Foreword: This is the piece of writing I used for my university applications. I was rejected to all but 2.
Take a look at my music collection today. It isn’t overwhelmingly large, but there is variety to be found. The majority of it consists of my favorite classical piano recordings, interspersed with a few discs of my own playing from ages six to seventeen. However, if you look closer, you may be surprised to find a few albums of “thrash metal,” a particularly high-octane version of heavy metal music, audaciously positioned throughout the collection of Chopins, Debussys, and Haydns. It’s like a small, run-down bookstore located on the outskirts of an inner city, like finding the few hidden gems in a deluge of mass-marketed New York Times #1-Bestsellers.
Take a glimpse over my shelf of albums once more. There are two stacks of CD cases, each with no more than twenty discs. Moving my index finger down the left stack, I pick out the fifth album from the top: Antithesis by Origin—considered a masterpiece in the world of thrash metal. Setting the headphones over my ears, I feel the instant flood of guitar distortion, human growling, and percussion blasting at 300 beats per minute. Relentless and uncompromising, the chaotic beauty of the music morphs through my body into kinetic energy, driving me to bang my head in the air. "I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds", the vocalist roars, echoing a verse from sacred Hindu scripture, one which Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer also quoted in a televised speech after his first successful nuclear test. At this apex, a surge of energy bursts through my head, as if I have become the nuclear explosion, releasing 90 million kilojoules within my imagination.
Take a look at me, standing beside my album collection with my headphones, filling up the entire room with my musical soul. From the outside looking in, the scene may appear a bit foreign. Maybe it’s because the music’s raw, unfiltered lyrical content does not quite fit the image of the mild-mannered, classically-trained Chinese American musician poised in the corner. Maybe instead you would expect a sullen teenager with long hair, black clothing, and spiked accessories, who has never done more on the piano than hitting the keys in angst. Maybe the image would be more fitting if you sensed a ten-meter-radius invisible shield around him that screamed, “Do not come any closer.”
Now take a step into my own ten-meter radius, and you will see the musical world through my eyes. From here, Origin’s Antithesis is a channel for expression that transcends teenage angst. In fact, it is not too much unlike performing a sonata or a concerto. My growing appreciation for thrash metal requires the same discipline and passion that is required to master a piece on the piano. An indispensable initial curiosity is necessary for both improving my ability as a pianist and developing a specific taste for thrash metal. Thrash metal is not renowned for its accessibility to listeners—in fact, my first impression of the irritating, ear-splitting pandemonium of noises gave me a headache. However, in my determination to discover the appeal of this intriguing new genre, my ear gradually acclimated to the music. The process of overcoming this initial barrier is similar to sight-reading a piano composition for the first time, stumbling through those rough passages and awkward fingerings. Getting past that surface-level understanding allowed me to experience the genuine value of thrash metal in its complete musical form, filled with its intricate details and meaningful artistic choices.
From my passion arose the cultivation of an art as I explored deeper into the different forms of thrash metal. The stylistic range from the gloomy ballads of Woods of Ypres to the aggressive, complex arrangements of Spawn of Possession was reminiscent of discovering the world of classical composers all over again, from the beautifully sad nocturnes of Chopin to the furiously technical rhapsodies of Lizst and Rachminoff. Thus, I was introduced to a world beyond classical music that was equally fascinating in its technical profuseness, equally vibrant in its musical elicitation of human emotion.
Both classical piano and thrash metal can be defined as the musical creation of passion with a purpose. They are structured. They are consistent and precise. Not directed toward a strictly defined audience or entity, they are creations that can explore emotional extremes, but not without reason. Their most powerful musical moments leave me with a sense of catharsis that is unparalleled by any other activity. At the end of these moments, rather than translating the aggression of thrash metal into anger, or the sadness of Chopin into depression, I see the world as a blank slate for me to reflect, examine, and resolve.
Certainly, with the aid of my classical training, I have discovered a secret, beautiful dimension to the genre of extreme metal, the “Antithesis” of a popular misconception.