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Posts Tagged ‘Stravinsky’

One need only read the first half dozen or so pages of John Keegan’s history, The First World War (1999), to get a chilling picture of the social devastation of what was then known as the Great War. Almost an entire generation of young men was lost, and those who remained had witnessed unthinkable carnage and mass death. They came away with not only great physical, but psychological loss. Reading the lists of names on memorials that are replicated in every town throughout France and England, Keegan was struck with their heartrending length, “all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family.” (Keegan, 5)

In the wake of the horror of the war, many prominent composers responded by turning to cynicism, biting sarcasm and black irony.* Stravinsky manifestly banished all trace of pathos, most clearly with his Octet for Winds of 1923 (Stravinsky: “My Octuor is not an ’emotive’ work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves.” IV, 490). It is this shift that Taruskin sees as the true break from the Romantic tradition, and the moment that announced the end of the long nineteenth century with a dead-pan, ironic scoff.

Taruskin is right to see this response (which went beyond Stravinsky, but was admittedly not the only response) as a recoiling by composers from the burden of cosmic transcendence that they had inherited from the Romantics. Composers sought to reclaim “their etymological identities as artisans or artificers—skilled makers and doers, and professionals—as opposed to dreamers, reformers, philosophers, priests, politicians, or saints” (IV, 491). It was a loss of that supreme confidence (arrogance?) in the quest for human perfection that had been a driving force for so long.

Have we ever fully recovered from this blow?

*471-478 of Vol. IV should be essential reading for students looking to get an introduction into the effects of World War I on the arts.

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I played “Bleed” by Meshuggah to my dad, who’s a massive fan of Stravinsky, and he asked me “How can you possibly listen to such tripe?” This pissed me off, because I strongly believe that metal and classical are 2 very very very closely related genres. In fact, some classical is heavier than most metal. I wish he’d see the similarities.  — M, on Yahoo Answers forum

I stumbled upon this post in a forum and couldn’t help but smile. Discovering a masterpiece of early-century musical modernism through the Swedish extreme metal act Meshuggah might not be the most orthodox path to a lifelong interest in classical music, but this kid is in no way alone. As a matter of fact, a Sony Masterworks reissue of a mid- 70’s recording of the Rite with Pierre Boulez was, at the age of 14, my first “classical” music CD purchase. Why this piece? And why did I interrupt my steady diet of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains in order to listen to this thin, bespectacled Russian? One word: Metallica.

In the mid-90s, Metallica began citing “The Rite of Spring” as one of their major influences in rock and guitar magazines. (Right alongside Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.) After this surprising recommendation, record stores across the country started getting scraggly-haired kids inquiring about some dude named Stravinsky. I’m sure I’m not the only person who went to the CD racks hungry for the sounds of this proto-heavy metal wizard. And he even wrote music about a virgin sacrifice – how hardcore!

It may seem risible to compare Stravinsky to Slayer, but heavy metal music has a long and distinguished history of borrowing from classical music virtuosity. (Robert Walser’s book documents this in droves.) The extreme complexity of certain metal song structures, along with their emphasis on musicianship, rhythmic density, unusual modes (thrash and death metal love to dabble in Locrian and Phrygian), and sounding “primal” aren’t far off from this masterpiece of Franco-Russian fauvism. Just as Stravinsky “maximalized” his unique blend of modernist techniques in the Rite, metal is a rhythmic and timbral maximalization of standard rock signifiers: make it faster, more distorted, and louder than its rock predecessors, and you’ve got heavy metal.

But beyond the topical observations and the passing similarities of subject matter (ritual sacrifice seems to be a timeless theme), “M” from the Yahoo Answers boards might be on to something. Taruskin writes of the “Sacrificial Dance” movement of the Rite: “More than in any earlier number, the metric processes of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ are ‘mosaic,’ concretized in specific, discrete, and (above all) minuscule musical ‘tesserae’… And he left the articulation of the irregularly spaced downbeats his sequences of tesserae elicited to the most elemental force of all – to volume alone, as expressed by the bass instruments and percussion, especially the timpani, which in this dance achieve the status of a terrifying, buffeting force of nature.” (IV, 184) 14-year old metalheads, here’s what Prof. Taruskin is talking about (complete with appropriately dark, trippy visuals):

This sort of mosaic rhythmic structure is common in extreme metal: take a “riff”; offset it by some unpredictable, odd breaks; mix up the time signature to throw the audience off your scent; bang some drums, make some unholy noise, and voila! In fact, that’s exactly what Meshuggah’s doing in “Bleed”: here’s a video of the band’s guitarists playing the opening riff and discussing how it works.

Great ear, M! Maybe you’ve got a future in musicology…

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There have been few—if any—composers in the canon who were more aware of their public image than Igor Stravinsky. The classic 1946 portrait by Arnold Newman demonstrates this quite clearly, and will serve as our header image for the next couple weeks. Here is the photograph in full.

Be sure to also check out this modernist, avant garde interpretation of Newman’s image.

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