Obsessive Listening

by Harry Stafylakis  ¦   October 19 2017


New York City-based composer Harry Stafylakis is Composer-in-Residence of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Festival Director of the Winnipeg New Music Festival.


Though the Norwegian progressive metal band Leprous caught my attention a few years ago, they got buried in the shuffle and I didn’t notice when their fourth album, The Congregation, dropped in 2015. A few months ago, I came across the album as I was loading music on my phone in preparation for summer travels. By the time I’d set up camp for a residency at the I-Park Foundation in Connecticut, where I’d compose two new orchestral works for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, The Congregation had floated to the top of my listening list. Leprous’s sound hooked me and wouldn’t let go. Hyperactive, glitchy rhythms contrast with long-range minimal textures and patient polymetric cycles; dramatic harmonic sensibilities anchor agile, angular, and endlessly infections vocal lines; the sonic palette blends incisive modern metal tones and warm, tactile orchestrational layers.

Leprous – “From the Flame”, Malina (2017)

My neurotic listening habits have interesting repercussions. It colors my experience of life events, with certain albums becoming associated with entire experiential periods. I become so intimate with the music that it inevitably seeps into my demeanor, my way of engaging with the world – and of course, into my music. Even the color palettes of the album art seem to superimpose a filter over my vision for the duration of the obsession. Some composers may rail against unconscious musical influences; I cherish them, and value those musics all the more for their inherent power to infiltrate my conscious defenses.

Delving into deeper memory, it’s clear that obsessive listening/viewing/reading has always been my preferred way to engage with cultural artifacts. When it comes to music, I’ve never been one to listen broadly. Though I periodically go through exploratory phases, wherein I listen to high volumes of wide musical varieties, it’s always with the goal of discovering something that will hook me, that will become my new obsession, my new fix. Whether it’s plumbing the depths of contemporary art music, gleefully exploring country and bluegrass during trips to the American South, or browsing the pop hits du jour to stay aware of my cultural milieu, I keep hoping to hear something that makes me react the way I do when I experience sensory bliss at a Michelin-starred restaurant – that profound warmth settling inside, the inadvertent smile that creeps across my face, the hazily formed thought: “Oh. This is f***ing good.”

An early such experience (sans the profanity, probably) came to me as a child when, following an elementary school trip to hear the Montreal Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven, I came to my next piano lesson with eyes wide, insisting – to my teacher’s barely-concealed amusement – that that’s what I wanted to play. (She promptly supplied me with a solo piano arrangement of the Fifth. That was the happiest I’d ever been at the piano.)

After discovering The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Michael Jackson on the radio as a child, I badgered my parents into buying me my first three CDs (Magical Mystery Tour, a greatest hits collection, and Dangerous, respectively). This led to a growing fascination with pop and rock music, first with the likes of Bon Jovi, Alanis Morissette, and Aerosmith, on to the grunge wave with Bush, Soundgarden, and Nirvana, and ere long latching onto mainstream metal with Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Pantera. That progression of obsessions – which in hindsight traced a clear trajectory of increasing aural intensity – finally led me to various extreme metal subgenres: tech, death, black, and especially progressive metal.

Opeth – “Porcelain Heart”, Watershed (2007)

For over a decade, I obsessively listened to everything released by Opeth, Symphony X, Dream Theater, Nevermore, Death, Spiral Architect, and their ilk. I learned every nuance of this music that is at once extreme in its aural assault and subtle in its structural and stylistic intricacies. I spent countless hours rifling through discs at record shops, roaming the P2P ecosystem, and seeking out like-minded friends’ recommendations, hoping to expand my pool of musical obsessions – but love is selective, and few artists made the cut after brief affairs.

It was a revelation for me when, after having tried and mostly failed to get into the Swedish band Meshuggah – a favorite of the underground metal scene since the mid-‘90s – a student of mine recommended I check out Periphery and TesseracT, two upstart bands that had adapted elements of Meshuggah’s uniquely brutal and complex style in a more texturally rich and hook-laden environment. This new development in progressive metal was dubbed “djent”, a term that was coined as an onomatopoeia for a particular guitar sound, and has since been slung around by critics as a pejorative and adopted by fans as a proud moniker (much akin to “baroque” a few centuries earlier). My ensuing obsession with key artists of this sub-sub-genre – Meshuggah, Periphery, TesseracT, Animals As Leaders, Leprous – settled in just as I’d moved to New York to begin my doctorate and subsequently became the subject of my dissertation. (And what a pleasure it was to spend years focusing my graduate studies on a style of music that is often dismissed as “noise” by the uninitiated. That was a fun SSHRC application to write.)

TesseracT – “Of Mind – Nocturne”, Altered State (2013)

These artists took progressive metal’s high art aspirations, commitment to technical mastery, and fascination with complex rhythm within a heavily groove-oriented sound world to new heights depths. One need only observe Tomas Haake (Meshuggah) or Matt Garstka (Animals As Leaders) at the drum set to gain an appreciation for the near-inhuman precision, stamina, and elegant violence that this deceptively intricate music relies on to achieve its visceral impact.

Meshuggah – “Clockworks”, The Violent Sleep of Reason (2016) (drum play-through)


Animals As Leaders – “Arithmophobia”, The Madness of Many (2016)

This at once deep and narrow immersion into specific musical idiolects has been instrumental in forming my musical persona. I often find it difficult to concisely describe my own music to people – “It’s…sort of symphonic classical music with a metal sensibility. Or progressive metal adapted for classical instruments. Or something like that…” Those statements are both true and untrue. I don’t try to mine elements of the musics with which I’ve had obsessive relationships; that fusion inevitably happens unconsciously, as if the light of my inchoate musical ideas has to pass through a series of musical prisms installed in my brain at various points in my life before reaching the page.

Karnivool – “We Are”, Asymmetry (2013)


Of course, a lot has been left out of this account. Having been raised within Montreal’s Hellenic community, traditional Greek music (and its Balkan & Middle Eastern cousins) forms an important substrate of my musical makeup, as does the high-Romantic/early-Modern symphonic tradition I became enamored with (notably Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and early Stravinsky) even as I was pursuing a career as a metal musician and producer. All of these cultural pools have been subject to my zealous attention for significant periods of time. That’s to say nothing of film music, a preoccupation that has run in parallel to the others, from my early fascination with John Williams and Danny Elfman to my deep appreciation of Hans Zimmer’s visionary work of the past decade.

But those are stories for a future installment. It would almost feel like a betrayal if I didn’t at some point discuss how the films of Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and Charlie Kaufman inform my handling of musical structure and narrative drama, or how Louis C.K.’s and Mike Birbiglia’s standup comedy albums influence my approach to pacing, orchestration, misdirection, and transitional sleight of hand. For now I’ll keep those thoughts to myself (and foist them on unsuspecting students during composition seminars).

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