice; heaviness/weight, beauty, struggle/overcome/emerge, war/death: three times each. These concepts are unified in an explanation of tenets of metal philosophy: “Metal as a culture attempts to find beauty in conflict, darkness, horror, distortion, chaos, mayhem, butchery, evil, sodomy and lust, in an attempt to show that positive and negative forces together create the ultimate good, which is reality itself -- a competing absolute to our false social mores.” Where Mahler strove to fit in with the society that pushed him away, metal music encourages the opposite: rejection of what feels false. Sincerity and validity go hand in hand with power; the most powerful music is a sincere reflection of life. Music that doesn’t have the same honesty, that idealizes the conquering of evil, is insincere, and therefore weak.

Mahler’s music is endlessly contrasted with Beethoven’s in this respect, only in different terms. In the classical pantheon, Beethoven stands at the top, with all composers of the next century confronting his music in some way. Mahler was questioned heavily for daring to change the Beethoven standard, where the musical narrative moves linearly from negative struggle to positive conquering, particularly in the finale of his First Symphony. James Buhler describes the way the finale incorporates a “breakthrough” at m. 375 that deviates from the linear flow of a Beethovian heroic narrative. Mahler explains this change in rhetoric in a letter to Strauss: “My intention was to show a struggle in which victory is furthest from the protagonist just when he believes it closest.-This is the essence of every spiritual [seelischen] struggle.-For it is by no means so simple to become or to be a hero.” In Mahler’s musical depiction of the imperfections of reality, he creates sincere, and therefore powerful, music.

Now we shift gears to examine what specific musical aspects can be connected between Mahler and metal. No discussion of theory or harmonic analysis will be undertaken, not only because it has already been done by far more qualified scholars, but because harmonic analysis lacks the human element of a quality that makes fans like the music. I will discuss music by two rather different metal bands: Dream Theater, a progressive metal band founded 1985 by students of the Berklee School of Music, and Between the Buried and Me, a heavy metal band founded in 2000 by a bunch of young guys from Raleigh, NC.

Virtuosity as an expression of musical power can be found in abundance in Dream Theater. Their most well-known keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, was a student at Julliard until he left to pursue progressive rock music, and the founding members of the band, drummer Mike Portnoy, guitarist John Petrucci, and bassist John Myung, left Berklee once they felt they could learn no more from the school. The Dream Theater songs “Caught in a Web” and “Instrumedley” together show an astounding combination of raw power from vocalist James LaBrie and fantastically virtuostic instrumental playing. Another instrumental piece, “Dance of Eternity,” which runs just over 6 minutes, has 104 time signature changes that must be memorized to be performed. In Mahler, virtuosity comes largely in the form of endurance because of the incredible length of many of his symphonies, such as Symphony 3, clocking in at over 100 minutes. Mahler conductors also must be experienced to the point of virtuosity because of pieces like Symphony 8, which requires 3 separate choirs, vocal soloists, and a massive orchestra. A conductor of a successful Symphony 8 must be a master of multitasking, coordinating many different layers into the well-organized chaos of the “Symphony of a Thousand.”

Intertextuality also plays a large role in the music of Mahler and Dream Theater. The connections between Mahler’s songs and his symphonies have been discussed at great length, such as the use of song melodies from “Ablösung im Sommer” in Symphony 3, and the second movement of “Songs of a Wayfarer” in Symphony 1. Mahler also quotes the opening motive to Beethoven’s Les Adieux piano sonata in both the final movement of “Das Lied von der Erde” and Symphony 9. From the metal world, Dream Theater’s “Instrumedley” is made up of 14 distinct sections with 9 different songs from 8 different albums, interweaving genres from vaudeville to 80s epic rock. They also have an album, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, that is a sequel to a song on the previous album Images and Words, “Metropolis Pt. 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper.” Pt. 2 is essentially a rock opera, telling a story that was begun in Pt. 1 throughout the entire album. In live shows, they often take a moment between original pieces to throw in direct quotes from popular music, including themes by Metallica and from Star Wars. From a fan perspective, intertextuality brings different pieces together for a sense of coherence, and it forms somewhat of a puzzle game to see how many connections listeners can catch.

Between the Buried and Me (hereafter referred to by its common abbreviation, BTBAM) has some of the most Mahlerian metal possible. The use of fragmentation and contrast in BTBAM’s newer material, such as “Sun of Nothing” and “Swim to the Moon,” is no less shocking than in the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, where frenzied piccolos and strings repeatedly and unpredictably interrupt a beautiful vocal melody. “Sun of Nothing” begins with the furious, thick texture reminiscent of earlier BTBAM, with few breaks in the heavy instrumental parts and no clean vocals. Then, at 5:50 it abruptly shifts to clean vocals and guitars, winding down to sound like an indie electro-pop song, complete with auto-tune, by 7:00. By 9:25, it has gradually built itself back up to its original heavy metal grit.

“Swim to the Moon,” released two years after “Sun of Nothing,” takes contrast to a higher, and much longer, level. It begins with a marimba introduction that wouldn’t be out of place in a classical percussion concert, then builds to BTBAM’s standard full metal sound through a series of prog-metal phrases that wouldn’t be questioned coming from Dream Theater. The first vocals, at 2:40, are atypical for BTBAM, performed by their merchandise guy who uses a punk style. For more than 10 minutes, it switches between clean singing, screams, and gorgeous prog-rock-influenced interjections and solos. As if the contrast between these parts was insufficient, at 15:30 the bottom suddenly drops out and we’re left with mellow vocals over a country-influenced background, with bongos. Like “Sun of Nothing,” “Swim to the Moon” builds from its quiet interlude to a strong finish.

The fact that BTBAM moved as a creative force from music largely like the first five minutes of “Sun of Nothing” to the menagerie of “Swim to the Moon” shows a willingness in both the band and their listeners to shift into a different mindset. It requires more thinking to understand how the different styles relate to each other, more openness to change, and more independence from being a fan of “just metal.” BTBAM is not for those who like to stay in their comfort zones. The changes in what listeners consider “good music” that enabled Mahler’s music to shift from the scathing implications of Copland’s article are the same changes that enable metal to be enjoyed, and to recently employ such a distinct integration of multiple musical styles to great success. Rather than the Beethoven standard that ruled for more than a hundred years, driving before it the idealism that would break with the World Wars, music lovers now look for the types of messages promoted by artists like Mahler, Dream Theater, and Between the Buried and Me. Fans of both Mahler and metal have interests in music that is powerful, sincere, unpredictable, and full of life. The passionate expression that was cliché and dated in the first half of the 1900s is now a way to reflect what is real. Listeners are passionate about life, with all its battles, ugliness, and beauty. Their music is full of sound and fury, signifying reality.

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