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CityMusic Cleveland: a conversation with violinist and heavy metal bandleader Rachel Barton Pine
Tuesday, October 16, 2012, Mike Telin, ClevelandClassical.com

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine is fascinating. Her numerous accomplishments in the world of classical music can be found on her informative website. Once there, you can also read about her other musical endeavors such as composing, educational and charity work. And her love of heavy metal. Beginning on Wednesday, October 17, Rachel Barton Pine makes her first visit to Cleveland when she joins CityMusic Cleveland under the direction of Ryan McAdams for five area performances of the Violin Concerto in G minor by Max Bruch. The program also features the Ritual Fire Dance by Manuel de Falla and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.

On Saturday, October 20 following the performance at St. Stanislaus, Ms. Pine will go directly across the street to the Iron Ward for a performance with her rock band Earthen Grave.

We spoke to the articulate and insightful ambassador for classical and heavy metal music, Rachel Barton Pine, by telephone. And if you think you're neither a fan of classical nor metal, talking with her will certainly make you want to give each of those genres a try.

Mike Telin: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. Before we talk about your rock band let's begin with the concerto. How did you decide on Bruch?

Rachel Barton Pine: There is no real interesting story, I was asked to play it, and I said yes. That is often how it happens. I do have a little list of concertos that I would like to play during a particular season, but sometimes conductors have other ideas, and in this case they asked for the Bruch, and I have it in my repertoire so I was happy to say yes.

MT: It is a fabulous piece and perfect for these concerts.

RBP: I think so too. I understand that the concerts are free and many times they are “sold out”, but for people who have always wanted to check out an orchestra concert, now there is one for free in their neighborhood. If they decide to see what it’s all about, the Bruch is a wonderful introduction with its lush melodies. The middle movement is so emotional and the last movement is triumphant.

MT: I assumed you learned it early on in your studies.

RBP: Indeed! Very often the Bruch or the Mendelssohn are the first big romantic concertos that violin students play. You usually start with some baroque concerti, then move to Haydn and then Mozart. Then the day comes when you get assigned the Bruch! For me that was age eight.

When I was eleven years old I played a series of youth concerts with the Chicago Symphony and I got the chance to play the Bruch eight times. That was a really valuable experience because it wasn’t like I was playing it just once, I did it again and again. As a result I found more layers to the piece, and in the intervening years, I have found even more depths to it. I think what distinguishes it as a masterpiece is the fact that every time I come back to it, it still feels fresh because there is always more in it to discover.

I often use the opening as an example when I talk to people about the differences between classical and most non-classical music whether it’s pop, rock or various other types of traditional music. For example, most non-classical music has a steady back beat, where classical music ebbs and flows. You have a steady pulse, but you can [slow down here, and go a little faster there] and that’s what I think gives classical music its incredibly wide emotional range.

MT: That is a very interesting point.

RBP: And people often say that in other kinds of music you improvise and in classical music you don’t, you have to play the notes that the composer wrote. Which is not entirely true. Where we get to improvise is in how we play those notes, and the opening cadenzas are what I often use to illustrate that point. I’ll play the first statement five different ways using different fingerings and dynamics, and different places to speed up and slow down. There are so many approaches you can take that are all effective. Eventually you do have to make a decision, but when you are in the moment on stage you might have a spontaneous inspiration and play it slightly differently then you had planned. And that is where classical musicians get to improvise.

MT: Have you worked with the conductor, Ryan McAdams, before?

RBP: I have not worked with Ryan but I am very eager to meet him and of course all of my other colleagues in the orchestra. It will be rewarding, because instead of just playing it on one or two nights, we get to play it five nights. I think it is going to be cool to see how it evolves with the same team getting to play it over and over again.

MT: I’m very curious to learn about your band, “Earthen Grave”, and since I know just enough about “Metal” to be dangerous, I’ll let you tell me what you think I should know.

RBP: We’re a pretty typical metal band and we play a style which is a combination of “Doom”, and “Thrash” metal. Doom metal tends to be very dark and has weighty lyrics that talk about the state of the world that we live in. Thrash metal is very virtuosic and driving. And the fact that we combine elements of both enables our compositions to have a dramatic range to them. It’s serious metal, musically speaking, and our lyrics are not cheesy party songs. When I say party I mean the things that people say heavy metal espouses, like values that aren’t commendable. Serious metal tries to get into the weighty issues about the human experience.

We have a typical membership, drums, bass, two guitars, vocals and a violin. There are other metal bands that use violin but typically it plays soaring lines on top of what the guitars are doing, or textural passages underneath as an added layer. What we are doing is unique because the violin is the lead guitar and I’ll often play the big solo although we do trade off solos between the three of us. I don’t play above or below the band, I join in on the riffs as an equal partner. Many times we play in three-part harmony as well. So the violin is really integrated into the DNA of the band in a way that hasn’t been done quite like this before.

MT: Fascinating! What will audiences hear at Saturday’s concert?

RBP: You're going to hear Earthen Grave in a slightly different configuration because we are leaving our drummer behind and playing a semi acoustic set which will give it a chamber music feel. We’ll play a bunch of our original songs along with some of our favorite covers. I’ll be playing my six-string flying V and we’ll use electric bass. But the two guitarists will be using acoustic instruments as opposed to solid bodies, so we won’t have the pedals. You’ve heard of MTV unplugged?

MT: Oh yes, and I’ve seen many of the shows.

RBP: As a classical musician I always laugh because they still are plugged in, but when the rock world says acoustic they mean something different. To me, acoustic means you have a violin and a bow and you’re ready to go, so if you have an amp involved how is that acoustic? But I think everybody knows what that means. I think it will be fun and people who are rock music fans will get a rock band. But people who come to the orchestra concert who don’t normally go to rock concerts and want to go across the street and give it a try, playing a semi-acoustic set is going to be a little less daunting for them.

We do have a special guest for this performance, my little sister, Hannah Barton. She’s twelve years younger than me and she also plays the violin. She’s a freelancer in the Chicago area, but she also plays metal on her electric seven-string flying V.

We are going to do a set of seven original songs, then Hannah and I will do four duets, of covers of the bands Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, and some Vivaldi transcribed for two extended range electric violins. Following that we’ll play four more covers with the entire band.

MT: It’s interesting that you chose to describe the concert as having a more chamber music feel to it.

RBP: [laughing] There was a Chamber Music America conference a few years back that was trying to define what chamber music is. They were discussing all of these questions of perameter like how many players, and can a conductor be involved? The conversation inspired a New York Times article with a headline that read “Is Bon Jovi Chamber Music?” But it is provocative to think about what chamber music means and who qualifies. But as we’ve been rehearsing this semi-acoustic version of the band I would say that it qualifies as chamber music.

MT: Musically speaking how have things changed?

RBP: Well the rhythmic element is interesting. When you have drums it’s almost like you’re playing against a metronome: the drums hammer out the beat and you play on top of that beat. But with the drummer absent we do have to cue each other and breathe together, and do all of those things I would do if I were playing with a string quartet.

MT: Do you participate in writing songs for the band?

RBP: Yes, and it’s interesting to be part of the collaborative song writing experience. One of us comes up with a riff and another person comes up with another riff and we see how we want to string them together. The fact that we are literally writing the songs as a team is a fascinating experience that I feel so lucky to have a chance to be a part of.

The other interesting thing about playing with the band is that during a classical music concert people want to be quiet when they are listening, and while you can kind of feel if the audience is with you, you don’t know 100% for sure until you reach the end of a piece, and see if they applaud enthusiastically or merely politely. But in rock you get real time feedback. If the audience is into what you are doing they will come closer to the stage and they’ll head bang more, and you can think about what you are doing right. But if they are just standing there you can think of what to do differently. And because of these experiences I feel like I have become a better communicator and I have been able to bring some of those lessons to the classical context. It has made me a better performer, but needless to say, you won’t see me head banging during the Bruch!

MT: Thanks so much for talking. I think you should head bang during the Bruch!