The Rite @ 100 years

I had the great privilege last week to be a guest on Radio Times on WHYY, hosted by the incredible Marty Moss-Coane. She is incredible because she knows about, well…everything. We spoke about the Rite of Spring 100 years later from a composer’s perspective and Marty was just an amazing host. How she is always so informed on everything she talks about, I really don’t know. Maybe she has a collection of clones, or a microchip implanted somewhere, or perhaps, just loves knowledge.

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I’ve had radio interviews about my own music, but being able to talk about Stravinsky for an hour on the air was a rare pleasure. My epiphany in preparing for the conversation was that Stravinsky is almost literally imitating Slavic folk singing throughout the piece; as exemplified in the opening bassoon solo. Highly ornamented vocalizing, at the top of the singer’s range (both vocally and expressively) is the bread and butter of this traditional music–I can’t believe I just hadn’t put that together with the bassoon solo before (which itself is from a Lithuanian Wedding song). I had always known about the folk music, and that Stravinsky had pushed the instruments to extreme ranges, but I thought that this was to get the player and listener out of their comfort zone and to hear alien sounds that were entirely modern. What I hadn’t come to was that it’s actually the merging of ancient sounds of folk traditions with modern techniques of instrumental virtuosity in an absolutely technical–and not just musical–way.

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I’m sure I’m not the first, but I am reminded of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” by the RoS–another piece that inhabits a world of primal shapes and figures smashed together with modern notions of visual art. A lot of folks see connections with Picasso “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Yeah, that one, too. It’s all art from the exact same time period, where artists were learning to look to the far past to inspire their revolutionary ideas, casting off what felt like shackles of representation, realism, and in Stravinsky’s case, the common practice tonal system permabonded to major and minor scales.

Near the end of the interview, Marty played one of my own pieces that was influenced by Stravinsky, which I thought well-illustrated his influence 100 years later. To still be talking about his piece after a century, for people to still be cocking their head trying to figure out what that instrument is playing the opening solo, for people to still be scandalized by the subject matter, or energized by the incredible power of the piece–that’s an accomplishment Stravinsky and maybe a dozen other composers can claim. This is one way we know it’s truly great: that even now it is as vibrant, confrontational, and surprisingly inevitable as it was when it was premiered on that hot day in Paris, in May of 1913.

Check out the original choreography while you’re at it.

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