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Maestro of Puppets

Michael Kamen Conducts Metallica's Symphony for the Devil

by Greg Heller

Composer, arranger, songwriter, recording artist and conductor Michael Kamen has a fairly impressive resume. In addition to his classical duties with symphonies from London to San Francisco, he's scored over 60 films, from Brazil to Die Hard (and both sequels); arranged music for Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, David Bowie and Eric Clapton; wrote the largest selling single of all time, "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," for Bryan Adams; won two of the nine Grammies for which he's been nominated; has been nominated for two Oscars, four Golden Globes, and an Emmy. In short, if this Metallica symphony thing fails miserably, he'll still be able to get work.

Is there something in particular about Metallica's music that lends itself to this kind of endeavor?

Its sheer power and energy. That kind of energy is something orchestras really need a sample of. And the delicacy and nuance of an orchestra is something that Metallica are eager to experience.

In listening to and orchestrating Metallica's music, do you find they evoke a certain composer?

Certain sections feel in the mold of a Shostakovich symphony--driving, threatening, gloriously big sounds. There's one bit in "Call of Ktulu" that actually sounds to me like Brahms. It's passionate.

How do you figure the average Metallica fan will react to symphonic music? Will there be moshing in the aisles?

I doubt it will be as aggressive as it was in Paris in 1913, when Stravinsky premiered "The Rite of Spring." People were vociferously objecting to what they were hearing on an intellectual level and actual fights broke out in the audience. No one will fight over this; this is meant to draw people together.

Do you think it's realistic to imagine that there will actually be fans crossing over here: Metallica fans rushing out to buy Handel's "Messiah" or symphony fans rushing out to buy Ride the Lightening ?

The average symphony goer, no. But I don't think we're interested in the average symphony goer. The average symphony goer is a very nice person who loves repertoire and treats the orchestra with reverence and loves Beethoven and Brahms, classical music that's brilliant and relevant to our feelings but was written a couple of hundred years ago. But it's time to make sure that orchestras remain relevant in this day and age. That doesn't mean they have to play heavy metal, but orchestras in general have to figure out how to make more of an event out of their concerts if they want to keep attracting an audience. That's become a big problem. The legacy and the traditions of music have to be brought forward by the generation of musicians who are currently alive, and I think that's a very brave step for Metallica.

How do you think audiences from the days of Haydn or Shostakovich would've reacted to Metallica's music?

People would have been scared shitless.

Will there be times when a solo Kirk normally plays will be turned over to a cellist or violinist?

No, not quite. The whole orchestra will join in on the lick with Kirk and suddenly the guitar solo will be amplified by the entire woodwind section or the entire horn section. Sometimes he'll play his part and the orchestra will "comment" on it, like a conversation.

Is there a certain instrument or section of the orchestra that's most difficult to fit into the Metallica context?

The percussion section. Who needs time kept when you've got the best drummer in the world playing like a clock? Lars is incredible. An orchestra supplies rhythm and color, but in this case, they'll almost always be supplying color. Every once and a while, there will be a big hit to add a certain accent, but we don't need them to make a groove. The groove is in the band and the orchestra is floating on top of that. In the sense that it's not a machine, the orchestra will be adding a very human emotion to this metal, monolithic image.

Will it be difficult to "keep perfect time" with this coupling? What if Metallica fall behind the orchestra or vice versa?

Metallica are never out of time. They really aren't--I'm not just saying that. I'm making sequences in a computer to live tapes that Metallica have given me. I feed them in and I have to set a click track [metronome] to the existing song. Nine times out of ten, when I find the rate and begin when they begin the song, it will click perfectly without any change all the way through the song, and that's sometimes 12 minutes long. That's the secret reason why people say Metallica play "solid rock." The symphony has more of an elastic sense of time. They play "phrases"; they don't play bars. And they will shift. The great news about musicians is that our first job is to listen. Listen to what the people around you are doing. Certainly Metallica respond to each other, the orchestra will respond to them and Metallica will respond to the orchestra.

There's no sense among some of the musicians in the orchestra that there's a little blasphemy in using their classical training to jam "Enter Sandman?"

I've been with orchestras that were skeptical to play rock 'n' roll, even rock as relatively gentile and melodic, compared to Metallica, as say Eric Clapton or Pink Floyd. There is a kind of horror within the orchestra about whether they can create something relevant to say in this context, and they depend on me to give it to them. But I've seen many times now, orchestral players looking on with admiration as they watch Eric's fingers go and up and down the guitar neck just if they were watching [noted violinist] Pinchas Zukerman fingering a difficult passage in a Brahms concerto. You can see the string players looking, saying "How is he doing that?" There's a great respect among musicians for proficiency and the power of statement. I don't think any musician on that stage will have anything but the highest respect for one another.

Should people smoke pot before this thing?

Only if they share.