Before Stravinsky, Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Stravinsky, Chop Wood Carry Water.

Image“Music is the sole domain in which man realizes the present—Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Largely considered the most important musical work of the 20th century, it has lasted the test of time and is firmly rooted at the pinnacle of the orchestral repertoire.  I was fortunate to lead my college orchestra on an exploration and performance of the work back in February. It was an awesome experience for all of us.  I wrote about the experience of tackling such a huge work here:

Rather than rehash today’s countless tributes and explanations as to why the Rite is important historically, I’d like to reflect on the above quote from Stravinsky’s autobiography.  In those few words, I feel he captures the essence of what we experience through performing and listening to his music.  His music requires you to remain in the present.  There is a sense of “nowness.”  If you lose focus while playing Stravinsky, a train-wreck is imminent.

I can attest to this from personal experience.  Whether it’s the Rite, L’Histoire du Soldat, or Dumbarton Oaks, the conductor and performer are required to be rooted in the present.  Conducting, playing, studying—it doesn’t matter.  To delve into his music is to forget yourself and concentrate intensely.  Like an Escher drawing, we think we have it figured out, only to realize that if we lose concentration, we are lost.  You rarely have the time to ponder, daydream or even reflect on what you just screwed up.  Each measure takes incredible focus and planning to get into, experience, and then exit into the next.  

Intense preparation is only part of the story.  A well-practiced piece opens further doors.  Doing so enables us to perform from a sense of deep knowing, a gnostic-groove, so to speak.  And, oh does Stravinsky ever have groove!

Amazingly, Stravinsky does this with remarkably normal materials. To be sure, the notes, music and even way of playing are not all that revolutionary, the opening bassoon solo aside.  The orchestra includes no exotic log drums, Asian zithers, or Balinese gamelans. But Stravinsky uses compositional methods and the forces of a Wagnerian orchestra in ways that challenge our assumptions.  And that, too results in an altered focus.

All music has elements of both concentration and contemplation.  Some music invites asking the big questions, the meaning of life.  Stravinsky rarely does this, at least for me. Rather, his music deals with visceral reality.  Melody is ever driven by rhythm; harmony spiced by color. It’s a thrill ride–an invitation to experience the reality of the moment. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss it, along with that meter change!

 “Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.” — Tennessee Williams

Copyright, 2013, Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat


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