Breakthrough Star: Nolan Stolz

Breakthrough Star: Nolan Stolz

USC Upstate music professor explores musicology of Black Sabbath

Very few professors grow up to become the envy of their teenage selves, but USC Upstate music professor Nolan Stolz could not be a disappointment to the 13-year-old who played the drums and loved the rock band Black Sabbath.

“Originally, I wanted to be a working musician in Las Vegas,” where he grew up, Stolz says. His plan was to attend UNLV, study drum set and jazz, and meet people in the entertainment industry in Las Vegas so he could get hired.

“At that time, commercial music programs and popular music programs didn’t really exist,” he says. “I added composition to my studies in college and that really changed the trajectory of my career.”

I have always been active in multiple disciplines and they inform each other. I started as a drummer, but it takes a composer to understand how others have composed music.

Nolan Stolz, USC Upstate music professor

As a musician and scholar, Stolz has written many compositions, including one recorded by the Brno Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. “Primarily, I am a composer and music theory is my second area,” Stolz says. “Musicology is actually my third area.”

But it is in that third area that he has garnered his greatest fame.

“I was asked to write some essays on a few groups for a reference book, 100 Greatest Bands of All Time. So I wrote about Black Sabbath, Genesis, Rush and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention,” he says. “Going back and listening to all that music again, I realized there was much more to Black Sabbath music than I remembered, so I started getting into the music a little bit more — deeper listening and analyzing.”

After that came a presentation at a progressive rock conference in France, which led to a book proposal. The project took about three years and produced Experiencing Black Sabbath: A Listener’s Companion, which was published in 2017.

His research for the book included what he calls “active listening — paying attention to many elements of the music at the same time.”

There’s also a lot of transcription — figuring out the chords and notes on the actual recordings because the published sheet music doesn’t always match up. Then there is identifying instruments that may not be listed in liner notes.

“For the most part, it’s figuring out what’s happening in the music,” Stolz says.

His research also included putting the music in context, and with one of the most famous rock bands of all time, known for more than its share of partying, that turned out to be the most difficult task of all — separating fact from myth.

“A lot of time was spent finding old interviews and old articles about the band, because there are a lot of ‘facts’ and stories out in the world that are incorrect, but that have been perpetuated over the years,” Stolz says. “Most of the time was spent verifying facts. I could spend hours on a sentence.”

In addition to the book, Stolz has contributed essays to books, published multiple peer-reviewed journal articles and conference papers and written nine new musical compositions with more than 40 performances during his five years at USC Upstate. He also teaches music theory and composition, popular music and jazz courses, drum set and coordinates the school’s commercial music program. He won the USC Upstate 2018-19 Award for Faculty Excellence in Scholarly and/or Creative Pursuits.

Among his recent compositions was a piece for eight instruments for the Spartanburg Philharmonic. The composition was influenced by famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and Black Sabbath.

“I have always been active in multiple disciplines and they inform each other,” Stolz says. “I started as a drummer, but it takes a composer to understand how others have composed music.”

To cap off his impressive list for the 13-year-old Black Sabbath fan he was, Stolz got an email from longtime Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne not long after the book was published.

“It was very cool,” Stolz says. “He emailed out of the blue and said he was impressed by the book and thought it was very well researched.”

Very cool indeed.

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