Saturday 25 November 2023

Dependent Arising: American violinist Rachel Barton Pine on combining classical and Heavy Metal on her latest concerto album

Rachel Barton Pine  (Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
Rachel Barton Pine (Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

American violinist Rachel Barton Pine's most recent disc, on the Cedille Records label, Dependent Arising, pairs Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 with a new concerto, Dependent Arising, written especially for Rachel, by Earl Maneein, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conductor Tito Muñoz. The pairing very much encapsulates Rachel's freewheeling and eclectic approach to violin playing. In parallel to her career as a classical violin virtuoso she spent some years, from 2009 to 2014, playing electric violin in the Doom/Thrash Metal band Earthen Grave and has enthusiastically embraced a variety of styles and genres. With Dependent Arising she really leans into her enduring love of Heavy Metal. Earl Maneein is a trained classical violinist but also played electric violin in the Metalcore band, Resolution15, and his music embraces both camps.

There are only around half a dozen players of the electric violin in Metal bands in the USA, Earl Maneein is one and Rachel is another. She knew of Earl and his music, and that he was conservatory-trained so in 2014 she asked him to write a piece for her. It was to be unaccompanied, as this was the most useful thing to tour and she felt that it would be cool to perform Earl Maneein's music in an acoustic event. The result was Metal Organic Framework, which Rachel premiered in 2014. At a later performance of the work in New York, Tito Muñoz, the music director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, heard Rachel playing Metal Organic Framework. Now Tito Muñoz is not a Metalhead, but he found Earl Maneein to be a unique and compelling voice. Tito Muñoz commissioned a concerto from Maneein for Rachel, which became Dependent Arising which Rachel premiered with Tito Muñoz and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in April 2017 [see article on the orchestra's website].

Dependent Arising recording sessions - Tito Muñoz, Rachel Barton Pine, Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Photo: Sally Jubb Photography)
Dependent Arising recording sessions - Tito Muñoz, Rachel Barton Pine, Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Photo: Sally Jubb Photography)

Rachel feels that people who like Heavy Metal will hear the work's links to the style, but contemporary music lovers simply hear an intriguing new classical work. For Heavy Metal lovers, Maneein has incorporated references to different bands' styles. Certainly, the concerto has been a success and she wanted to record it. For Rachel, the only possible composer for a pairing was Shostakovich, whose music is popular with Heavy Metal fans. Rachel finds his music very dark and loves the way it fearlessly explores the human condition.
Classical music has always embraced popular and traditional styles, and she points out the way Bartok used folk music to create contemporary classical music, not crossover but simply using music from elsewhere as building blocks. And many 20th-century composers have done something similar with jazz, so she felt that it was Heavy Metal's turn to get the same treatment.

In fact, there are many sub-genres of Heavy Metal, some quite serious and complex that steal classical figurations and harmonies along with the epic feel of classical music, so there can be a lot of classical influence in Heavy Metal. But some elements are completely unique. She mentions the Blast Beat, which is often used in Thrash and Death Metal. The drummer creates a fast repeated beat using just one arm and one foot; using two would be easier but one is more virtuosic and adds tension.

So, how to transfer this to an orchestral piece? Earl Maneein decided not to use a drum kit as this would be too loud for an ordinary orchestra and most drummers who play Metal drum well are not used to following a conductor. And besides they liked the idea of making an awesome sound with just the orchestra, so Maneein used all sorts of ways to transpose the sound onto the orchestra. They workshopped the piece with the Arizona State University Orchestra, and Maneein got to try things out. Rachel comments she was able to interact with the composer in a way that you read about in history books.

Rachel Barton Pine playing Electric Violin with Earthen Grave in 2008 (Photo: David Tyler/Flickr)
Rachel Barton Pine playing Electric Violin with Earthen Grave in 2008 (Photo: David Tyler/Flickr)

Rachel has played Shostakovich's concerto since she was in her early 20s, but playing it now, after performing Maneein's music, she hears elements of Heavy Metal in Shostakovich and this has encouraged her to explore the work's darkness and she finds it a work where classical music can go to extremes, both in terms of fragility and violence.

She has been a fan of Heavy Metal since her teens. With classical music, performance nowadays is all about technical perfection, though Rachel adds that this can sound very stiff and you need to get past this. On stage, in the moment, you have to be able to rely on your reflexes and your training. But Metal is about going to the edge and getting everyone caught up in the performance. In fact, going to Heavy Metal shows as a student inspired her, the players expressing everything at 110% whether violence or calm intensity.

Playing in her own Heavy Metal band gave her insight into this, the way that you get real-time feedback from the audience about what you are doing. You know as you play how much you have reached the listeners. In classical music, you can sense this somewhat but you don't fully know until the applause at the end of the piece/movement. But in Heavy Metal you know in the moment; this makes you think about what you need to change in your performance, as you are doing it, or what you are doing right. She feels that these experiences made her a better performer, so her performances of Mozart were better, still elegant and appropriate but far more communicative. She thinks that anything that you do creatively to motivate your imagination is good so that you do not simply concentrate on the technical aspects of performance.

The other aspect of playing in a Heavy Metal band that was different was that she was part of a song-writing collective. Instead of playing music created by a single composer, all band members participated in the creation, bouncing ideas off each other.

Dependent Arising: Maneein, Shostakovich - Rachel Barton Pine - Cedille Records

She hopes that having now recorded Earl Maneein's Dependent Arising, the disc will get other people interested in performing the work, but recording also helps other performers understand the style of the work.

Looking ahead she is planning to record the complete Corelli sonatas with her Baroque ensemble. She is also planning a digital release of all the unaccompanied violin music that has been written for her. This will be massive, with around three hours of music. And in parallel she will be recording podcasts with each of the composers, discussing their process and how she and they collaborated. Rachel points out that for many contemporary works, we do not have the trail of correspondence that illuminates older classical works where performer and composer communicated often by letter, so the podcast will go some way to replacing this.

Her Rachel Barton Pine Foundation assists young artists through its Instrument Loan Program and Grants for Education and Career, and since 2001, has run the ground-breaking Music by Black Composers project. The foundation is about to release the second volume of The String Student’s Library of Music by Black Composers as part of its Music by Black Composers project, the pieces being for violin with the option of accompaniment from piano or second violin. This will be over thirty pieces, all at elementary level with composers from the 1700s to the 21st century. 

Originally, she did a lot of the research for the Foundation's project in the early 2000s, visiting archives and museums as well as contacting composers' relatives and exploring people's attics. She now employs a full time musicologist, and each piece is accompanied by a bio as well as an image. She finds this latter important. The project has its own website and a recent blog details everything that needed to be done to bring these pieces to light. There is more to come, with databases being updated and plans for other volumes of music along with free resources.

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