igor’s spring rite
igor stravinsky‘s ballet the rite of spring caused a sensation from the moment it first appeared on stage. the unrelentingly percussive and dissonance of his music, combined with vaslav nijinsky’s rule-breaking choreography, nicholas roerich’s remarkably evocative sets and costumes and the atmosphere of paris in the years leading to the first world war led to a riot of proportions unheard of in music before or since. the noise in the theater was said to be so loud that the dancers were unable to hear the music played by the enormous orchestra and instead were forced to rely on nijinsky shouting the count from the wings of the theatre. stravinsky had to be escorted from the hall wiith a police escort.
this uproar while undoubtably aided by his many enemies was also a reaction to the sheer visceral nature of the score: its vulgar primitivism, its unrelenting rhythmic hammering and the freeflowing sexuality of the music and dance. the rite of spring, subtitled scenes from pagan russia did not hide behind victorian niceties. it was an exploration of nature where physical nature and human nature were laid bare. musical conventions were turned on their head; the superposition of chords played simultaneously; the unpredictable accents; stravinsky’s intention was to celebrate a more brutal ritual, the forceful annual renewal of spring expressed through the sacrifice of a virgin who danced herself to death. an elemental spring: that of glaciers calving and buds struggling forth from the hardened soil.
stravinsky’s music is filled with snippets of russian folksong filtered through his own ears. collected, remembered or entirely invented. used as raw material, tearing off tiny strips, perhaps even three notes, to use as a repeating series of chords or notes. patterns or as an environment for rhythm. such treatment is even a folk derived notion.
in the passage of music a-b-c-d-e-f-g. stravinsky might fixate upon four notes: b-c-d-e and repeat these endlessly with variations: b-c-d-e b-c-d c-d c-d b-c-d c-c-c d-b-c d-b d-b and so on. this idea of a flexible musical object lies at the heart of stravinsky’s technique.
on both the larger and the smaller scale it is like the technique of montage in film. to shoot a car chase for example. four different angles might move between: (a) the car speeding down the road; (b) the scared passenger; (c) the pursuit vehicle; and (d) astonished bystanders. to heighten the emotion and revel in the excitement of the chase, the scene would cut between these various views. a-c-b-d c-b a-d and so on. so too is montage used in stravinsky’s music but instead of scenes of film we are working with sharply defined sound elements.
with apologies to todd tarantino, what is interesting here in this modified synopsis and the accompanying listening notes is the apparent use of montage techniques in both music and dance to bring about a heightened experience of the cycle of life based in ritual and nature. a repetitive structure that eventually transforms quantity into a qualitative synthetic work. the rhythm of life sliced up and reconfigured in new rhythms in music , in dance, and in film and back again into life.