Last night’s concert at the Chase Center, a historic moment commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first collaboration between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony (back then it was at Berkeley Community Theater, I learned) as well as the maiden voyage of the new basketball stadium built for the Warriors, was also an experiment in cross-cultural conversation through music. The origin story of Chinese Melodrama is that I met Randy Bales one fateful night nine years ago while pursuing my curiosity about the outer limits of my ability to learn to improvise. Could I gather in a garage with a group of strangers who were playing instruments I had never played in the same room with? Could I truly apply the principle of Deep Listening and simply be present with the sound without labels, and play what came through my body and my instrument? I hesitated for one long moment with my hand on the doorknob of that garage studio before turning it and seeing what was on the other side. I knew my life would change forever, and I did it anyway.
I had never listened to Metallica at that point. But a few days later, at our first rehearsal of what would become Chinese Melodrama, Randy showed me a video of the San Francisco Symphony playing “Nothing Else Matters” with Metallica. I think I had equated the band name with black T-shirts and kids who cut class to smoke in the parking lot in high school. I was probably totally wrong about that image. I didn’t really know anything about people who wore Metallica T-shirts. But something intrigued me about the willingness of both sides to do this collaboration, and I was at the beginning of a grand experiment in my own life. So I learned the guitar part of “Nothing Else Matters” and we started playing it out at open mics and gigs.
In those early days, we learned that certain audiences really loved our renditions of things like Metallica’s Fade to Black and, later on, Pearl Jam’s Black and Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away. But these were covers, and we were swimming in the pool of singer-songwriters, poets, folk musicians who really valued originality and a certain restraint of musical complexity. We also started playing for daytime, all-ages events in the community, which called for (in my mind) a certain innocence and optimism that wasn’t always at the forefront of metal lyrics.
So we gradually moved away from our signature material, sanitizing the themes and restricting the range of our body movements, becoming more “appropriate” for the average street corner.
Last night’s combination of musical perspectives – as I saw it – was a symbol of the poles we are attempting to bring into unity and harmony or at least into conversation right now. The musicians of San Francisco Symphony are no less passionate (when given the right notation that instructs it) than the Metallica ones. They are, however, the product of a lifetime of training and values that in many ways Metallica is a reaction to. Restraint, correctness, unison. These are the pillars of classical music training and the values of the traditional orchestra’s organization itself, where a conductor stands in front while the players are seated, and everyone reads from the hymnal of the written score. There are several innovative orchestras I know of who are experimenting with that form and performing without a conductor, without written scores, with all players standing. But this was not the case last night.
Metallica, rock music in general, is about coming together in a different way. It is about discovering a voice, an aesthetic, a way to release the pent-up energy resulting from all the constraints of society, rules, authorities, and existing structures. And from that release, creating a collective “f&*$ you” through sheer volume, vibration, movement, and chant.
It was fascinating to see all of this happen together on one stage, with eighteen thousand fans (all wearing black T-shirts) witnessing. To open the second half of the performance, Michael Tilson Thomas, the director of the SF Symphony for over 25 years, stepped onto the podium and began to deliver one of his signature audience talks about how what we now call “classical” music was once radical and modern in its time. As he talked, I leaned in, as if recognizing a mother tongue, a language I had not expected to hear in this context. To my left and below me, two Metallica fans started to heckle. “Too much talking!” one said. “I’m falling asleep here!” another said. “I didn’t pay all this money to hear some &*^# talk!” yet another said.
I recognized MTT’s commentary as something that is considered innovative in the classical world – for a conductor to turn around and use words and voice to address the audience directly. To put the wordless music into a historical context for the audience to better understand. I also felt the huge risk he was taking in the Chase Center, at almost eleven p.m., asking this crowd of Metallica fans, tall beer cans in hand, to hear a mini lecture on “futurism” and Prokofiev.
Yes, they did play an entire piece by Prokofiev, without Metallica at all. And then, MTT grabbed the mic again and began to speak about how “metal” music appeared in the classical literature in response to the industrial revolution, and the advent of metal factories. I felt how he was within a few minutes — or even seconds — of getting booed off the stage. I also marveled at his tenacity in taking up space within this modern day Roman Coliseum, and daring to attempt to educate and enlighten.
That the entire arena of Metallica fans went silent and stayed mostly seated for approximately 7 whole minutes, as these two pieces were played, was a moment I am glad I witnessed. It was the kind of “reaching across the aisle” I imagine we are calling for in these times. What does it take for us to listen to each other? How do we create these circumstances and environments? Can we tolerate the discomfort, the urge to flee?
I realized that the reaction of the Metallica fans around me (those who were heckling) was not hatred. It was a defense against having to experience the unknown. Having to face the possibility that they may *or* may not like something. Being put on the spot. Having to face something so unfamiliar it threatened their idea of who they are, what their black T-shirt means, and if they would ever be welcomed to see the Symphony in its home territory. The protests were not from hatred and active malice. The protests were from fear of confronting the thing we each, in our own way, organize our lives in order to avoid: what we do not know.
Thankfully, this moment of tension did not last long. The icebreaker came when a bassist from the SF Symphony recreated an iconic solo tribute to Cliff Burton, the now deceased Metallica bass player. As the classical virtuosity melted into long sustained chest-rumbling distortions (on an upright electric bowed bass), the crowd relaxed into the familiarity of its mother tongue and burst into cheers, fists raised in the air. This was the prelude to the final medley of Metallica classics which brought all eighteen thousand of us to the finish line of an epic reunion of two families on one stage. Relieved, the happy fans exited in calm and orderly fashion, heading into the San Francisco night on foot, by Muni, by Uber, full of the knowing that we were simultaneously part of history and witness to a new beginning. The beginning of what? None of us could know.