Certain songs by classic New Zealand bands like the Clean, Bats or Chills
show an intriguing harmonic intricacy that seems derived from sources
outside rock tradition, definitely outside the conventional punk lineage.
This other-than-rock quality comes to the surface in the music of the
Verlaines, whose lead singer Graeme Downes was trained in classical music
and remains a serious student of musicology. Downes has, in fact,
completed a doctoral thesis titled “Gustav Mahler and Progressive Tonality:
An Axial System of Tonality Applied to the Music of Mahler and 19th-Century
Antecedents.” His first try at a rock song, “Slow Sad Love Song,” was full
of slithery chromaticism, the second step of the scale lowered down a
semitone in Mahlerian fashion. It starts with a slow-dying guitar tone
that sounds strikingly like the opening gesture of “Der Abschied,” the
final song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. “Death and the Maiden,” the
Verlaines’ locally popular first single, takes its title from the famous
Lied by Schubert and follows Viennese scherzo form.

Rock and classical music seldom mix. Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters,
composed in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, is only the most recent
embarrassment in a long string of pretentious and/or inept cross-cultural
encounters. But “Death and the Maiden,” “Slow Sad Love Song,” and other
early Verlaines songs achieve an uncommonly effective blend of pop
structures and classical harmony. The harmonies are rich, laden with the
sad cadences of German Romanticism, and yet the melodies sit comfortably on
the jangly strings of the Verlaines’ guitars. “Maiden” begins with
stomping simple chords in square rhythm, then swerves into a middle section
in 3/4 time reminiscent of one of Mahler’s L┼ándler dances. Downes sings in
a rough but passionate voice: “Do you like Paul Verlaine? / Is it going to
rain today? / Shall we have our photo taken? / We’ll look like Death and
the Maiden….” The lead singer and composer admits he doesn’t give as
much thought to the lyrics as to the music; the song’s morosely delirious
chorus is the name “Verlaine” repeated eighteen times, with an affecting
vocal ornament in the cadence (“Ver-lai-hey-aine”). The closing chords,
minor and major intertwined, would have made Schubert smile.

Downes, who looks like Daniel Day-Lewis circa In the Name of the Father,
does not worry over the gaping faultline through the center of his musical
world. “Most rock music is total rubbish, but so is most classical music,
actually,” he told me recently at a diner in Hoboken. “You don’t find a
sort of concentration of energy or mind very often in either classical or
rock, whether it ‘s a Mahler symphony or a Clean song.” Could a Clean song
be analyzed with the same rigor as a Mahler symphony, and will it endure as
long? Downes has provisionally answered this question with an academic
paper entitled “Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Brahms’ Principle
of Developing Variation,” which analyzes the famous alternative anthem from
the point of view of late-classical thematic development. “For a song
about teenage angst,” he says, with no trace of a self-conscious grin, “it
has an amazingly original and tightly controlled harmonic structure.
Everything is derived from the rising fourths at the start–he sang the
song’s obsessive riff–“so that you have fourths again in the upper melody,
except that they are inverted, falling down”–he sings again–“and it comes
back to the falling second in the middle of the bass riff. It’s fucking
spot on, the whole way through.”

It’s rare to encounter someone who speaks, with equal passion and
knowledge, about both rock and classical music. Maybe the canyon that
separates classical music from the rest of the world is not unbridgeable
after all. That’s at least what I thought when I first heard “Death and
the Maiden,” courtesy of a friend’s all-embracing record collection. I had
just started to listen to rock after an adolescence exclusively devoted to
classical music. To my classical ears, the Verlaines stood out not for any
attitude or pose but for their musical substance, the ever-surprising
sophistication of the chord changes. But I was disappointed to discover
that even the brave and adventurous Downes has faced the same dull dilemma
faced by good young bands everywhere. In order to keep the band going past
its first flush of youthful enthusiasm, he made concessions to the rock
marketplace, signed a deal with the Los Angeles label Slash, and limited
his rock-classical experiments. He no longer has the luxury of tinkering
with his songs at a Mahlerian pace, and his recent records don’t contain
anything on the level of “Death and the Maiden. (The best early songs are
on the Flying Nun compilation Juvenalia.)

I think the lesson of the Verlaines is that a really inventive musical mind
can overcome the mighty barrier between two such distant genres as
classical music and rock, but the urge to break down barriers is probably a
futile and misguided one. There are any number of avant-garde classical
composers and musicians who have taken a similar slant: the violinist Nigel
Kennedy, playing classical concertos while dressed in punk styles; the
Kronos Quartet, covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”; certain members of
the Bang On A Can group in downtown New York, writing for electric guitars
and synthesizers. But separate genres exist for a good reason; they serve
different needs and tastes, and they have their own traditions and rules
which need to be respected. The joy of breaking down barriers should
belong to the listener, making connections at will, assembling a personal
canon of sounds. The increasing complexity and diversity of sounds within
rock music shows that no outside intervention from a classical synthesist
is necessary to make the music durable and interesting.