Home > Uncategorized > All over the Map: Igor Stravinsky and Genre

All over the Map: Igor Stravinsky and Genre

May 29th marks the 100th anniversary of the Paris premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, perhaps best known for the fabled “riot” and “scandal” that ensued. To commemorate the event, whatever version of the story one believes, this is a “repeat” of a posting I wrote back in September, which focuses more broadly on Stravinsky himself, as well as his cross-genre associations.

A few years ago, I had an interesting discussion about cross-genre similarity with a Master’s student in my school’s Library and Information Science program. She already knew about my research, and she told me how her musical inclinations were indeed “all over the map.” As a representative classical favourite, she specifically mentioned The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) as an emotionally appealing work for her. This seems an interesting choice, given the well-documented examples of the composer’s influence on other genres, and vice versa (especially with regard to jazz).

His 1913 composition Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) not withstanding, I must admit upfront that I’ve never really warmed much to Stravinsky. Nonetheless, I’ve always had an awareness of his colossal presence within the history of 20th century “western art” music, as well as the sense that he was set up during his lifetime as a living legend. Even before he joined the legion of dead composers in 1971, at least some of his works were deemed worthy of entry into the standard “classical” repertoire. Nonetheless… or maybe precisely for this reason (Hey! A real, live, living composer!)…, a number of prominent “non-classical” people feted Stravinsky, almost like a conventional celebrity. It makes sense, as he made Hollywood his home in the 1940s. Alex Ross (2007) recounts a few examples in The Rest Is Noise. Stravinsky was a guest at the artistically-inclined Kennedy White House (per Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes, anyway), nonchalantly assessing the First Couple as “nice kids” after a few drinks. Upon sighting the composer in a restaurant, Mr. Kennedy’s pal Frank Sinatra asked Stravinsky for his autograph. Surprisingly, no one (not even the irrepressible Opera Chic) has bothered Photoshopping him with Marilyn Monroe.

In October 1973, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein began a series of lectures as Harvard University’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetry. He gave his six talks the overarching title “The Unanswered Question,” named after Charles Ives’ 1908 composition. Essentially, they focus on the ways in which one may or may not be able to draw parallels between linguistics and music, and consider notions of “universality” in both. Nearly 40 years later, Bernstein’s intellectual acrobatics remain worthy of contemplation. Viewers may wish to call back “yes, but…” and “no, but…,” maybe even at the same time. Constantly probing to the point of self-absorption and -indulgence, Bernstein himself even does that to his own musings.

In the final lecture Poetry of Earth, Bernstein wraps up his series by focusing on Stravinsky.

Essentially, he wanted to move away from the “excessive” emotion of [German] romantic composers. (For the uninitiated, just think of any lush-sounding score from a movie soundtrack, like Star Wars.) Along with developing his coolly cacophonic musical voice to expand tonality even further, Stravinsky experimented with other forms of musical expression throughout his lifetime. They ranged from the so-called atonality associated with his more “progressive” counterpart Arnold Schoenberg, to an updated revival of the relatively restrained style of the Classical era (~1750-1820). While very different, both atonal and [neo]Classical styles stand on either side of the Romanticism Stravinsky reacted against, looking both “backward” and “forward.”

World War I began a year after the premier of Rite, its massive death and mechanized destruction making romantic ideals seem even more antiquated. While some composers remained attached to romanticism, many others looked to different sources for inspiration. Jazz, which had started to become a major cultural force, offered one possibility in the era between the two world wars. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) is probably the best-known manifestation of this trend, but a number of European composers (especially in France) had already begun to integrate jazz-like elements into their works. Ross (2007), along with Giddins and Deveaux (2009), discuss the ways in which these composers viewed jazz as a symbol of modern urban chaos; projected simplistic notions of “frivolity” on it; and considered its potential as a liberating force born in the “New World.” An anti-jazz faction existed among high culture musicians and critics, too. Sullivan describes this lot as having similarities to those who had earlier opposed Richard Wagner, ironically a prime target of musicians reacting against Romantic composers:

Jazz, like Wagnerism, ultimately triumphed in a way that surpassed the worst fears of its enemies, becoming… arguably the most potent musical force in the Western world (1999, 195).

Stravinsky became part of the frisson between classical and jazz. The Soldier’s Tale, Ragtime for 11 Instruments, and Piano Rag Music (1918-1919), as well as the 1945 Ebony Concerto(written for jazz clarinetist Woody Herman and his band), have well-documented ties to jazz.

Sullivan points out that Stravinsky’s forays into the genre came from studying scores, rather than first-hand listening experience. Even if his jazz may not be “authentic,” Stravinsky authentically found its style a helpful guide in breaking ties with traditions of Russian composition (Sullivan 1999, 209-210). Conversely, a number of jazz musicians admired Stravinsky. The emergence of bebop in the 1940s and 1950s, pioneered by such musicians as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, illustrates this trend. An amusing tale from around that time finds Parker noticing Stravinsky in the audience at Birdland, and delighting the tipsy composer during a performance of Koko by bringing in a theme from Firebird.

Best known for their renditions of rock songs, jazz trio The Bad Plus developed their own version of Rite, which premiered last year. In some ways, Rite shares some affinities with “le rock ‘n’ roll” as well. Stravinsky never got around to composing anything with an explicit nod to that genre. He was already in his mid-70s when Elvis became a symbol of its explosion into the mainstream. Interestingly, on a commission from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Music Library Association, Augusta Read Thomas composed a piece that name checks both musicians: Shakin’ – Homage to Elvis Presley and Igor Stravinsky (2006). At any rate, the reputation of Rite’s riot-riddled premiere makes it seem like a precursor to the less restrained atmosphere stereotypically associated with rock concerts. It should come as no surprise, then, that Stravinsky’s piece lends itself to rock renditions, including this “rock
reduction.”

One comment for the video states, “Mr. Zappa would’ve loved this.” Not much of a stretch, as the genre-crossing Frank Zappa cited Stravinsky (among other 20th century composers, such as Edgard Varese) as an influence. Even while Stravinsky was still alive, Zappa drew upon his ideas. As he stated in a 1966 interview, Zappa was using them as “a gradual progression to bring in my own ‘serious’ music.” More detailed accounts of Stravinsky’s influence come from Andre Mount’s blog Zappa Research, which includes a listing of specific borrowings noted by the blog’s author. Indeed, one of Zappa’s more colourfully-titled songs makes an overt reference to Stravinsky (~5:00), as the Devil tries guessing the only “two things” the narrator is interested in.

There is also some debate about the extent to which the song alludes to A Soldier’s Tale.

Stravinsky appears in the realm of hip-hop as well. The Beastie Boys use “The Naming and Honouring of the Chosen One” from Rite at the opening of their 1998 song “Intergalactic,” which features a gigantic robot from space landing in Japan and doing battle with a large creature.

Interesting footnote: Akira Ifukube, perhaps best known for his scores to similar films, cited Stravinsky as a primary influence.

Several years ago, Jennifer Weber and her Decadancetheater company integrated music from Firebird with hip-hop rhythms into a performance entitled Decadance vs. The Firebird.

In addition to crossing genre boundaries, Jennifer Dunning and Bob Shingleton mention how it set about to deconstruct a number of gender-based conventions within both ballet and hip-hop.

Certainly, there must be even more connections. For instance, based on my own listening experience, the U2 song “Zooropa” almost sounds like it’s alluding to the percussion heard near the beginning of the “Ritual of Abduction” from Rite. That is, before the song goes on to sound like langsam Mahler (maybe his Seventh Symphony), concluding with Straussian vivacity. Unfortunately, none of the similarities mentioned above is reflected in last.fm. The composers deemed most similar to Stravinsky are fairly predictable big names from the twentieth century, including other Russian and French near-contemporaries, as well as Second Viennese School composers. And, yes, that includes his rival Schoenberg (#3 at the time of writing). Right here is evidence that music recommender systems are stagnant, and in need of substantial change. They do not reflect the array of nuanced similarities across genres as described above. Of course, this information is a decent starting point for those who want to stay within genre, but its usefulness remains at an elementary level. What if someone wants to move beyond that, and find the nuanced cross-genre overlaps? Where’s the legendary jazz saxophonist? The composer of giant monster movie scores? The wild-haired precursor of Weird Al Yankovic and Rob Zombie? The serendipitous connection made to an Irish rock band by an idiosyncratic listener of multiple genres? We’re not there yet, but we can at least start thinking about how such a system would operate. And maybe broad listeners wouldn’t have to conceptualize their musical tastes as “all over the map” of genres.

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