The Rightness of the Rite

One of the most remarkable things about The Rite of Spring, one-hundred years in, is that it still manages to seem new. I know that's hardly a new thought, but I experience it year after year teaching it to non-music students; whereas it's a challenge to convince them that the music of Beethoven, Berlioz, or Debussy once sounded senseless, those incredibly resilient polychords can still send a disorienting jolt through a room of new listeners.

It's remarkable because the sounds are hardly unfamiliar. Just listen to this passage from Star Wars, starting at the 1:20 mark.

The galaxy far, far away sounds a lot like the prehistorically far-away pagans immortalized by Stravinsky since John Williams and many other composers have made Stravinsky's soundworld part of our working vocabulary. Of course, the way in which The Rite continues to inhabit a place between the old and the new is part of its magic. Its newness somehow doesn't wear off, but its oldness is just as important, and not just because it evokes the past. In fact, one could hardly find a more "classical" piece in the sense that our understanding of it is so strongly shaped by its status as iconic classic - I suppose the music stands on its own, but who could really know for sure given the powerful mythology that surrounds it? Just look at the attention it's receiving for this anniversary.

Like most "classical" works that are good enough to survive their reputations, the music actually becomes better than it could've been on its own as its cultural aura and resonances widen. I can't really prove that this is true, and I'm sure many will want to cling to the idea that they would've "gotten it" fully when it debuted, but I'm skeptical. At any rate, in spite of all the romantic notions about there being some purer Rite that existed before it was so well-known and before bassoonists could play the opening so beautifully, we'd all be a lot poorer if this scandalous music hadn't become classical. Ask yourself, would you prefer a world 1) in which it's overexposed or 2) in which only a select few (probably not you) would ever hear it? Would you have wanted to have heard it only once when it was completely fresh, or are you glad for the opportunities to revisit it again and again? 

Still, the overexposure nags at me sometimes. Take those iconic chords above with their unpredictable accents. How unpredictable can they be when you've heard them over and over? I've known where each accent falls for a long time now, and I suppose there's an insider kind of pleasure that comes with being able to predict the unpredictable, but you'd think the menacing power would be diluted by this kind of knowledge; yet the feeling of unpredictability persists - like a newness that doesn't wear off. I'm far from the first to make this observation. Bernstein once wrote (when this 100th anniversary was still a long way off):
[of a different passage] That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...[more broadly] it's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities, and polyrhythms, and whatever else you care to name. (357
As with a great suspense novel or horror film, what Stravinsky has managed is to create a sort of permanent meta-unpredictability; he's encoded the idea of unpredictability into something that's stable, yet volatile.

I decided to put this to a rather silly test a few years back and thus created Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator, which takes these iconic chords and redistributes the accents each time you reload. Take it for a spin:

Actually, the various options it spits out aren't truly random, so last year I set up a simple online spreadsheet that randomly distributes accents at an average rate of 6 kicks per 8 bars. Here are some patterns it generated, which you can use as a fun clapping exercise:

0100 0000 0100 0100 0000 0000 0000 0000
0000 0001 0000 1000 0000 1010 1000 0000
1000 0010 0000 0000 0000 0010 1011 0101
0000 0000 1000 0011 0000 0110 0001 0000
0010 1000 0100 1010 0100 0100 1000 0000
1000 0100 0000 0000 0100 1000 0001 0000
0100 0000 0000 1010 0100 0001 0000 0010
1000 0000 0001 1000 0110 0001 0100 1000
0100 1101 1000 1000 0000 0000 0010 0101
0010 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0100 0000
0000 0010 0000 0000 1001 0000 0000 0001
0100 0000 0010 0001 0000 0000 1000 0000

Go here to make your own. (Requires that you sign in to a Google Docs account.)

But as I wrote in this follow-up post, Stravinsky's pattern is the best, even if that judgment is biased by conditioning. Bernstein was right about The Rite, and it's newness isn't getting old. I'm guessing it will remain in this state of suspended animation for at least another hundred years.

Many more Rite-inspired posts can be found here.