Nick Vasallo on the ties between medieval music and heavy metal

oblivion in performance

On March 4, Elevate is presenting the second and final commission of the season from our composer-in-residence Nick Vasallo. Titled then, in oblivion…, the piece draws inspirations from medieval France, J.S. Bach and thrash metal guitar. then, in oblivion… is also a milestone piece for Nick, for reasons he explains in the interview below. Get your tickets today, then read on to learn more about this exciting new composition. 

Give us the “big picture” overview of your new piece. What can we look forward to hearing?

then, in oblivion… is in three movements, and each uses a theme from a different composer.

The first composer, Guillaume de Machaut, is most known for his chanson “Puis qu’en oubli”. Google Translate interpreted this phrase (wrongly) as “then in oblivion.” Hence, the title of the piece. The second movement is based on J.S. Bach’s theme from Art of Fugue. And the last movement is a guitar riff written by Ted O’Neill, my friend and bandmate in Oblivion. Ted is one of the few remaining authentic thrash metalheads from the 1980s.

In all of these movements, I warp the stylistic tendencies of each composer and their material while injecting my own musical decisions. In the end, we hear music from the Middle Ages, Baroque, and modern era fused and distorted as one.

Why did you use the incorrect translation as the title?

I just thought it was funny! I literally Googled the title in my phone and the translation struck me because the band that Ted and I are in is called Oblivion.

Why did you choose these three very different musical inspirations for your piece?

I started with Machaut because of a collaboration I am doing with my fellow artistic directors at Composers, Inc. We decided to use the Machaut to jointly compose a set of variations. So that was step one, but I wanted to write a three-movement piece.

After that, I thought about counterpoint as a social phenomenon; how at the end of each major period in western music there was an increase in polyphonic writing and complexity, which was then contrasted by a reactionary period that prizes simplicity.

I thought I would map that transition out with emblematic composers from each period. I was going to choose Machaut, Bach, and Beethoven but decided that it was too cliché. So I reflected some more and decided that it makes sense to draw up a sort of “super-period” from Machaut to Bach to popular music. In then, in oblivion…, you hear Bach’s counterpoint, which is quite dense and complex, contrasted with the single-line melodic writing of thrash metal.

As a bandmate, Ted obviously has had a large musical significance for you. Have Bach and Machaut played a similar inspirational role?

It’s hard to not have been inspired by Bach I think for anyone that took Music Theory.

That’s what everyone says, but I’m that one weird guy who was always like, “Meh… Bach, I can take it or leave it.”

Haha, that is weird! But then maybe you’ll appreciate my approach. Some say Bach’s music is perfection, but I was interested in “imperfecting” his work with this piece.

That sounds more up my alley! What about Machaut?

Machaut has a more tangential influence on me. In grad school I really got into the music of Nancarrow and Ligeti, who both use temporal [time-based] relationships in their late-period piano music. For them, their influence in part was from the 14th-century Ars Nova guys, like Machaut. Another indirect influence for me in this piece comes from Arvo Part. He too was inspired from the old contrapuntists of the Middle Ages.

So musically speaking, how do you connect thrash metal with 14th-century a cappella singing?

It’s largely about the cultural and creative context. An exercise I enjoyed doing to prep for my doctoral exams was making disparate musical connections—John Cage with Chopin, for example. These days, I teach this exercise to PhD and DMA candidates when I help prep them for their exams too.

Connecting thrash metal to 14th-century a cappella singing is pretty challenging. It might be more appropriate to think of Machaut as Ars Nova rather than just a cappella singing. In both Ars Nova and Thrash Metal, a greater independence of rhythm was accomplished than what came before. Music in both respective genres beforehand was more rigid and fixed. Music prior to Ars Nova actually had fixed rhythmic modes, for example. You see a similar relationship between Thrash Metal and its predecessors in hardcore punk and British heavy metal.

In both cases, Thrash and Ars Nova were highly rhythmic and syncopated when compared to the styles that preceded them. Both genres also had a major impact across several subsequent genres.

You said this will be one of your last compositions for a while. Can you talk a bit about why that is?

When Elevate Ensemble approached me about being their Composer-in-Residence for the 2016-2017 season, I didn’t know that it would be a keystone in my compositional career. I have been composing at a steady rate for 10 years; I’ve written over 50 concert works since 2007.

After I finished Atum in August 2016, I felt like it marked a major pillar in my work thus far. I also felt something I have never felt before; the need to rest my (compositional) voice.

That’s fair, and also probably very healthy artistically. But why now in particular?

Around the end of graduate school in 2010, I began a new way of composing. It’s a lot like binge-writing. It isn’t for everyone as I spend a lot of time just meditating and pondering the entirety of a work. I don’t listen to music in the car or at home, I just daydream and get lost in my own head. I don’t even write a single note until I have the complete picture in my mind. Then, I shut out the world completely and focus on getting it all out. Like there is something in my body that needs to be expelled or my soul cannot rest. This is a relatively short period of binge-composing and it can become very taxing on your surrounding life.

In 2013, I became a father to a wonderful, beautiful, and happy child named Madison. I know it sounds cliché, but it really was the best thing to ever happen to me. Definitely gave me a new purpose in life.

Then in October 2016, my wife Denise and I had a second child, Lucas. My heart leans towards them more and more everyday. Time is a commodity that is getting harder for me to monetize. In order to finish a lot of the major works I’ve written since 2013, I have had to be apart from my family for weeks at a time. For Atum, Madison and Denise left me alone at home for four days. I had to exude 18 minutes of music in that short period of time. It was intense.

So spending time with your kids is a big part of this.

Yes, especially in those crucial early years.

I also feel that with Atum, the intense side of my personal style was crystallized. Bruce Lee talked about this, how he went through a personal crisis before eventually creating Jeet Kune Do, his own approach to martial arts. That story has been influential for me.

Over the past few years, I’ve detached myself from the metal world. That is where music started for me. Perhaps venturing back into it will jostle things up inside. Martial arts have ebbed and flowed in my life. I seem to reach out to it at pivotal points in my life, and I feel complete again practicing it.

Well I hope that this pivot leads to new and exciting discoveries for you, and that Elevate will get to have you back again before too long.

Thanks. I really have an affinity for Elevate Ensemble and its mission. I am gracious and honored to be able to write music for gifted people to play. I’ve never lost that feeling. I feel like this residency has marked a major pillar in my work thus far.

The feeling is mutual. We can’t wait to hear your new piece in March.

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Get your tickets today to hear this crystallization of Nick’s unique compositional voice, as well as other amazing pieces by local Bay Area composers and our call-for-scores winner Jennifer Bellor.