May 28, 2013

Sacre It To Me

Tomorrow, May 29, marks the 100th anniversary of the debut of Le sacre du printemps, the ballet by Igor Stravinsky that revolutionized modern music, or so legend has it (this piece by Matthew Sigman doesn't quite debunk the legend, but it does put it in perspective). I don't recall exactly when I became a fan, but I recently revisited it in its entirety (for a short-lived formative-album-replay project on my other blog) and was stunned anew:
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.
Years ago, while noodling on the guitar, I discovered that the opening bassoon melody of Rite can stand alone quite nicely, and be reharmonized into a catchy tune, and there are a few other snippets that can play nicely with others. I worked up an arrangement for my band at the time (and even sprung it on the little church band I play with a few years back). But then I thought to add lyrics. And so, today, for your delectation, and in the spirit of such Spike Jones classical-deflating novelties as "Pal-Yat-Chee," I offer a little tune I call, with as much apology to "Laugh-In" as to old Igor, "Sacre It To Me." Long may the revolution roll in its grave.

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