Black is the night

The darkness is encroaching into the day as the clocks move back and winter comes. To celebrate this unfortunate fact, we end the month of October with bands of children in absurd costumes who set out to frighten nice suburban residents.

So what better time to talk about black metal?

Black metal is a proudly grotesque form of music. The black metal fan enjoys highly-distorted, poorly-produced music that is simple and repetitive and over which one band member screams demonically. None of this is in fact an insult; many black metal fans would embrace this description wholly.

The traditional black metal performer dresses something like this:


Newer bands, and those who belong to strange sub-genres, often forgo the traditional attire, or at least tone it down. The chap pictured above, nicknamed Ghaal, is somewhat old school — now heading into his middle-age. (Does that explain his slight stoop in the picture?) There is sort of ‘early music movement’, as it were, within black metal. It consists of those even more ‘traditional’ than Ghaal. They like the themes to be unabashedly satanic and Norse-inspired, the recording quality to be primitive, the music to be at best skeletal — as it was in the early days of black metal.

It would be a mistake to think that these ridiculous chaps in their satanic garbs are all mere poseurs. Some were genuinely violent, even murderous. The dozens of church burnings in Norway were no small matter. Ghaal tortured a man and was later imprisoned. Varg Vikenes, one of the earliest and most influential performers, murdered the guitarist of a rival band, aided in several church burnings and kept explosives in his home. For all this, the lenient Norweigian system gave him only twenty-one years in prison. And still he was released six years early. He now spends much of his time making National Socialist YouTube videos for his nearly 150,000 subscribers.

This is all very sensational and grimly fascinating, but what about the music? Let’s listen to some, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ by Darkthrone, recorded in 1994 (and no, it’s not YouTube’s fault: the music is supposed to sound that tinny):

This seems to me to be self-evidently bad music. But its problems aren’t actually unique to the genre. Like most rock and metal, the emphasis is on (and this is not an exhaustive list):

  • extra-musical qualities (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. the low-fi production)
  • a very limited use of harmony
  • a repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating the volume and thus limiting the dynamic range

What’s worse is that black metal is even simpler and more primitive than most metal. In its original form, it was basically punk music but slower and more miserable. And like punk, the fashion mattered far more than the music.

Nevertheless, these dank underbellies of the metal world often do attract some good musicians. Many of them have ignored the proscription against complexity, disavow some of the nastiness, but like the dark, lonely feel — the emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ and the like.

Okay, here is where this embarrassed blogger fesses up: I was once a black metal fan — well, ‘fan’ might be a bit strong. I never, ever dressed like that pillock above, to start with! But there were a few bands I was obsessed with. One was a French band with a German name, Blut Aus Nord. It only really consists of one chap who goes by the name Vindsval. He never performs live and never has revealed his real name. So I assume he continues this project out of a love of music, not vanity and image. It’s been a few years, so I wondered, given my radical musical transformation towards classical music, what I make of it now. First, a listen:

It does have a certain perverse majesty. Still, listening again I find many problems with this music that I would have missed a few years ago. Melodies that seldom last longer than two bars — and when they do, it is far from seamless. Ideas that are never really developed. Repetition ad nauseam. The piece consists of a succession of ideas, the kind of thing most young aspiring composers do when they start out: they have so many ideas that they put them all down one after another, rather than extracting from each idea all that they can.

But Vindsval obviously does take care to craft these ideas. They don’t follow standard rock/metal chord progression; he experiments with metres, modality, modulations, chromaticism. This leads to some jerky transitions, but also some genuinely interesting music.

A bit over two years ago I released a black metal EP. It’s still available online, for free, and as I’ve long since forgotten both my username and password it will doubtless remain there. The music was not traditional black metal. It belonged to a tiny subgenre, namely ‘industrial black metal’. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…) and amazingly got two reviews. Rock and metal reviews are invariably silly, and extreme metal reviews are among the most amusing. My little EP was given this flattering description:

The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.

Here it is:

I have mixed feelings about that whole period. But anyway, soon after that EP I found classical music and it’s been nothing but sunlit uplands since then. To cleanse both palate and mind, here’s some genuinely good, though nonetheless frightening music, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8:



VIDA Guitar Quartet at King’s Place

Why aren’t there more guitar quartets? The possibilities for new repertoire are exhilarating. How often do you get to hear the works of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams on guitar? The guitar can be such a quiet, lonely instrument, suitable for neither orchestras nor most ensembles. How wonderful it is to see four of these lonely creatures together, and creating such a big sound!

At least there are a few guitar quartets. And VIDA Guitar Quartet are clearly among the best. I caught them a couple of nights ago. It was a Bach-themed concert: after two contemporary pieces unrelated to Bach, they launched into a fantastic arrangement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, followed by Prelude and Fugue Nos. 2 & 4 by Mendelssohn, Bacanas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 by Villa-Lobos, and two Bach-inspired premieres by Laura Snowden and Howard Skempton. The third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is on YouTube:

Perhaps it’s my decrepit speaker, but this video, impressive though it is, doesn’t quite capture the extraordinary colour of the quartet. Each part was clearly separated. They could have sounded quite homogeneous; unlike a string quartet they all share the same range, except for one seven-string guitar, and are essentially all playing the same instrument (as opposed to violins, viola and cello). However, with the right musicians the sound world of the guitar is exceptionally varied — the string can be attacked in so many ways. One gets a better sense of this by watching the short promo for VIDA’s upcoming album (the music they are playing is from Light Perpetuum by Laura Snowden):

Following an incredible mishap — a tuner that fell inside the guitar — they ended with piece by British composer Howard Skempton. He titled it Bach variation for four guitars, but it was really an arrangement of a Bach fugue (I forget which one) — the twist being that it used only natural harmonics (except for the chap who lost his tuner; he played the bass line on a seven- string guitar). It was like listening to a music box but without any hint of the mechanical. The sound was warm and round, almost perfect.

As there isn’t a clip of Skempton’s Bach varation, here is VIDA playing Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Warlock was a very strange chap indeed: an Etonian, occultist (hence his surname), composer, writer, and somewhat important figure in the revival of early English music. His pieces were clearly influenced by Elizabethan music and have a certain charm.

Domenico Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti was born on this day in 1685. (I refuse to wish the dead ‘happy birthday’, as seems to be the trend.) Scarlatti tends to get overlooked in favour of Bach et al. It may well be because he just doesn’t fit in. In our fastidious obedience to historical eras we struggle to neatly put him into either the Baroque or Classical box. Neither can we fit him into a national canon. He was born in Italy, but spent much of his life in Spain and was significantly influenced by the music of that country. There is no national musical culture that we can call his home.

W. Dean Sutcliffe, who wrote an excellent book on the Scarlatti sonatas, points out that there is little contextualising material for Scarlatti’s works. We can’t establish a chronology of his works as we lack autographs to date them. Musicologists are therefore unable to rely on a narrative of immature works leading to masterly ones. There is no story of changing stylistic traits or of evolving complexity. The sonatas stand before us quite equal in their provenance.

Ah, the sonatas! I’m getting ahead of myself. His 555 sonatas are what he’s best known for. What is a sonata, anyway? It seems a simple question but the term has been quite fluid over the centuries. ‘Sonata’ literally means ‘to sound’; its opposite is ‘cantata’, ‘to sing’. For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, ‘sonata’ was but one of many terms used to describe instrumental music. Then by the mid-seventeenth century it became it became the most common term. (See the Grove entry for a comprehensive history.) ‘Sonata form’ is something else — a form of thematic development — which evolved long after the term ‘sonata’ had been established.

Most sonatas consisted of multiple movements, but Scarlatti’s are short single-movement pieces, no more than seven minutes long. They are often fast and loud and harsh, mischievous and sudden, flamboyant and exuberant. Yet also strikingly beautiful. Because of his musical quirks, Sutcliffe sees Scarlatti as a rebel. This seems an exaggeration to me: just because Scarlatti didn’t always conform, doesn’t necessarily mean he was rebelling. His sonatas are, however, quite apart from other music, certainly distinctive and incredibly exciting.

Many of the Sonatas have a clear Iberian influence, which has made them particularly well suited to the guitar. Though some are extraordinarily difficult. I doubt I’ll ever be able to play, let alone have the patience and discipline to learn, this wonderful piece:

(Classical) Musical Comedy

Who knew people said ‘kiss my arse’ in the seventeenth century?

‘Have you heard the one about the comic opera that was actually funny? No, thought not.’ That’s from Philip Hensher’s Guardian piece on the unfunniness (is that a word? ‘humourlessness’ is too strong) of comic operas. Hensher is a fantastic writer, and a funny one to boot (see King of the Badgers), but he’s quite wrong on this. He even commits what should be treason by commenting that, thanks to Arthur Sullivan’s music, he finds the Gilbert and Sullivan operas ‘only half funny’!

‘Mozart’s opere buffe,’ Hensher writes, ‘are probably the greatest of the genre. What they aren’t, however, is funny.’ I saw The Magic Flute last week and found myself joining in with the laughter — though ‘joining in’ perhaps being the operative phrase. It’s not nearly as funny unless you’ve got other people to laugh with. Nevertheless, here’s one memorable scene:

Beethoven is often portrayed as the most surly of chaps. But he had a great sense of humour, and he wrote some jolly good folks songs. Among them, a drinking song: Come, fill, fill my good fellow!

One can never have too many Charles Ives anecdotes. As related by his son-in-law:

Mr. Ives’s expressions were original. I can just hear him saying, “A poor joke is better than a good one.” And he had a lot of peculiar names that he’d call people, like “Little Willie Pickleface” and “Ratneck.” Mrs. Ives tells an amusing story about one of their stays at an English hotel where there was a little kitten that Mr. Ives was playing with, and the kitten was running down the corridor. Mr. Ives came after it on his hands and knees, yelling “Little Willie Pickleface.” He didn’t realise that the kitten was leading him into one of the hotel drawing rooms where a number of other people were present. I think even Mr. Ives was a little embarrassed on that occasion.

Ives is perhaps the composer with the greatest sense of fun (which went hand-in-hand with his profound seriousness; most of life is silly and not especially serious — except for that which isn’t).

The Side Show has a stuttering waltz-like rhythm that keeps tripping itself up in alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4. Ives found that a popular comic song and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 share a common melodic theme and — being Ives — thought it would be a laugh to mix them together. The odd rhythmic pattern is derived from the 5/4 waltz in second movement of Tchaikovsky 6. But all is mostly normal until the last line, where what should be ‘Look a bit like a [clown]’, becomes:

Look a bit like a
Russian Dance, Some speak of so highly
As they do of Riley!

(There’s the Tchaikovsky reference.)

Gerald Barry’s Canada. Funniest composer alive (okay, not much competition there). Sung by the inimitable Allan Clayton.

And lastly, in the starring role, a giant nose:

I notice these have all been songs. Instrumental music can be funny too. Let’s go back to Ives. One of the great musical endings is the incredible raspberry that finishes  his Second Symphony — all the notes of the chromatic scale bar one. If you have the time, listen to the whole symphony, or at least the final movement (28:06). If not, skip to 36:30.

Locrian Mode

The locrian (or hyperaeolian) is the most useless of all the modes. The second and fifth intervals are flattened, allowing for neither a stable tonic chord nor a perfect cadence. Musical possibility itself seems to collapse when you lose these twin pillars. Without them, it becomes almost impossible to establish a tonal centre about which the music can organise.

Let me demonstrate with some music. Below is the first four bars of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, K545 (you’ll recognise it when you hear it). The original is in C major and will play first, after four bars which give the harmonic outline. Then the extract is repeated using the intervals of the locrian scale (2, 3, 5, 6, & 7 are flattened). Notice how harmonically unstable it has become, how the music seems to want to modulate, with no firm cadences to maintain a sense of the key.

Lorian examples_0001

Now, if I adapt it to the phrygian mode, perhaps the second weirdest mode, it still makes harmonic sense. Unlike the locrian the phrygian has a perfect fifth, allowing for a sense of resolution.

Lorian examples_0002

There are many examples of the phrygian mode. One can find it in Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas owing to the Iberian influence (think Spanish guitar music), and also in Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia thanks to his interest in English folk music — to take but two examples.

But are there any pieces based on the locrian mode? I can’t think of any. Hindemith uses it quite a bit in the second movement of Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, but he circumvents its harmonic problems by alternating between mixolydian (major scale with flattened seventh) and locrian.

The locrian, therefore, is more a theoretical invention than a practical one. Nevertheless, I thought I’d try to write a little piece in B locrian. It sounds pleasant enough — but that’s only because the piece keeps trying, against my will, to modulate away from B locrian towards a more satisfying key. Whenever I tried to reign it in, to bring the piece back to its supposed tonal centre, the result is completely inelegant. Music has preferences of its own, and it’s no use trying to overcome them.

Here is my ‘Fantasie’ in B locrian. I could think of no suitable titles. It was meant to be a galliard, but as well as losing track of the tonal centre, I also lost track of the metre! Still, all that aside, and excusing the audio quality, I rather like it. The locrian mode forces one to make some unusual harmonic choices, resulting in a kind of unsettled melancholy.

Locrian (notation)