WORLD MAGAZINE AUG. 1999
rough & tumble men of Metallica plug in and bash musical heads
with the elegantly clad San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Its only a minute before showtime. As the last of a surging
column of Metallica fans pour into Berkeley, Californias
Community Theatre to see their heroes take the stage with the
San Francisco Symphony, a member of the orchestra throws a devil-hand
sign back at the crowd; a sign, however ironic, that the 79-piece
orchestra is ready to rock. The crowd still doesnt know
exactly what to expect, even as the symphony begins playing a
lush version of Ennio Morricones Ecstasy of Gold,
Metallicas traditional pre-gig overture.
But when the shadowy figure of James Hetfield becomes visible,
followed by those of Kirk, Jason and Lars, and the group commence
the fury of Call of Ktulu, everyone gets up from their
seats, fists are raised, and suddenly its almost just another
Metallica gig. Except this time, the bands guitar and drum
attack on Ktulu is flanked by heavy trombone and trumpet
hits, searing violins and chugging cellos. Its something
so out of character for Metallica that it seems downright unreal.
But its no fantasy. The concerts, which took place over
two nights in late April of this year, took root well over a year
ago when film composer Michael Kamen, the creator of the soundtracks
to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Brazil and orchestral rock arrangements
for Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and Metallicas own Nothing
Else Matters, proposed to Metallica that they collaborate
on an epic concert with a full symphony orchestra. The idea touched
a nerve evidently an exposed one.
According to Hetfield, This is what Ive wanted to
do with our stuff for such a long time. In a lot of Eighties metal,
you wanted to be grand and sound giant, so this is our chance.
Its always been in my head to create giant pieces of music.
Still, Hetfield concedes that, had someone suggested the idea
to him 10 years ago, he would have rubbed their face in
the gutter or threw my beer on them. I would have said, No
fucking way, dude. Of course, haircuts werent
on the agenda then either.
Sweetening the deal was the prospect of working with the San Francisco
Symphony by all accounts one of the best and most adventurous,
symphony orchestras in the country. Kamen describes the Symphony
as a first-class orchestra of the new breed, and praises
musical director Michael Tilson Thomas for having seen to
it that theyre a very modern orchestra. They really love
it when theyre playing Mozart or Beethoven, and they loved
it when they were playing Metallica.
Its true; were not all powdered wigs and tails,
says Jeremy Constant, the Symphonys first violinist and
Concertmaster for the Metallica shows. The Symphony is committed
to doing new stuff, and we put on lots of pop concerts and even
have a New and Unusual Music series. People tend to
have an image of established classical music institutions as very
conservative. But in fact, we do look for new collaborations and
new ways of presenting things.
But even Constant admits that the Metallica/Kamen show is hardly
a groundbreaking idea. Finnish cello quartet Apocalyptica
who covered Metallica tracks from Harvester of Sorrow
to Creeping Death on their 1996 release Metallica
on Four Cellos and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo
whose new Vivaldi: The Meeting (Thirsty Ear) finds him improvising
around classical themes with top shelf virtuosi have found
decidedly fertile ground for experimentation in the cracks between
classical music and rock. And of course, rock music has been getting
the orchestral treatment for years, whether in George Martins
grandiose arrangements for the Beatles, Tony Viscontis killer
string scores for Bowie and TRex or Deep Purples adventurous,
though muchmaligned Concerto for Group and Orchestra, composed
by Jon Lord and performed with the Royal Philharmonic in 1971.
But no matter how you slice it, a metal band playing with a symphony
has Spinal Tap written all over it. That presented
no problem for Kamen, though, who has an avowed taste for epic
Yes I do, Kamen acknowledges, a few days after the
concert. Which is why I jumped at the opportunity to do
it. Metallica are the best, the heaviest, the loudest and the
most bombastic heavy metal band you can find, although I dont
really think of them as metal; theyre rock and roll.
Okay really big rock and roll. As if the challenge of mounting
a concert with the kings of bombast and a 79-piece orchestra wasnt
enough, consider what it means to work in a 44-member film crew
and a complete mobile recording studio (for the upcoming Elektra
album release and video, scheduled for a holiday season release).
It was an enormous undertaking, says Constant. And
there were a lot of opportunities for it to not work. It was not
a sure thing. There could have been a real culture clash. There
could have been huge problems with the scores. There were just
many, many opportunities for it to go tits up and not happen at
There werent many rehearsals to tighten the titanic ship,
either, which included 20 Metallica songs, from chestnuts like
One and Master of Puppets to newer tracks
like The Outlaw Torn and Hero of the Day
and brand-new tunes like the Soundgardenish Minus Human.
Kamen, who worked from Metallica concert tapes, took six months
to score the songs. The first rehearsal, says Constant, was only
for the front players of each string section (violins, violas,
cellos, basses) and the woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons).
The intent was to make sure the basic mechanics of the score were
right, that everyone had the same number of bars, that there werent
any glaring misprints. That was followed by three subsequent rehearsals
with the full orchestra and band, the last of which was a dry
run that included blocking for the cameras and sound.
I dont know how many cameras were running around,
says Constant. You had to remind the cameramen not to run
into the violin bows. I had mine hit twice. During the dress
rehearsals, there were many frayed bows onstage, the result of
string players playing extra hard because bottom line
they couldnt bloody well hear themselves. The advice
Kamen gave us, Constant explains, was, Let the
microphones do their job. Thats all fine and well,
but on a fretless instrument like the violin, the way you get
around the instrument is guided by your ears. Thats the
normal technique, but it wasnt available to us because of
the bands volume.
Look, I didnt want to do an orchestra sweetening of
Metallica, says Kamen. My idea was that the orchestra
would have every bit as much energy and power as the band. I wanted
to keep the players busy, in the same style as the band was playing
as fast as Kirk Hammett. The downside of that intensity
was that the sound coming from the stage could be incredibly dense
and even confused at times. Metallicas music doesnt
have a lot of space to begin with, and there were too few moments
when the orchestra was allowed to do its thing sans Metallica,
though Kamen says the band is looking forward to more sonic trade-offs
like that for next time.
In some ways it was more like a film music experience,
notes Kamen, because apart from some intros and a couple
of middle bits, the orchestra was really in support sometimes
answering, sometimes responding, and sometimes making a statement
that the band would seem to respond to. But the orchestra played
very fully fleshed arrangements on almost every song. There were
a lot of black pages; lots of notes.
Kamen, explains Jeremy Constant, knew exactly what the orchestra
was capable of playing. And in an effort to show off what
the orchestra can do, he wrote very challenging things in almost
all of the pieces. Sometimes you sit down and play footballs
whole notes for two hours, where your biggest challenge
is staying awake and keeping in the right spot on the score. But
for this concert, the symphony was going at it non-stop the whole
time. It was very challenging, technically.
But was it challenging stylistically? Sure, Constant is dead right
when he asserts that people tend to forget that symphony
orchestras can scare the hell out of you. Anyone whos
ever listened to Stravinskys The Rite of Spring, Pendereckis
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima or Ligetis Lux Aeterna
can tell you that. And its no accident that most great horror
films derive a lot of their eerie power from the orchestra: think
of the violin slashes during the shower scene from Hitchcocks
Psycho, to name just one example. As able and dramatic as Kamens
score was, couldnt he have been a bit more, yknow,
outside? What about throwing some modern classical idioms into
the mix say, a taste of brainy Gunther Shuller, or a bit
of renegade Elliot Carter perhaps?
Elliot Carter is not the kind of music I can hum in the
shower, says Kamen unapologetically, and Ive
played his music before. Its music thats not about
music; its about the composer, and it is not, for me, what
music is about. There is a lot of very high-brow, very intellectual
music being created for orchestra, some of which is very exciting
and interesting, but personally, I think its too theoretical,
and Im more interested in music as a result.
The vibrancy and energy of rock and roll feeds my appetite
for the classical traditions I grew up with, he explains.
Thats more creative for me than the mind game of experimenting
with different intervals and tone colors; thats all theory
and this is about melody and harmony and, most of all, power.
Thats what I like.