MHM Conference, Helsinki

I’ve written about the metal scene in Botswana before for this blog, and last week I was very lucky to present my thoughts to an audience of metal scholars at the Modern Heavy Metal conference in the very metal city of Helsinki Finland.

The view of Helsinki from the plane as you approach the airport is cool – it’s mostly parks and forest areas all around. Not what I expected from a capital city, though all this green land explains how the hares that are Helsinki’s main pest animal are able to live in the city. At least it’s a cuter problem than rats or feral cats or wild dogs.

The conference’s opening evening featured a speech by guitarist Alexander Skolnick of the band Testament – though not working in metal academia himself, he’s a man with a lot of interesting things to say about metal and metal studies, and his own commitment to learning and scholarship is clear. He undertook a degree in jazz performance and started a second career as a jazz guitarist and bandleader, after already being hugely successful in Testament.

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Metal in Botswana: Part Two – Reception

This is the second part of my series of posts on Botswana. Part One can be found here. In this installment, I’m talking about how the Botswanan scene compares to scenes abroad, and about the scene’s reception.

The notion of metal in Botswana – particularly such a vibrant, committed scene, composed almost entirely of black fans and musicians – is a strange one, as metal is traditionally seen as a white and European or American scene. While there’s an element of truth to this, I think it’s important to remember that there’s a huge and long-standing death/thrash scene in Indonesia, and scenes thrive in many places that aren’t majority white.

The striking images of Frank Marshall’s exhibit, which were one of the first mainstream exposures of the scene, also emphasise the unique fashion dominant among the scene’s fans.

This extract from metal blog Invisible Oranges describes many of the possible reactions to discovering the Botswanan scene:

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Metal in Botswana: Part One – Overview

This series of posts will draw on the research I did for, and feedback I received on, a paper I gave about the metal scene in Botswana for the ‘Metal and Marginalisation’ conference in the University of York on the 11th of April this year. Many thanks to all those who helped with the writing of the paper, and to those at the conference whose responses were so encouraging and have given me extra material to consider for the future of this  topic.

A note on usage: as far as I understand, the term Motswana is used to refer to an individual from Botswana, Batswana is used as the plural, the term Botswanan refers to groups or items, and the term Setswana to the culture or language. I’ve tried to use these terms consistently – please do tell me if I’ve made a mistake!

The southern African nation of Botswana is becoming recognised by the international metal community as one of the continent’s most active and exciting national scenes. Though composed of a relatively small number of fans – approximately 1,500 according to VICE– the scene boasts a healthy quota of active bands, and a dedicated corps of fans. The scene seems to be primarily concentrated around the capital city Gaborone, and the northern city of Maun.

To date, much of the interest in Botswanan metal has focused on the works of South African photographer Frank Marshall, whose collection of portraits of Batswana metalheads, Visions of Renegades was one of the first mainstream exposures of the scene. In this series of posts, however, I’m going to look more closely at its relationship to scenes abroad by examining the scene itself (Part One) and its domestic and global reception (Part Two), and finally a list of bands, sources, and some thoughts about where this interest could take me next (Part Three).

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Horn Concerto – Why Write a Concerto?

I’m currently completing a BA Composition course at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. The main project for the final year of this degree was to compose a work for a symphony orchestra. As part of this project I must produce, in addition to the finished work, a 2,000 word commentary about the work itself. This series of blog posts will consist of extracts from this commentary, and related thoughts.

“Compose a work for symphony orchestra”: This, in many ways, is quite a loose brief; even within the term “symphony orchestra”, there is plenty of room to modify and customize the precise instrumentation. To even further complicate the issue, the choice of style and genre was entirely up to the student. This is typically one of the more difficult questions a composer must consider before beginning to compose a work. However, I had thought about what kind of piece I wanted to write for a quite a long time, and so the answer was ready: I decided to write a concerto

The concerto genre is, and has long been, the genre of orchestral music I find it easiest to engage with. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, though it may be because I’ve always had an attraction to highly soloistic music; as a teenager I listened to lots of jazz (Miles Davis being one of my heroes), and later to progressive rock and various genres of extreme metal. Not only do all these styles that demand a high level of technical proficiency from musicians, they also frequently feature instrumental solos. The concerto is possibly the only type of music that uses the full powers of the symphony orchestra but also allows deep exploration of the kind of virtuosic and soloistic playing that so interests me in the solos of rock and jazz music. (The primary difference here is that the solos of jazz music are typically improvised, whereas my composition would be strictly notated as is the norm in orchestral music – the conditions of musical creation are different, but in many respects the outcome is the same.)

The chance to work closely with a soloist also excited me for two reasons: having worked with other artists to create works before, I found the collaborative process to be a rewarding experience, and I also expected that it would be an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the idiosyncrasies of the solo instrument from someone with an in-depth knowledge. A successful concerto must make some allowances for the weaknesses of the instrument and exploit its strengths – the most efficient way to learn this is through communication with a good player.

 I chose the French Horn as the solo instrument for a number of reasons, both artistic and practical. Though the horn was my first choice, I did consider a number of other possibilities, including the viola and the oboe. All of these are instruments I enjoy writing for and am interested in exploring further. Ultimately, practicalities played a role in why I chose the horn over the other instruments; any of the oboists or violists were extremely busy, and thus I thought they would possibly be unable to take on a wholly new, and possibly very difficult, contemporary work. However, I knew a very good horn player, recently graduated from a performance degree, who was willing and interested to work with me in creating a concerto.

A number of things attracted me to the horn as an instrument – it’s got a huge range, extending from the pedal notes below the bottom of the bass clef to the top of treble clef. It has a variety of timbral possibilities, and is also capable of producing ‘natural’ or ‘untempered’ pitches – pitches tuned according to the harmonic spectrum of a fundamental note, rather than adjusted to fit equal temperament. In the course of sketching passages of horn music for this work, the instrument’s vast range is definitely the quality I exploit the most . I use the entire array of available registers, from the lowest to highest pitch regions that the horn can produce.

I listened to several horn concertos, and a number of other horn compositions, in preparation for this work. My intention was not to find an explicit model or template to base my concerto on, but rather to get a feel of what was idiomatic for the instrument. Mozart’s four horn concertos and Strauss’ two are all pieces I greatly admire, and I listened to them several times in this research period. More contemporary works that I examined and enjoyed included the concertos by Knussen and Hindemith, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (particularly for the untempered natural horn introduction), and Ligeti’s Horn Trio and Hamburg Concerto (which features several natural horns, all using different crooks and playing in a variety of different tunings, for a dense microtonal effect).

I did not stick to the formal plan of the concerto, as was used in the classical era; a sonata form, with the theme first appearing in the orchestra before being reintroduced in the solo instrument (though I did use sonata form as a rough guideline to the structure of the first movement). The cadenza, which in classical concertos takes place at the end of the first movement (though since the Romantic era it can appear nearly anywhere in the work), is expanded into its own movement and takes a number of elements from recitative-style music. The third movement, a scherzo, is a short and energetic piece, with a theme that draws on a favoured motif of Mahler’s.

The Disintegration of Tonality

Preface: As I said in my first post, some of the content on this blog will be taken from college essays I have written. This post is an essay I wrote for my thrid year Music History module. For this reason, this text is heavily referenced- if anyone knows of a neat way to insert footnotes in WordPress, let me know!

By the end of the nineteenth century, as the Romantic era began to draw to a close, it was becoming apparent that the traditional system of tonality was no longer sufficient for composers’ expressive needs. In a remarkable mere handful of years at the beginning of the twentieth century, composers increasingly abandoned the tonal language in favour of new systems and modes of musical expression. This disintegration was fully realized by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who declared the “emancipation of the dissonance” and is considered to be the first truly atonal composer.

Before Schoenberg

Before Schoenberg, however, we have a few examples of compositions which seemed to be attempting to do without the common-practice tonal system. In works such as his late Bagatelle sans tonalité (1885), Liszt was beginning to experiment with tonal ambiguity. This complex piece for solo piano is tonal in the sense that it is still based upon and rooted in a system of tonal relationships; however, it has no true tonal centre and is far more chromatic in its harmonic language than other works of its generation, foreshadowing the ‘true’ atonality to arise decades later. The famous “Tristan” chord from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859) could be seen as another starting point for the demise of tonality. This chord, which “has been viewed… as a ‘crisis’ in Romantic harmony”(1), was considered daring and innovative in its day.

By the last decade of the century, composers were experimenting with bitonality, or the composition of works in two different keys, such as Strauss in the famous tone-poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1892), which is written both in C major and B major throughout. The two conflicting tonal centres are the basis for the drama of the piece, and while the piece may still be described as tonal with relation to these two centres, the fact that Strauss chose to use this technique and that the finale does not resolve to either C or B, shows that traditional tonality was unable to accommodate Strauss’ artistic vision. The Russian Nationalist composers, due to their largely self-taught and individual approach to composition, also were notable for working outside the limits of established tonal language and “had developed unorthodox harmonic techniques which preserve tonality as an organizing principle while modifying significantly the classical tonality of Western European traditions.”(2)

Another interesting example is the American composer Charles Ives. As a child, Ives’ music training included teaching him to sing in quarter tones, and he was also encouraged to sing in one key while accompanying himself in another (3,4). This shows a remarkable foresight in realizing the limitations of the tonal system, and the latter is a particularly useful technique for understanding bitonality.

All these examples make it clear that, at the start of the twentieth century, certain musicians felt that the common-practice tonality was becoming an outdated language. Continue reading