Something struck me this morning as I was listening to a story on Igor Stravinsky on NPR. This year, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of his ballet Rite of Spring; a piece of music so muscular, so intense, that the first time it was played it caused a riot.
Nowadays this kind of idea is difficult to fathom. Its had to imagine a musician today, be they popular or off in their own little corner, who could cause such a reaction. Can you imagine a riot caused by a Justin Beiber concert? I can’t. The only thing that comes close to my mind is either the Beatles playing the Ed Sullivan show or when Bob Dylan went electric and pissed off all his fans.
You might recall “Rite of Spring” from the Disney movie Fantasia. Its the famous piece with the T.Rex killing the Stegosaurus. The music, however, is more memorable than that scene. Much more. If you listen to it with a musician’s ear you’ll find it full of mixed meter, rather bizarre and almost frightful chording, and is just plain intense. A big orchestra playing a very big sound. In person, the darn thing can blow your ears off. No wonder people rioted.
Now the thing that struck me this morning was not the intensity of the music — I’ve known that for a while, ever since I won tickets to a Hollywood Bowl concert of the Rite, and went with my buddy Clark Souter. Listening to the piece in that context, shorn of the animation, and shorn of any other mean sing, allowed me to really listen to it. All I could think was “Fuck me! This is big!” What really struck me was the time in which it came out. 1913 sounds like a long time ago, but in terms of orchestral music, it is really near the end of a very long era. 1913 is well over 100 years after Beethoven’s famous da-da-da-dumm of the Symphony #5 was written in 1804, and just short of 90 years after his 9th Symphony was written in 1824. Its 190 years after Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” hit the scene, 54 years after Liszt suggested his New German School, and about 100 years after Schubert. In short, it came out well into the end of what we generally consider “Classical Music” and even the end of the Romantic Era of classical music. And yet, this very, very, late, late-comer to the classical music scene, this 30 year-old punk kid wrote a piece of music so intense, so awesome, that it freaked people out. It caused riots in the streets of Paris. It started a whole new movement in classical music called Modernism. It changed things.
As a writer, working along the long thin edges of the form of art we call the Novel, I am heartened by this. Stravinsky teaches us there is still room for radical change within a medium that appears to be lethargic. Not that I’m interesting in tinkering with the modern forms of the novel, I find the post-modern stuff to be a lot of crap if done for the sole purpose of shock. I don’t think Stravinsky intended to shock as much as I think he intended to stretch his limits, to push his own internal boundaries. Something he was want to do his whole long life. Hell, the man was writing interesting pieces well into the 1960s.
What the “Rite” teaches me is that somewhere out there is a novel yet to be written that is so intense it will cause a riot. Just the idea that this novel might be out there, somewhere, is enough for me. It doesn’t have to be mine, it just has to have the possibility of existence. Like holding a lottery ticket that will not be drawn for a few days, it gives one room to dream. Dream great big muscular dreams. And I like that feeling.
Now its time to lift some word weights, and get my scrawny writing muscles into shape.