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Sandy Pearlman is a little bit Bruckner and Don McLean is not the least bit heavy metal, but their seemingly disparate musical worlds will collide in the classroom when they team up to teach a new and unique graduate course, Bruckner and Heavy Metal: From Chord Power to Power Chord.
What could a 19th-century Austrian symphony composer possibly have in common with the guitar-shredding, devil-horn-salute world of heavy metal? Surely, the two have no more in common than Pearlman — a visiting scholar at McGill's Schulich School of Music best known as the legendary producer of Blue Öyster Cult, the Clash and others — and McLean, dean of the Schulich school and a music theorist whose expertise owes more to Heinrich Schenker of Poland than Rudy Schenker of the Scorpions.
"We see virtuosity as one of the overlaps between the two," McLean explained, offering as an example the dense sonority and intensity of some of Anton Bruckner's compositions — particularly when applied to string instrumentation — that are also hallmarks of heavy metal and similarly intense, guitar-based musical styles.
"Bruckner's symphonies have a lot of these lush, orchestral movements that are very hard on young string musicians," he continued, raising his hands to simulate a violin playing at lightning speed. "The energy, skill level and physical virtuosity involved in doing this for ages and not really knowing how to relax can actually induce repetitive strain syndrome."
Suddenly, the image of Ace Frehley on his back at a KISS concert with flames shooting out of his guitar makes a little more musical sense. And that's the kind of thing Sandy Pearlman knows inside and out.
Described by Billboard magazine's Producers' Directory as "the Hunter Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision," Pearlman is gonzo enough to have been played by Christopher Walken in Saturday Night Live's infamous skit on the making of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," which Pearlman produced for Blue Öyster Cult.
Pearlman is credited with actually coining the term "heavy metal" while paying his way through school as an editor and writer at Crawdaddy magazine in the early 1970s.
As far as he knows, he's also the only record producer to have held a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in the history of ideas, not to mention a New School fellowship in sociology and anthropology. He also happens to be well versed in Bruckner's work.
"This is kind of the golden age of Bruckner and the transmission line is film music," said Pearlman. In addition to the high-pitched tremolo string riff familiar to horror movie fans as the universal tip-off that something scary is about to happen, Bruckner's influence can be heard in the scores of Hollywood composers John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws) and Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), notes Pearlman.
Add to that the fact that Bruckner, who began his musical career as an organist —playing "the most powerful instrument of its time" — and the sheer weight and depth of his many layers of sound, and you've got a "proto-sample-master" whose obvious modern-day doppelganger is heavy metal.
"With technology now able to make one player sound like 130 players, heavy metal wound up modelling Bruckner," said Pearlman.
McLean and Pearlman will teach the course as a graduate seminar in music theory, with an enrolment limit of 15 students of music or other disciplines, as well as a parallel, undergraduate elective course open to up to 100 students.
In addition to studying Bruckner symphonies and the works of Faust and Wagner, the lucky few will get to mine Pearlman's extensive experience in the music industry.
"I remember being at the Café Au Go Go listening to a young guitar player named Jimmy James, who later went to England, discovered acid and became Jimi Hendrix," Pearlman recalled.
"This is Sandy's personal history," said McLean. "He was there — but more than that, he has the acuity to understand and elucidate that history. He's someone who was there and gets it."
Besides, he said, "I can't do this alone.
I'm a musical analyst. Everything I've done is A plus B equals C. Maybe after teaching this class with Sandy, I'll be a little more heavy metal."
Rock production legend Sandy Pearlman and Dean of Music Don McLean will mix high-brow and headbanging in their course on Bruckner and heavy metal.
At the recent Future of Music policy summit hosted by McGill's Schulich School of Music, record producer and visiting scholar Sandy Pearlman moderated a panel discussion titled "What's Wrong with Music?" Now, McGill students will be asked to ponder the same question and come up with solutions in a new multidisciplinary graduate course that Pearlman has helped develop.
"They'll get a series of overview lectures on the various elements involved — content, copyright law, dissemination tools — and then we'll turn them loose" to come up with a new business model for the music industry, Pearlman explained.
"McGill has expertise in all of these areas and this is an opportunity to bring them all together," he said.
Students will be asked to propose a viable framework specifically for the Chinese market — where black-marketing and pirating of music is pervasive — because "if it works in China, it can certainly work here," said Don McLean, dean of the Schulich School of Music, along with Pearlman, one of several McGill professors and invited guests who will share teaching duties.
Pearlman hopes to attract graduate students from Management, Music, Law and other faculties to the multidisciplinary course, which will be offered through the Dobson Centre of the Desautels Faculty of Management. It will start in January 2007 and run to the end of March.
The course is as yet untitled, though Pearlman is partial to the "Treble Cliff" suggested by Dobson Director David Lank. Another, perhaps less catchy working title is "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: the remonitization of music and other promiscuously transportable media objects."
Pearlman is famous — or, as he gleefully admits, infamous — for proposing five-cent downloads as a way of ensuring artists actually get paid for their work in an age when consumers increasingly expect free access to music via the Internet.
"The five cents was to set a price point at something marginally larger than zero," he said, adding the idea for the new course came out of conversations with Harvard Law Professor Terry Fisher, a proponent of taxing Internet access and the sale of mp3 players to pay artists based on how often their music is downloaded.
Neither idea necessarily represents an ideal solution, stressed Pearlman, but a group of McGill's best and brightest just might come up with one that does.