Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity

Robert Walser
Robert Walser

We have now heard him, the strange wonder, whom the superstition of past ages, possessed by the delusion that such things could never be done without the help of the Evil One, would undoubtedly have condemned to the stake — we have heard him, and seen him too, which, of course, makes a part of the affair.

Just look at the pale, slender youth in his clothes that signal the nonconformist; the long, sleek, drooping hair… those features so strongly stamped and full of meaning, in this respect reminding one of Paganini, who, indeed, has been his model of hitherto undreamt — of virtuosity and technical brilliance from the very first moment he heard him and was swept away.

In the liner notes for his 1988 album, ‘Odyssey’, heavy metal guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen claimed a musical genealogy that confounds the stability of conventional categorisations of music into classical and popular spheres.

In his list of acknowledgements, along with the usual cast of agents and producers, suppliers of musical equipment, and relatives and friends, Malmsteen expressed gratitude to J. S. Bach, Nicolo Paganini, Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore.

From the very beginnings of heavy metal in the late 1960s, guitar players had experimented with the musical materials of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European composers. But the trend came to full fruition around the time of Malmsteen’s debut in the early 1980s; a writer for the leading professional guitar magazine says flatly that the single most important development in rock guitar in the 1980s has been “the turn to classical music for inspiration and form” (Stix 1986, p. 59).

Heavy metal, like all forms of rock and soul, owes its biggest debt to African-American blues. The harmonic progressions, vocal lines and guitar improvisations of metal all rely heavily on the pentatonic scales derived from blues music. The moans and screams of metal guitar playing, now performed with whammy bars and overdriven amplifiers, derive from the bottleneck playing of the Delta blues musicians, and ultimately from earlier African-American vocal styles.

Angus Young, guitarist with AC/DC, recalls, “I started out listening to a lot of early blues people, like B. B. King, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters” (Szatmary 1987, p. 154). Such statements are not uncommon, and heavy metal guitarists who did not study the blues directly learned second-hand, from the British cover versions by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, or from the most conspicuous link between heavy metal and black blues and R&B, Jimi Hendrix.

But from the very beginning of heavy metal there has been another important influence: that assemblage of disparate musical styles known in the twentieth century as “classical music”.

Throughout heavy metal’s twenty-year history, its most influential musicians have been guitar players who have also studied classical music. Their appropriation and adaptation of classical models sparked the development of a new kind of guitar virtuosity, changes in the harmonic and melodic language of heavy metal, and new modes of musical pedagogy and analysis.

The classical influence on heavy metal marks a merger of what are generally regarded as the most and least prestigious musical discourses of our time. This influence thus seems an unlikely one, and we must wonder why metal musicians and fans have found such a discursive fusion useful and compelling.

Musicologists have frequently characterised adaptive encounters among musical practices as “natural” expansions of musical resources, as musicians find in foreign music new means with which to assert their innovative creativity. Yet such explanations merely reiterate, covertly, a characteristically Western faith in progress, expansion and colonisation.

They do little to account for the appearance of specific fusions at particular historical moments, or to probe the power relations implicit in all such encounters. We will need more cogent explanations than those with which musicology has traditionally explained classical exoticism, fusions of national styles and elite dabblings in jazz.

I should emphasise too that my discussion of the relationship of heavy metal and classical music is not simply a bid to elevate the former’s cultural prestige. Attempts to legitimate popular culture by applying the standards of “high” culture are not uncommon, and they are rightly condemned as wrongheaded and counterproductive by those who see such friends of “low” culture as too willing to cede the high ground.

That is, such projects leave untouched the assumptions that underpin cultural value judgments, and the dice remain loaded against popular culture. An attempt to legitimate heavy metal in terms of the criteria of classical music, like prior treatments of the Beatles’ and other rock music, could easily miss the point, for heavy metal is in some ways antithetical to today’s classical music.

Such a project would disperse the differences between metal and other music, accomplishing a kind of musicological colonisation that musicians, fans and cultural historians alike would find alienating and pointless.

But in the case of heavy metal, the relationship to classical modes of thought and music-making is not merely in the eye of the beholder. To compare it with culturally more prestigious music is entirely appropriate, for the musicians who compose, perform and teach this music have tapped the classical canon for musical techniques and procedures which they have then fused with their blues-based rock sensibility.

Their instrumental virtuosity, theoretical self-consciousness and studious devotion to the works of the classical canon means that their work could be valorised in the more “legitimate” terms of classical excellence. But more importantly, metal guitarists’ appropriations of classical music provide a vital opportunity for examining criteria for musical significance as they function in cultural contestation.

The history of American popular music is replete with examples of appropriation “from below” — popular adaptations of classical music. As I discuss examples drawn from heavy metal, I will be describing a number of ways in which classical music is being used, all of which have antecedents in other twentieth-century popular music.

The sorts of value popular appropriators find in classical music can be grouped around these topics: semiotics, virtuosity, theory and prestige.

I will explore these topics as I discuss the work of several of the most influential and successful heavy metal guitarists. But before examining the classical influence upon metal, I must clarify my understanding of the term “classical music”, particularly my attribution to it of prestige and semiotic significance.

The prestige of classical music encompasses both its constructed aura of transcendent profundity and its affiliation with powerful social groups. Although the potency of its aura and the usefulness of its class status depend upon the widespread assumption that classical music is somehow timeless and universal, we know that “classical music” is a relatively recent cultural construct.

The canon of the music now known as “the great works of the classical tradition” began to form early in the nineteenth-century, with revivals of “ancient” music (Bach and Mozart) and series publications of composers’ collected works.

Lawrence W. Levine has carefully detailed the process of elevation and “sacralisation”, begun midway through the nineteenth-century, whereby European composed music was wrenched away from a variety of popular contexts and made to serve the social agenda of a powerful minority of Americans.

Along with the popular plays of Shakespeare, German music was elevated by an elite that was attempting to impose a singular ‘‘oral order’’ repudiating the plurality of cultural life (Levine 1988). By the twentieth-century, institutional and interpretive structures came to shape musical reception so completely that what we know today as ‘‘classical music’’ is less a useful label for a historical tradition than for a genre of twentieth-century music.

The most forceful critique of the institution of modern concert music is that of Christopher Small, who argues that this process of sacralisation has almost completely effaced original social and political meanings (Small 1980, 1987).

Musical works which were created for courts, churches, public concerts, salons of connoisseurs, and which had modelled and enacted the social relationships important to those specific audiences, have become a set of great interchangeable pieces.

All the vast range of meanings produced by this disparate music are reduced to a singularity in the present. That single meaning, small maintains, is one of defence — specifically, defence of the social relationships and ideologies that underpin the modern industrial state.

Cultural hierarchy is used to legitimate social hierarchy, and to marginalise the voices of all musicians who stand outside of the canon, representing those who stand at the margins of social power. Small’s critique is important because it is essential to realise that classical music is not just ‘‘real’’ music; it is a constructed category that reflects the priorities of a historical moment, and that serves certain social interests at the expense of others.

Classical music is the sort of thing Eric Hobsbawm calls an ‘‘invented tradition’’ whereby present interests construct a cohesive past to establish or legitimise present-day institutions or social relations (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

The hodgepodge of the classical canon — aristocratic and bourgeois music; academic, sacred and secular; music for public concerts, private soirees and dancing — achieves its coherence through its function as the most prestigious musical culture of the twentieth-century.

Once established, though, classical music can be negotiated; it has been both a bulwark of class privilege and a means whereby other social barriers could be overcome.

African-American performers and composers have long worked to defeat racist essentialism by proving their ability to write and perform European concert music.

The chamber jazz of the Modern Jazz Quartet, with its cool fusions of swing and classical forms, was an important statement of black pride, however conservative it seemed amidst the turmoil of the 1960s.

Duke Ellington was a crucial figure in the struggle to achieve widespread respect for African-American music, in large measure because his skills as composer, orchestrator and leader made him, of all jazz musicians, most closely match the prestigious model of the classical composer.

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