In Flames was an iconic heavy metal band from the ’90s. It’s also the title of Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis’ second string quartet, which premiered in New York in May. There are no death metal growls in the quartet, but the title is hardly a coincidence. Stafylakis composed, played guitar and sang for years in a metal band – progressive metal, to be sure, and unabashedly informed by classical and jazz practice, but, yes, there was some screaming.
Stafylakis’ band days are behind him, but metal’s power chords, dense textures, guitar-riff basslines and complex rhythms are not. In fact, the intersection of heavy metal and classical music is the focus of the Ph.D Stafylakis is pursuing at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he studies with David Del Tredici.
“Contemporary metal bands Symphony X and Opeth are as integral to my sound world as Beethoven and Stravinsky,” says Stafylakis, who received his B.A. in composition from McGill University in 2010. “I’m not in line with the prevailing zeitgeist that art music should be as difficult and innovative as possible. If higher music is to survive – and if I’m going to enjoy myself – it needs to be more inclusive.”
“If higher music is to survive it needs to be more inclusive.”
Not that metal is always obvious in his music, although it is sometimes explicit, as in the saxophone quartet, Sharp End, or in Critical Density, which won a SOCAN Foundation Award for Young Composers. Stafylakis considers Critical Density – essentially a guitar concerto with string quartet accompaniment – his “masterpiece” to date.
But not surprisingly for someone who composes by singing, Stafylakis is increasingly drawn to writing for voice. Ubi Sunt, for women’s choir, harp, vibraphone and strings also won a SOCAN Foundation Young Composers Award, and recent projects include The Metal and the Flower for tenor, accordion and piano, set to poetry by P.K. Page; and The Esther Diaries, for soprano and chamber ensemble (based on the Biblical story of Esther, with a libretto by Ellen Frankel), which premieres in New York in December.
Stafylakis likes his music to sound big. “I come from the Romantic tradition – as does progressive metal in general – so I tend towards lushness, even if my actual language is not Romantic,” he says. Consecutive chords don’t progress diatonically, and Stafylakis avoids “the cheesiness of the pure major scale,” preferring to cycle quickly through different modes to exploit their characteristic qualities.
But he loves triads, seeing “no reason to dismiss them simply because other people have used them for thousands of years.” Charles Ives, who once stood up just as categorically for dissonance, might have admired Stafylakis’ attitude. That’s apt, inasmuch as the American Academy of Arts and Letters recently awarded Stafylakis a prestigious $15,000 Charles Ives Fellowship.
Ives, of course, quoted prodigiously, and Stafylakis’ music has moments that seem oddly familiar. But there are no postmodernist (or modernist) quotations here. “I don’t do irony and humour,” says Stafylakis, categorical again. “My main reason for composing is to create more of the kind of music that I like.”