Way on back in the 1920’s a new opera house was built in the city of Paris. They called the place the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and to celebrate their inaugural season the folks in charge commissioned a new ballet. I suppose they wanted to create a big splash because they hired one of the biggest composers of the day to compose the music (Igor Stravinsky) and the top dancer around to take care of the choreography (Vaslav Nijinsky).
They got their splash.
I don’t know a whole lot about Nijinsky but I know a bit about this Stravinsky fellah. He was a modern composer who leaned towards the noisier side of aesthetics and for this particular commission he liberally sprinkled octatonal harmonic clusters throughout the piece; essentially the compositional equivalent to playing a piano using your forearms. The result was a spine-jarring blast of cacophony that still sounds just about as
horrible interesting as it did a century ago. And even better, he arranged these thick swaths of ugly dissent into pounding and relentlessly aggressive rhythmic motifs that still jangle most musical sensibilities. Gawd only knows what sort of gyrations Najinski came up with to accompany the music committed by Stravinsky.
On opening night the upper crust of Gay Pareé filled the seats of their shiny new grand hall, excited to witness the greatness of the brand new Stravinsky work, The Rite of Spring. I suspect the audience was shocked into silence for the first dozen minutes or so, but when they finally reacted to the music they did so with gusto. Some offended patrons stood and began catcalls while others shouted back insisting on silence so they could hear the music. Soon the audience was divided into warring factions and the shouting back-and-forth got so out of hand the show was aborted. There are, however, reports of a much more aroused crowd creating much greater havoc. As my Intro to Music prof described it, the performance caused the city’s upper crust to go at one another with a feverish barbarism. Rising from their cushy seats, the tuxedoed crowd abandoned all good taste and decorum, fighting each other and ultimately rushing the stage looking for blood. Literally! Though the composer and choreographer barely escaped with their lives, the new opera house wasn’t so lucky. Seats were ripped up and curtains torn down by the riotous upper class.
And all because they didn’t like the music (again, no word on how good or bad the choreography was.)
It’s a pretty crazy story, and it may even be true*. But whether it was truly a riot or merely a bout of booing that got over-reported my young rebellious interest was piqued enough to start listening to the Rite of Spring an awful lot. I listened to it so much that I eventually started to like the music, though it took a while.
So I was pretty interested when the Ottawa jazz fest’s seemingly annual booking of The Bad Plus featured the avant-garde jazz trio playing their own version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And in the wonderful Dominion-Chalmers church too. I got there well in time.
If I recall properly, the concert started with The Bad Plus sitting quietly on stage with their instruments in their laps as a recording of The Bad Plus playing the first couple of minutes of the Rite of Spring played through the sound system. Was this some sort of a joke? I got ready to riot and looked around for likely foes and accomplices. Then right when those mean-sounding forearm chords I was telling you about come in the band took over and started playing live. And there went the next forty-five minutes or so. It was simultaneously the most and least challenging concert I had seen them play and I enjoyed it quite a lot; more than I usually enjoy The Bad Plus. I think being in an unlicensed, seated venue helped but I think it was mostly the Stravinsky.
(This reminds me that I started working on an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for my old freakrock band Bob Loblaw. I don’t think I got very far before I realized that it wasn’t ever going to get played. It was a poor choice of songs, really. Come to think of it, we should have done The Rite of Spring. I think we could’ve rocked those thick punching rhythms pretty solid. Heck, Bob Loblaw specialized in playing ugly music for catcalling music aficionados.)
I followed up the show by parking myself at the mainstage for a performance that was dramatically less challenging: Colin James. Talk about un-edgy. It’s amazing to think that The Bad Plus covering 100-year-old music was more vital than a blues guitarist playing his own music but even when he set aside his Top-40 numbers (remember Just Came Back?) and just played his guitar Colin James still fell very, very short of melting any faces whatsoever.
But hey, at least his set was licensed.
*I don’t remember my prof mentioning that the show went off okay in the same venue on the following night but that wouldn’t have made for such a riveting story, and Professor Gilmor was great at telling riveting stories.