Power metal and my own composing

A footnote to my last post: What connection do Pantera and Jackson Mac Low have to my own composing? Not that they have to have one, of course; I can admire music that plays no role in my own.

But still I wonder. When I was studying composition in graduate school, I began to write in what I then would have called a “downtown New York” style, with (for instance) pieces for speaking voices, whose music wasn’t completely determined in advance. My score for the piece I’m thinking of was a set of verbal instructions, whose outcome would be different each time the piece was composed.

I continued this for a while after graduate school, but what I wanted most was to write operas. Granted, my first one was unusual, because it was supposed to be sung pianissimo from the beginning almost to the very end (something nobody, in one set of concert performances and later in a full production, ever quite managed to do). But my operas were, in the end, conventionally operatic, especially the last two I wrote in this period, which were written in something like the style of the 19th century. (One of these was Frankenstein, the piece with which I emerged again as a composer, at the New York City Opera’s VOX showcase of new works in 1993.) Well, really these pieces are written in my own kind of adopted quasi-19th century style, which is a very different thing from real 19th century music, since it’s really a kind of contemporary style, but leave that distinction for some other time. I’d started writing some form of mainstream classical music, something that it wasn’t quite clear, when I was in school, that I’d ever do.

And I’ve kept doing it since. A well known composer, who’s a long-time friend, said a few months to me, with many giggles, after a few drinks, that maybe I came across as some kind of authority on new music, and certainly I knew a lot about it, but really what I loved most was the mainstream classical repertoire. That wasn’t wrong.

But it’s also not completely right. I spent six years or so — more or less from 1988 to 1994 — working as a pop music critic, and I’ve never gotten pop out of my blood. Even before that, pop showed up in my second opera, The Richest Girl in the World Finds Happiness, which is very happily written in a through-composed pop/Broadway style. One of my greatest loves in pop, especially in 1988 and 1989, when I worked in Los Angeles, was hard rock and metal. I’d go to Slayer shows, Metallica shows, Danzig shows, and have a blast. I knew a lot of people on the L.A. hard rock scene, and I loved it, ridiculous as it sometimes was. I remember meeting Riki Rachtman (anyone remember him?), whom I’d known as someone who ran two L.A. hard rock clubs (Cathouse and Bordello), at the Mayflower Hotel in New York, after he’d become the host of Headbanger’s Ball on MTV, and I was music critic for Entertainment Weekly. Even more happily, I remember taking my former editor at The Village Voice to the Rainbow in L.A., a club where lots of metal bands hung out, and introducing him to Rick Rubin, who in turn introduced us to Danzig, the entire band, which gave us later on the curious pleasure of watching Glenn Danzig’s guitarist try to teach Glenn — so fearsome on stage, apparently so mild in ordinary life — how to meet girls.

I remember Lita Ford kissing me when I defended her against some idiot writer for People magazine. She’d come to lunch in New York with some writers and editors, and just before that had gone to visit her mother in New Jersey. She was wearing a normal denim dress, nothing extravagant or sexy, and this People guy couldn’t believe she’d dressed that way. “Lita, what’s the matter! I mean, why aren’t you wearing leather like you wear on stage?” Like I said, an idiot. So I loved this music. But how does it figure in my own work, especially since I’ve said how close I am to the extreme anti-everyday life positions in both chance music and the wildest heavy metal? (Which Lita Ford doesn’t represent, I know. Please, no metal purists going after me, OK?)

This is a leap I haven’t made yet. In a string quartet I finished last year, after working on it for quite a long time, I do jump from romantic tonal music to 12-tone music (another strong influence on me), to cheesy French rock, to Elvis, and (with many other stops) finally to chance music and complete silence. That helped to integrate a lot of fragments of myself I hadn’t quite assimilated into my composing, but there are more to come. Silence seems easier for me than sheer uncompromising noise…but I know that’s coming.

(And don’t think, by the way, that noise and everyday life can’t mix. I can also remember walking around backstage at a Florida club with Dave Mustaine from Megadeth, while he cradled his little baby in his arms. Life is full of paradoxes, or rather full of the need to do many human things, some of them contradictory. That’s part of its glory.)

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