Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I've been working on a little article inspired by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, starting off with an observation I've made many times here and elsewhere - that this is music meant to suggest a primitive, prehistoric civilization, yet it requires a remarkably civilized and well-trained group of about 100 players to perform. It's rigorous, modernist music intended to help us escape from the rigors of modernism. One of my lines that got left on the cutting-room floor is the observation that "if Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule applies to top-flight orchestra musicians, then a first-class performance of The Rite would require a million or more combined hours of practice." That's a lot of lessons, etudes, patient parents, youth orchestra rehearsals, etc. Of course, the same could be said for just about any work requiring a large orchestra (which is one reason I abandoned the quote), but it has particular resonance when considering the wild and disordered effect this music can have.

Since that tension (prehistoric vs. ultra-modern) has long been what fascinates me most about this music, I was a bit disappointed to discover that Leonard Bernstein said/wrote the following in a book that's been sitting on my shelf for more than twenty years, though I've never read it:
But the most striking semantic effects of Stravinsky's primitivism results from the utterly modern sophistication with which it is treated. There is an exciting friction here of conflicting forces: after all, here's a thoroughly twentieth century composer writing prehistoric music. It's a glorious misalliance, producing glorious offspring - a synthesis of earthy vernacular embedded in stylistic sophistication. (359)
OK, so I suppose it's a pretty obvious point anyway, and I'm sure many others have made it. And I'm sure others have critiqued Stravinsky for appropriating his own idealized idea of the past into something that really reflects the present, but that's a question for another day.

However, I'm also regretting not having read The Unanswered Question because of another observation Bernstein makes about The Rite of Spring. He writes:
[of a specific passage] That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...[more broadly] it's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities, and polyrhythms, and whatever else you care to name. (357
I'm particularly intrigued by that idea of writing "the best asymmetries" because I've listened to this music countless times, and I still find that it sounds unpredictable, even though I pretty much know exactly what's going to happen. As with a great suspense novel or horror film, what Stravinsky has managed is to create a sort of permanent meta-unpredictability; he's encoded the idea of unpredictability into something that's stable, yet volatile.

I experimented with this idea a few years back when I created Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator. The inspiration came from my own experience of knowing the "aymmetrical" accents in this iconic passage so well that I wondered if they'd lost their unpredictable punch.

It took awhile to build my little machine, so I ended up not having much time to write about it at the time (I guess this is the followup post!), but the idea is that each time you reload the page, you get a different set of accents from what Stravinsky penned - and that should really put you on your toes as a listener. Go give it a try!
But I soon discovered that it didn't work - at least not for me. Stravinsky's predictable asymmetries still did the best job of sounding menacingly off-kilter. Now, of course, there's some conditioning bias at play here - I've heard Stravinsky's accents a lot, so they have a certain rightness that goes along with that. In fact, I'm sure that part of the satisfaction I get from hearing them is in feeling good that I can predict when those unpredictable accents will occur. It's an ego boost. It makes me feel smart. (Every now and then, I wonder how much of the music aficionado's love for music is fed by this sort of ego boost, but I digress...) Still, I think there's more to it than that. I think Bernstein is right that Stravinsky "has the best asymmetries" - that his formulations are calculated so well that they embody the idea of unpredictability more than they sound unpredictable.

This, of course, is something art does all the time. A deceptive cadence doesn't have to be unfamiliar to deliver an expressive punch that means surprise. A perfectly timed line delivery can make a comic moment funny every time, even if we've heard the line a hundred times. Climactic "one more time" evaded cadences can be thrilling every time. A guillotine blow can be chilling every time. We happily surrender again and again to the feeling that a great artistic moment can summon. Stravinsky's very specific accents will always work against the well-ingrained assumption that music should fall into regular patterns of stressed beats. Bernstein refers to this as "rhythmic dissonance" (345), so I suppose my couching it in terms of unpredictability isn't quite right, but it's the experience I get listening, even when I know exactly what's coming.

Still, part of me would like to see an orchestra mix up Stravinsky's accents just a little bit every now and then...just to keep us on our toes while we're being surprised. And I'm sure there's always a horn player willing to oblige...

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