By Thomas May | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
Stickers for Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax are emblazoned on the case that contains Rachel Barton Pine’s signature “ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat” Joseph Guarneri del Gesù from 1742. The charismatic violinist doesn’t just defy categories. Her life as an artist is fueled by omnivorous curiosity, which Pine combines with searing musical intelligence and an impeccable virtuosity—all in the service of finding a deep connection to her audience.
The span of Pine’s interests reinforces the inadequacy of the catch-all label “classical music.” Her commitment to early music alone ranges from the medieval period to rediscovered gems of the Baroque. Pine, who celebrates her milestone 50th birthday later this year, has recorded acclaimed interpretations of standard classical repertoire but is also an avid champion of contemporary composers. Her prolific discography, which comprises more than 30 albums to date, additionally documents the violinist’s passion for Chicago blues, Scottish fiddling, and heavy metal.
The last of these is the impetus behind Pine’s latest album, Dependent Arising, recorded with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) under conductor Tito Muñoz and released last summer on her long-term label, Cedille. The title comes from a concerto that New York City–based violinist, violist, and arranger/composer Earl Maneein was commissioned to write for Pine. Pairing this brand-new concerto with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, she explores the aesthetic intersection between heavy metal and a landmark of the 20th-century concerto repertoire.
The tirelessly animated Pine sat down with me backstage last fall during a break from rehearsal with the RSNO for the first of two dates in Scotland, in which she played a warmly elegiac account of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2—another work Pine had recorded with this orchestra during the same sessions that produced Dependent Arising.
How did your longstanding love for heavy metal begin?
Santa Claus brought me a transistor radio when I was ten. I was particularly struck by a station at the end of the dial that played extreme-metal genres, like thrash bands, as well as mainstream hard-rock metal from the ’80s. Because I had to devote so many hours to practicing, it was hard to turn off the analytical side of my brain. But since I wasn’t studying heavy metal, I could relax while listening to it. Later, I realized I was drawn to heavy metal not because it’s so different but actually because it has a strong correlation to classical music.
In the mid-1990s, I became one of the first classical artists to do covers of metal songs: chamber arrangements without amplification. I had played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a Chicago Bulls playoff game in the Michael Jordan era, and it was eye-opening to me to see the reaction from people. I wanted to find a way to bring new listeners to classical and realized that as a rock fan, I could go on rock radio stations and win them over with a cover of AC/DC. I experimented with how to play thrash metal on acoustic violin, re-creating some of the sound effects like pick slides and distortion.
The big influence I’ve gotten from heavy metal is to aspire to give each period of music, each composer, or each piece the style that it should have but to do that with my full self.
What was it like performing in your own heavy-metal band?
I continued doing those kinds of experiments for years. And then from 2009 to 2014, I played with a band called Earthen Grave. My instrument was a Viper, a six-string electric violin that extends into the viola and cello range. Heavy metal has lots of subgenres: what we played was a combination of slow and dark doom metal and thrash metal, which is a very fast and edgy style.
The experience of getting to be really loud was fun. Being part of a songwriting collective and creating music from the ground up with others was a totally new experience. I also liked having real-time feedback from the audience in a way that doesn’t happen with classical music, because there’s so much subtlety and nuance that everybody has to stay still.
How has your experience with these types of music influenced your playing of classical repertoire?
The bands I was listening to were all about intensity and reaching into the crowd in the mosh pits. I’ve brought that inspiration back with me to my performances as a classical artist. The big influence I’ve gotten from heavy metal is to aspire to give each period of music, each composer, or each piece the style that it should have but to do that with my full self. So even if I’m expressing peacefulness, I want the audience to be completely immersed in feeling the emotions, right through to the last row.
There’s such a high bar for technical perfection when you›re doing classical. If you flub a run, it’s like being a figure skater and missing a jump. In other genres of music, if you’re a little sloppy, it actually adds flavor. Technique supports the musical intention, but you need to transcend technique, to make it all about the emotions and the story you’re telling.
Earl Maneein, who is just two years younger than you, describes himself as a musician “whose personal work stands at the somewhat unlikely crossroads of Western classical music, heavy metal, and hardcore punk.” What led to his commission to write a concerto for you?
Classical music has drawn from popular and traditional music influences through the centuries all around the world. I thought: Why shouldn’t there be classical pieces inspired by heavy metal? Wouldn’t it be great to have something to play on my straight-up classical concerts on my unplugged del Gesù?
I was a fan of Earl’s band Resolution15, which is a guitar-less metal ensemble with Earl as the main songwriter and lead violinist. So I commissioned him to write an unaccompanied piece for me, Metal Organic Framework , which incorporated a lot of the rhythmic patterns and melodic effects and energy of death metal and thrash metal. Tito Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony, happened to be in the audience when I played it at a recital and found it so riveting that he asked Earl to write a concerto.
What does the title Dependent Arising signify?
Earl is a practicing Buddhist, and the title references the Buddhist concept that nothing in the universe happens independently. The middle movement, for example, is a response to the death of a close friend and alludes to a Buddhist practice of meditation to process grief.
What prompted the idea of pairing this with Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto?
There wasn’t even really a question there. Both Earl and I just knew that it had to be that concerto. Shostakovich has always been a favorite of metalheads. Earl comes from very different circumstances, obviously, but both express universal human feelings of fear and repression and longing that we all encounter, whether in our personal lives or societally.
It’s counter to the idea that classical music should feel “soothing.” This music provides a way of confronting the negativity that we all go through. But in doing so, in the journey through that negativity, it becomes cathartic. I think it helps bring about healing in a different way.
Another point about Shostakovich I think is important: in recent years, classical composers have increasingly taken up social justice issues. But some people believe this is not a space classical music should be involved in—that it should just be something “nice” for us to listen to.
I think that claim is totally ignorant of history. Already with the Farewell Symphony, you have Haydn writing about workers’ rights. Shostakovich in particular—whether it’s the Babi Yar Symphony or the Eighth String Quartet or this Violin Concerto, which has a moment where he references klezmer music—stood up at great risk to show solidarity and his awareness of the mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union.
What was especially satisfying for you about making this album?
I’ve had a number of concertos written for me over the years, but this is the first time I’ve recorded one of them. In fact, we had to squeeze these concertos into the same sessions as our recording of Florence Price’s Concerto No. 2 [with Jonathon Heyward conducting the RSNO]—all within just two days. So I had to be super-prepared and focused. It was exciting with Earl’s concerto to see the musicians creating something that sounded like nothing they’d ever played before. I’m thrilled we’re taking classical music to places where it hasn’t been.