Popular Music influences in the compositions of Matthew Hindson
This was an essay paper submitted by Eleanor Lewis as part of an “Australian Music” seminar undertaken at the University of Sydney Music Department. It gives a good introduction and overview to a number of works written by Matthew Hindson as of 1998.
Throughout history, a fusion of musical styles can often be perceived when the popular music of the day influences the so-called “serious” music. Examples include the music of Brahms, Bartok, Dvorak and Kodaly, to name just four, each of whom were influenced by the folk music of their own or other regions, incorporating heard melodies into large-scale orchestral or chamber works. Today the tradition continues, but with a difference. Sydney composer Matthew Hindson is leading a new musical crusade to draw together seemingly the most disparate forms of Western culture – “art” music and the grunge/techno/heavy metal music so prevalent at the raves and dance parties of Australian cities. Judging from the reactions of audiences to his latest orchestral works, Hindson’s efforts are proving to be a popular mix, particularly with younger audiences.
There can be no doubt that popular music is one of the strongest influences at work in the compositions of Matthew Hindson. A short perusal of his works to date reveals such titles as Elvis, Homage to Metallica and Techno Logic, names which clearly demonstrate their immediate popular-music inspiration. However, it is not just the music but the gamut of popular culture which fascinates Hindson, as seen by the titles Rave-Elation and GameBoy Music, each of which have their roots in readily identifiable (at least to the contemporary Australian) symbols of modern culture, particularly the culture of youth. Yet Hindson’s work probes still deeper into the realms of modern culture, to the outcomes and effects of these symbols of the age, and to other aspects of our society not related to artistic trends, but to the contemporary mindset. This can be seen in works covering subjects from the prevalence of guns in our society (The Power of the Gun, AK-47, SCUD) to the trends of drug use (SPEED, In Search of Ecstasy), issues of personal security (Mace) and the psychology of the murderer (The Rage Within). It should be noted that these titles do not necessarily indicate that the works attached to them are programmatic or descriptive, rather that Hindson draws his inspiration from aspects of the world around him.
In examining the titles of Hindson’s works, it is of course only possible to make very superficial judgements about the influence of popular culture in his music, yet such a study reveals a striking array of images relevant to today’s society. Obviously the starting points for the works Elvis and Homage to Metallica were two icons of the popular music industry. Prior to composing Elvis (1991), Hindson completed Two Variations on ‘Love Me Tender’ for young orchestra and Teddy Bear for small ensemble, apparently prompting comments that he seemed to have a fascination for Elvis Presley. As Hindson writes:
- “…why not? This piece explores both Elvis’s songs and their connections with elements of his own life.”
The compositional style of Elvis is neither an imitation of Presley’s own songs nor an attempt to represent his style. Instead, the work is an examination of the enormous populist cult which has grown around the name of Elvis. Hindson writes:
“Although it sounds like a terrible clichÃ©, the death of Elvis in 1977 was felt as a shock throughout the world, even to those who had known the man and his habits for years and who had witnessed him near death many times due to his extreme abuse…The immediate result of Elvis’ death was for tens of thousands of his fans to gather at Gracelands (his Memphis residence), mourning with profound and unbelievably hysterical grief, sending floral tributes, and amongst other things, writing bad poetry dedicated to their ‘King’.”
This mass outpouring of sentiment and grief is of great interest to Hindson, and an interesting parallel can now be drawn between Elvis and Hindson’s Lament for cello and piano, written in 1996. Lament is a huge departure in style from the rest of Hindson’s compositional output, a slow, intensely emotional and lyrical work. The programme notes state:
- Lament was written not long after the memorial service for the victims of the Port Arthur massacre of May, 1996. It is not so much a direct response to this event in particular, but rather an attempt to capture the feeling of immense sadness that was present at this, and indeed every other, funeral service.
- The cello part has been ‘set’ to the text of The Lord is my Shepherd, a religious text that was used at the memorial service for the Port Arthur victims.”
Reading Hindson’s own words about each piece, it becomes clear that in both Elvis and Lament, the composer’s primary motivation is an exploration of a mass sentiment, or how pivotal events in history can create a wave of feeling which is capable of bringing people together. It is a phenomenon seen recently with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and surely Elton John’s new version of Candle in the Wind will be only the first of many artistic reactions to an event which so clearly affected a great number of people.
In contrast with Elvis, Homage to Metallica is intended as a celebration of the achievements of the heavy metal rock band, Metallica and other exponents of the genre. Hindson seeks to evoke the character of heavy metal music, in particular, to quote the composer:
- “…the extreme sense of theatricality, virtuosity, rhythmic energy that is so representative of this style.”
Upon listening to the work, there can be little doubt that Hindson has successfully achieved an orchestral representation of these dominant characteristics of heavy metal music. As the present writer has not seen a live performance of Homage to Metallica, it is difficult to assess the extent of visual theatricality in the work, but the aural experience is so exciting that the listener cannot help but be swept along, and it would be very surprising if this effect were not also felt in the concert hall. The work is certainly virtuosic. The most obvious example of this is the solo violin part (performed on a 1/8th size violin with a contact microphone attached) in which the performer is confronted by an onslaught of unrelenting scrubbing combined with sections for improvisation, wild vibrato and ‘elastic’ intonation. The effect here is equivalent to that of a lead guitar in the role of frenzied soloist, an effect heightened by the peculiar sound quality of the tiny, miked instrument and the instructions to distort the sound through heavy use of the bow and approximate pitch, thus creating a resemblance to the distortion of an electric guitar. The rhythmic energy which characterises the heavy metal genre is also very much in evidence in the solo violin line as part of its virtuosity.
The orchestra as a whole indulges in various quasi-heavy metal effects, including pitch bending, glissandi and, for the strings, the use of maximum bow pressure to achieve “noise effect”, as it is labelled in the score. Nevertheless, the entire score is not devoted to an exploration of white noise. A solo viola introduces a reflective and haunting theme from bar 56 which is eventually taken up by the entire orchestra. This is a departure from the expectations raised by the title of the work, and a demonstration of Hindson’s interest in going beyond mere transference of heavy metal techniques from band to orchestra. Roger Covell writes that:
“Hindson seems to be paying tribute to the ability of Metallica to invent variations on stereotyped heavy metal formulas and its capacity for stepping outside the implications of its generic label.”
Similarly, Homage to Metallica is not easily labelled, as it significantly blurs the lines between the seemingly incompatible “art” and heavy metal music.
Two other orchestral works by Hindson received significant exposure in July 1997. SPEED, composed in 1995, received its premiere in Hobart on July 26th, and Rave-Elation, a work commissioned by Youth Music Australia, was a significant item on the newImages touring program of the combined Cameratas Australia and Scotland, a tour covering much of Australia and Great Britain. In these works, Hindson turns his attention to the “techno” genre of music which dominates dance parties and raves. At the beginning of the score of Speed can be found the following definitions, or perhaps more accurately, connotations:
record-breakingly fast velocity, rapidly executed activity, juggernaut-like motion, driving in a hurry, a fast-talker, the pace of modern life, amphetamine-based drugs…
As Linda Kouvaras explains in her programme notes to the work, any or all of the above interpretations can be placed on the music.
“Hindson conversely – perversely even – celebrates both the idea of the deepest, philosophical contemplation…as well as the full gamut of postmodern life with all its ever-accelerating, all-senses-impacting, jolting sensation of rush.”
It is in SPEED that Hindson’s preoccupation with the importance of recognising underground culture within mainstream culture becomes most apparent. According to the composer, SPEED “started out as a techno piece for orchestra, and largely remains that.” On a technical level, this is achieved in the outer sections of the piece through use of “a mainly steady beat, many parallel triads flavouring the harmony, and of course a fast to very fast tempo.” More generally, Hindson has tried to achieve the hard-core energy and freneticism which characterise techno music, thus challenging the performers to cultivate the necessary stamina achieved by “ravers”. In contrast, however, the middle section contains a series of overtly romantic solos, cadenza-like in style and centred around the harp, musical symbols of the height of nineteenth-century romanticism in stark contrast with the unrelenting MIDI Drum Kit which powers the outer sections. It is a contrast, however, which is part of a unified structure and as such typifies Hindson’s efforts to unite the musically disparate.
On a secondary level, and again linked to the title of the work, Kouvaras explains underground culture as it relates to SPEED:
“Linked with techno music through the rave party scene are the murky speed/ecstasy types of drugs. While this association is of secondary importance to the inspiration and intended effect of the piece, Hindson captures a sense of the psycho-physical consequences induced by these drugs: invincibility/indestructibility, ecstasy, hyperactivity, paranoia, and again, stamina.”
Therefore, Hindson has again looked beyond the purely musical influences to the deeper significance and effects upon society wrought by the exponents of the rave and dance-party culture.
Rave-Elation, while very reminiscent of SPEED in its compositional technique, lacks the harsher edge of its predecessor. A slicker, more refined style at times seems to owe more to the Hollywood blockbuster than underground culture, with huge movie-climax melodies a feature amongst the otherwise frenetic instrumentation. Here Hindson demonstrates the influence upon his music of a more mainstream popular culture. When interviewed about Rave-Elation, Hindson stated:
“I like music to be really in-your-face and really at you…I don’t like the aggressive chip-on-your-shoulder attitude of rap. I like music to be really up.”
It is not possible to discuss here the enormous influence popular culture has exercised over the entire compositional output of Matthew Hindson. However,’ three major works mentioned above – Homage to Metallica, SPEED and Rave-Elation – all received performances in major concert hall venues around Australia and Great Britain in 1997. Each of the pieces was greeted with enormous enthusiasm from packed audiences, “…a degree of enthusiasm from the audience” wrote Stephen Whittington “which is relatively rare, alas, for contemporary music.” The music of Matthew Hindson is drawing a younger audience back to the concert halls of Australia, and this can only be a healthy sign for the future of live music in this country. Could we now be seeing a return to a time when the “serious” music of the concert platform is indistinguishable from “popular” music? Perhaps not – only time will tell – but certainly when “art” music and popular music overlap as they do in the compositions of Matthew Hindson, the results, both artistic and commercial, are to be strongly encouraged.
Covell, R., ‘A quiet homage to heavy metal’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25th August, 1997.
Hindson, M., Programme Notes for Elvis, 5th Anniversary Concert, The Contemporary Singers.
Hindson, M., Performance Notes for Homage to Metallica, no publisher given, 1993 (revised 1997).
Hindson, M., Programme Notes for Lament, Jean-Luc NapolÃ©on III Press, Burwood, 1996.
Hindson, M., Programme Notes for Rave-Elation, Jean-Luc NapolÃ©on III Press, Burwood, 1997.
Kouvaras, L., Programme Notes for Speed, Jean-Luc NapolÃ©on III Press, Burwood,