I was 24 years old and eagerly anticipating the performance of one of my favorite rock bands, the Psychedelic Furs. Although the Furs would soon strike pop-music pay dirt with a lovely ballad called "Pretty in Pink," the band in 1983 was still a fierce, intensely rhythmic firestorm of anger and superiority: its debut album contained some 150 uses of the word "stupid."
Packed shoulder to shoulder in the pre-expansion (and now sadly defunct) Mississippi Nights club in St. Louis, we stood waiting for the lights to go down, and slowly realized we were surrounded by loudly hammering, aggressively dissonant chords that stomped pure horror into our brains. Suddenly, it occurred to me that this had to be that Igor Stravinsky fellow I had read so much about. Yes, the Psychedelic Furs of 1983 could take the stage only after a full pre-show assault of The Rite of Spring, music that had provoked a riot at its debut performance in the Paris of 1913.
With most artists of genius, there is the work, and the myth of the work. Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring exists simultaneously on both levels. The music aspired to the shock of the new at a time when all art seemed interested in destroying familiar, comfortable forms. The audience response immediately made Rite a potent symbol of the 20th century and its relationship to art: you know, the one in which the best and truest work is that which no one can understand.
Of course, within a few weeks, audiences began to love The Rite of Spring. This, too, was a perfect fit for the constantly moving goalposts of 20th-century originality: scare the living daylights out of people, win converts, achieve normality, become co-opted, get replaced by something newer. This would be the path of artistic movements as diverse as Cubism and Punk Rock.
Stravinsky's career seemed to build up to this one work. In retrospect, if we observe his development from The Firebird to Petrushka, Stravinsky appears to be testing the expectations of art music. Once Rite was accepted as "great," his reputation as Bad Boy of the Music World stayed in place no matter what musical path he strolled along. Stravinsky could write gorgeously lush works, or he could muck around in the 12-tone zone, but his obituaries, in 1971, repeatedly led with the fact that he wrote a piece of music that angered people enough to wish him dead.
By the time I discovered Stravinsky, I had already experienced his artistic echoes in the music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, the Rolling Stones, and the Sex Pistols. Not that these artists shared stylistic quirks with the man, but each scared music fans who had become accustomed to the way things were supposed to be done. I can't remember how many days it was after that Psychedelic Furs concert before I owned a recording of The Rite of Spring, but once the necessary cash was saved, I cranked it up on the home stereo to see if I could provoke my own neighborhood riot.
Now, more than two decades later, Rite has become both familiar and strangely beautiful to me, so comfortable and sensibly obvious in its movement toward those famous propulsive dissonances.
For a hint of the avant-garde frisson, I turn to Rite's predecessor, Petrushka, written in 1911 for the Ballet Russes, which somehow had never come to my ears before. Here, between gently skipping melodies and harshly dynamic thunderous chords, I can feel the powerful resonance of an emotional struggle between forces of light and darkness.
Even better, Stravinsky seems to favor neither one nor the other, nor does he let either side win. The end of Petrushka reminds me of the soon-to-be-invented iris in film, where the edges of the picture simply fade into the center, leaving a faint afterimage of sound. At this point, the light melodies have turned creepy, but they progress without any sign of a forbidding, rumbling attack from the full orchestra.
At the same time, my modern ears can't help but bring a lifetime of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoon experience to the piece. Stravinsky's influence on film composer Carl Stalling (of Looney Tunes fame) is obvious. One sees a cartoon mouse daintily dancing across the floor behind an unsuspecting cat before slamming a hammer down on its tail — all to a very Petrushka-like musical backdrop.
This doesn't take anything away from the power of Petrushka to sweep the listener into its world. So many things happen during the course of its 35 minutes. Sharp cuts between sections and solo instruments of the orchestra bring to mind further developments in the (then) new cinema. A brief solo trumpet passage early on sounds like something Miles Davis might have written fifty years later. The timpanist gets to play more in Petrushka than in most pieces performed in a season.
Igor Stravinsky may no longer elicit the "shock of the new," but his music contains the radical's imprint: riotous, hip, a hammer on the tail.
Steve Pick has written about music for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sauce, St. Louis magazine, No Depression, and other assorted journals. His radio show, Sound Salvation, can be heard on Fridays from 8-10 am on KDHX, 88.1 FM in St. Louis.