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Archive for February, 2011

The Ten Greatest Composers

NYT classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent article and videos have been making the rounds the last couple weeks now, so I’ll keep the description brief: Mr. Tommasini, much to the delight (and ire) of music fans, has ventured to rank the top 10 greatest composers of all time. I was a bit shocked, and dare I say even a little offended, when I stumbled upon the list last month, but Tommasini is just as skeptical of his own project, going to great lengths to remind readers that this is merely an “intellectual exercise,” and not an attempt to establish any sort of absolute hierarchy. The response has been extraordinary (866 comments so far on the article alone).

There’s something so compelling about lists. Perhaps it appeals to our urge to categorize, rank, and compare, even if what we’re comparing is fundamentally uncomparable (how can one call the B Minor Mass “greater” than “The Rite of Spring,” for instance?). In this sense, making a list of the ten greatest is nothing more than a game, but as Tommasini points out, games are only fun when the participants take them seriously. After painful deliberation, evaluating versatility, technical command, reception, influence, and a range of other factors, here’s what he came up with:

(1) Bach (2) Beethoven (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Debussy (6) Stravinsky (7) Brahms (8) Verdi (9) Wagner (10) Bartok

In the spirit of the game, I thought the TC could get in on the action and offer our own lists of the ten greatest. So, without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling; please post your lists (or your criticisms of Tommasini’s project) to the comments. My top-10 is tilted more towards the “influence” part of the equation, and it’s absolutely killing me that I didn’t have room for Messiaen, Schubert, Bartok, Brahms, and Sibelius, but here goes (drumroll, please..):

(1) Beethoven (2) Bach (3) Wagner (4) Schoenberg (5) Mozart (6) Debussy (7) Stravinsky (8) Chopin (9) Cage (10) Monteverdi

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I played “Bleed” by Meshuggah to my dad, who’s a massive fan of Stravinsky, and he asked me “How can you possibly listen to such tripe?” This pissed me off, because I strongly believe that metal and classical are 2 very very very closely related genres. In fact, some classical is heavier than most metal. I wish he’d see the similarities.  — M, on Yahoo Answers forum

I stumbled upon this post in a forum and couldn’t help but smile. Discovering a masterpiece of early-century musical modernism through the Swedish extreme metal act Meshuggah might not be the most orthodox path to a lifelong interest in classical music, but this kid is in no way alone. As a matter of fact, a Sony Masterworks reissue of a mid- 70’s recording of the Rite with Pierre Boulez was, at the age of 14, my first “classical” music CD purchase. Why this piece? And why did I interrupt my steady diet of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains in order to listen to this thin, bespectacled Russian? One word: Metallica.

In the mid-90s, Metallica began citing “The Rite of Spring” as one of their major influences in rock and guitar magazines. (Right alongside Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.) After this surprising recommendation, record stores across the country started getting scraggly-haired kids inquiring about some dude named Stravinsky. I’m sure I’m not the only person who went to the CD racks hungry for the sounds of this proto-heavy metal wizard. And he even wrote music about a virgin sacrifice – how hardcore!

It may seem risible to compare Stravinsky to Slayer, but heavy metal music has a long and distinguished history of borrowing from classical music virtuosity. (Robert Walser’s book documents this in droves.) The extreme complexity of certain metal song structures, along with their emphasis on musicianship, rhythmic density, unusual modes (thrash and death metal love to dabble in Locrian and Phrygian), and sounding “primal” aren’t far off from this masterpiece of Franco-Russian fauvism. Just as Stravinsky “maximalized” his unique blend of modernist techniques in the Rite, metal is a rhythmic and timbral maximalization of standard rock signifiers: make it faster, more distorted, and louder than its rock predecessors, and you’ve got heavy metal.

But beyond the topical observations and the passing similarities of subject matter (ritual sacrifice seems to be a timeless theme), “M” from the Yahoo Answers boards might be on to something. Taruskin writes of the “Sacrificial Dance” movement of the Rite: “More than in any earlier number, the metric processes of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ are ‘mosaic,’ concretized in specific, discrete, and (above all) minuscule musical ‘tesserae’… And he left the articulation of the irregularly spaced downbeats his sequences of tesserae elicited to the most elemental force of all – to volume alone, as expressed by the bass instruments and percussion, especially the timpani, which in this dance achieve the status of a terrifying, buffeting force of nature.” (IV, 184) 14-year old metalheads, here’s what Prof. Taruskin is talking about (complete with appropriately dark, trippy visuals):

This sort of mosaic rhythmic structure is common in extreme metal: take a “riff”; offset it by some unpredictable, odd breaks; mix up the time signature to throw the audience off your scent; bang some drums, make some unholy noise, and voila! In fact, that’s exactly what Meshuggah’s doing in “Bleed”: here’s a video of the band’s guitarists playing the opening riff and discussing how it works.

Great ear, M! Maybe you’ve got a future in musicology…

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