Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pictures of Pagan Russia

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra). Contrary to Patton Oswalt, not everything that ever was is available on the Internet forever; just try finding old classical LPs, digitized and downloadable, as I've been trying to do for this ongoing revisiting-albums project. In this case of Rite, I grew up on Ormandy's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (on cassette, in fact), and the only place I can now track it down online is as part of a 12-CD set (no, thanks). Since I did hear Boulez conduct it at least once with the L.A. Philharmonic, and it was available on Amazon, I opted for his version as a reasonable facsimile.

Heard nearly a century after its premiere, Rite still shudders and snarls and seethes; it is music's great Primitivist ur-text, the orchestral equivalent of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. But much as Picasso's once-jarring pictorial gestures have been domesticated by familiarity, the explosive dissonances of Rite, while still imposing and effective when heard in context, have become nearly a film-score lingua franca; their power to jolt is unabated, their power to shock is not.

Two things, though, struck me this time around: The metrical and rhythmic irregularities are arguably far more unsettling than the dissonances. This piece never really settles down, even when it slows down, and the few times it does amble into a comfortable 4/4 groove, watch out--it's almost always the calm before another storm of whoop-ass. Along these lines, it's telling that the percussion largely doesn't drive this rhythmic free-for-all; until the final few movements, the drums and cymbals are followers, not leaders. Indeed, I think what's ultimately so deeply disconcerting and powerful--in other words, irreducibly badass--about Rite is that it often sounds like Stravinsky is playing the whole orchestra like a drum kit, and he's using it to play a wild, unpredictable drum solo, not lay down a toe-tapping beat.

But that image may sell short the other great achievement I noticed this time around: how different, even alien the orchestra sounds from its 19th-century antecedent. The strings may be the least altered, and the horns mostly fill a familiarly forbidding, foreboding role, but Stravinsky's writing for the winds--the bassoons and oboes in particular, but also the clarinets and flutes--still sounds fresh and raw, writhing and slippery and profoundly exotic, like the music of no earthly place at any time in history. Except, of course, his own and our own, and we're all the richer and stranger for it.

Diana Birchall I just saw the Joffrey do the ballet in Los Angeles on Saturday. The music was fantastic. Happy birthday by the way!
Carey Fosse The berceuse is tremendous - melody and colors..
Joe McDade Most memorable comparison: Pauline Kael's, twinning RITE with "Last Tango in Paris."
Jeremy J Lee Strange that something the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded isn't available in the states. DAMN YOU LICENSING FIENDS!
Jeremy J Lee It's a piece that changed everything. From the first note of the score, it changed what a bassoon could be asked to do. The opening night caused a literal riot in the audience. Oh, to be in a world where people actively participated in the event...
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Jeremy, what's interesting about the bassoon part is that while a lot of 20th century composers (a lot of them film composers) eagerly ran with the dissonances that Stravinsky pioneered here, they still mostly wrote for the bassoon the way 19th century composers did: to signify lumbering, waddling, farting, etc. (Grandpa in PETER AND THE WOLF, etc.). That's one reason, I think, that RITE's wind writing still sounds authentically weird and unsettling; Stravinsky did not hear anything cute in the bassoon.
Jeremy J Lee It's the longing of a crocodile to sing like a bird.
Jeremy J Lee Listen to these guys. I found it a few years ago, and it kinda blew my mind...
Jeremy J Lee Holst's MARS movement of The Planets has some almost direct quotes from the Stomping section of RITE. And of course, where would Darth Vader be without either of these?
Rob Weinert-Kendt Not just Darth Vader. The quotes here are outrageous:

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