Bay Area composer Nick Vasallo smelts heavy metal aesthetics with Western classical techniques to create new sonic alloys never heard before. Vasallo’s work is a fresh music that may help usher in a new audience for classical music. It is dramatic, aggressive, moody, introspective, and thoughtful. Vasallo is dedicated to a multilingual stylistic pluralism spanning Western art music traditions, indigenous Asian musics, and heavy metal genres. As a staunch advocate for local musicians, he is committed to serving the San Francisco Bay Area new music community not only by curating the annual Bay Area Modern Music festival (!BAMM!) but also by featuring many Bay Area performers in his music videos.
Watch an exclusive video premiere of San Francisco’s MOBIUS TRIO performing Vasallo’s “Dark Matter” at the end of this article.
Sonic Alchemy—A Skilled Forging
How is it that Vasallo hopes to resolve the seemingly disparate styles—classical and metal? “[T]he unifying element is quite simple: precision” (Vasallo, 2007). Precision as a unifying principle is tied to virtuosity and skilled technique. These techniques include the gymnastic displays of fast fingers across fretboard, fingerboard, piano keys, wind-instrument keys, drumsticks and mallets, to the usage of a variety of classical music forms and contrapuntal techniques. Vasallo is able to harness and develop thematic ideas in the manner of the canonic masters since JS Bach, slide and resolve his pungent harmonic dissonances like Gesualdo, create dark soto voce moods in the manner of Mozart’s late style, use an orchestra like a giant percussion ensemble with violent subtactile punctuations like Stravinsky (in his “Russian” phase), move masses of tone clusters like Ligeti, and shred with lightning-fingered accuracy like Randy Rhoads (or Paganini). By incorporating a variety of techniques from different eras and melding them with the music of his own youth, Vasallo forges a music that is firmly rooted in the distant past and the not-so-distant past while speaking to the present.
Vasallo’s work, even at its thickest, presents an almost blinding clarity—no one would ever ask to see the score to make sure there were actual notes on the page. Even his tone-clusters move about in thick slithers like subterranean earthworms of Godzilla proportions. His noise serves to thicken the sound, as if dissonant harmonies were used to strengthen a few stray harmonics from a singular melody imagined on a distorted electric guitar feeding-back through a Marshall halfstack set at eleven. Perhaps his interest in the French spectral composers—Grisey, Murail—are the culprits here. Vasallo often translates electric guitar melodies to acoustic instruments, and therefore requires more than one instrument to achieve such a multi-timbral sound. For example, in When the War Began, executed expertly by the RedShift ensemble, Vasallo imaginatively uses the clarinet (and bass clarinet) to create multiphonics by overblowing the instrument, similar to the random sounds of guitar feedback, while violin and cello are often treated singularly emphasizing different harmonics of the same melody: three acoustic instruments inspired by the sonic qualities of one electric instrument. Vasallo uses the piano to occupy the power-chord lower register of the electric guitar, but does so in a manner that recalls the dense pianisms of Liszt in his late period (or even some of the low-registered Preludes of Chopin).
When the War Began (Video: Brandon Hunt)
The Doorway (2013) for symphony orchestra removes the heterophony of some of the more stylized concerto works (Black Swan Events for electric guitar and orchestra, for example). The thick tone clusters buzz around in intricate micropolyphonies in the low to mid frequency range. The instruments are arranged almost in clans, some fading in while others fading out, like the upwelling of oceanic water currents as the deeper, colder, nutrient-rich waters surface and the warmer depleted waters sink. Strikingly, Vasallo manages to make the orchestra sound like a synthesizer in the manner Ligeti was known for several decades before, yet manages to maintain a lower guitar and bass register reminiscent of the doom metal band Sunn O))). For me, The Doorway represents a new zenith in his work, even as its approaches the sonic nadir of orchestral instruments.
The Doorway (Audio only)
Classical Music Video—Reaching Out
Before beginning graduate studies at UC Santa Cruz, Vasallo tried his hand at film composing. The feel and drama of the cinema informed his compositional practices and was inevitably assimilated as a formal technique. As he gained success as a composer, he sought dramatic means to display his work. From film music to music video, the cinematographer has become his collaborator: the Nijinsky to his Stravinsky (perhaps more felicitously). The movements of the camera not only adds personal effect and drama to the sound, but the camera also helps to clarify the sonic experimentalisms by showcasing the techniques of the performers demanded by Vasallo’s score in an intimate fashion that eludes the uncomfortable concert hall chair. Humans are performing these sonic fireworks. His videos have featured RedShift, The Bridge Virtuosi, Friction Quartet, The Living Earth Show, and members of the San Francisco Symphony and Kronos Quartet—these artists all reside in the Bay Area, and help foster the local community Vasallo promotes through Composers Inc. and the Bay Area Music Festival (!BAMM!). Video also adds another dimension: it connects listeners via the internet. Vasallo posts his professionally-made videos for all to see. Without the hokey narratives, he hopes to bring a seriousness to classical music video for a new audience.
Elements of Metal I. Collapsing Obsidian Sun (Director: Taylor Rankin)
Body-Body-Head: An Audience for the Future
Vasallo connects with his audience at the corporeal level. He appeals to the body by offering catchy rhythms for the toe-tapper, aggressive riffs and rhythms for the head-banger, delicate harmonies for the sentimentalist, formal sophistication and development for the devoted music analyst, and perhaps most importantly, an amalgamation of instruments and styles for the eclectic listener who requires an extended timbral palette drawing from numerous sources. Even at its most strident, Vasallo’s music is never “difficult” (like the New Complexity composers). His music is inviting and provoking. In fact, he makes metal accessible without watering it down—you may even find yourself humming his tunes!
Vasallo’s music is about inclusiveness and empowerment. Power is needed to amplify the lower frequency registers he often employs in his music. The latest communication technologies are helping to democratize the musical climate (at least for those who can afford the technologies) as globalization touches more people from remote locations. Vasallo sees the situation as inevitable and welcoming. The inclusiveness of his sonic palette—old and new, mainstream and marginal, elite and folk—is Vasallo’s method of reaching out to a broader audience beyond the traditional concert hall goers. At the close of his 2007 manifesto, “Dark Reflections,” Vasallo provides us with an authentic cadence:
I believe the future of both classical and metal is “eclecticism.” Mobility and malleability of music are the tools necessary to empower progress and to prevent musical deadlock. Globalization is inescapable; technology has proven this. A global musical practice is needed in order to level the spectrum of musical discourse. Since meanings and specified values concordantly bring along the attachment of exclusivity, a cessation of absolute definitions applied to all musical genres will subsequently free the rigidity of musical thought. This movement of musical malleability is the essence of eclecticism and irrevocably the musical movement needed for the progress of classical and metal.
Vasallo, “Dark Reflections”
The merging of musical styles is the battle cry of the young composer, but also the sensuous properties of the harmonic series and its histories toward tonal music. The importance of music’s effects on the body is intricately related to Vasallo’s interest in pioneer mixed martial artist and action movie superstar Bruce Lee. Though known for his ‘kung fu movies’ Lee was also a disciplined martial artist. He believed that he could learn from all martial arts styles, appropriating the most useful techniques and discarding the remains. The result was an eclectic assemblage of practical techniques to adapt to a variety of circumstances.
Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend.
Bruce Lee, from the television series Longstreet (1971-1972)
Vasallo’s compositional material—as water—flows and crashes.
MOBIUS TRIO performs Nick Vasallo “Dark Matter I. Invisible Mass”
For Electric Guitar Trio
Composer: Nick Vasallo
Director: Gabriel Zuniga
Ensemble: Mobius Trio
Electric Guitars: Robert Nance, Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder.
Upcoming Events for Nick Vasallo
April 12, 2014 – 7:25 PM
Dark Matter and Sometimes to Destroy, You Must First Create, Part I.
Performed by Mobius Trio.
2014 Switchboard Festival.
Brava Theater Center.
2781 24th Street. San Francisco, CA.
April 29, 2014 – 8:00 PM
For electric guitar and percussion, and string quartet.
Performed by The Living Earth Show + Friction Quartet.
Bay Area Modern Music (!BAMM!).
First Congregational Church of Berkeley.
2345 Channing Way. Berkeley, CA.
Daniel L. Muñoz is a PhD student in cross-cultural musicology at UC Santa Cruz finishing a dissertation titled “The Los Angeles Noise Music Scene.” He is curator of the FFFF Series showcasing experimental music and sound art in Los Angeles, and teaches Music History and World Music at Gavilan College in Gilroy, California.