It was a disappointing move-in day. My new dorm at DePaul University in Chicago was not only a dismal, un-air-conditioned, cinderblock eyesore, but it was spitting distance from the Fullerton “L” stop. And it was eye level with the trains. I was bombarded by constant rumbles and screeches of trains, punctuated by the barking of a conductor: “FULLERTON...THIS IS FULLERTON....NEXT STOP... BELMONT!” On hot nights I had to keep my windows open, and the noise was even louder. I might as well have tried sleeping directly on the Fullerton platform. My first night in that building, I angrily counted trains instead of sheep.
Commuters barreling past my window at all hours was tormenting. At first. But soon, I was only reminded of the “L” during phone conversations. I either had to speak VERY LOUDLY for a few moments or stretch the phone cord out into the hallway to hear anything. The Fullerton stop had been reduced to mostly innocuous background noise. Huh.
Desensitization happens. Yet some great works of music seem to be immune to this phenomenon. Even ones you think of as a familiar old friend can still pick you up by the scruff of the neck, rattle you around, land some solid punches and drop you back into your seat.
For me, one such piece is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
The Rite is now considered standard orchestral repertoire—but as you may know, audience members rioted in outrage at its 1913 premiere. Patrons laughed, hissed and hollered throughout the performance, their eyes and ears offended by Stravinsky’s music as well as Nijinsky’s choreography. The ballet portrayed an ancient ritual where a young woman, “The Chosen One,” dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods of spring. Stravinsky exalted brutish rhythm over melody, jagged angularity over smooth transitions, primitive instinct over empathetic humanity. He purposefully rejected sentimentality in this music, orchestrating a musical distillation of the fiercest human instinct: survival.
Nijinsky’s choreography was equally feral. Instead of swooning over elegant dancers jeté-ing en pointe, attendees were appalled by the stooping, clomping, pigeon-toed corps. In 198, the Joffrey Ballet patch-worked a reconstruction of the original choreography. The performance is available on YouTube; view it and you’ll see just how outlandish the experience must have seemed more than a century ago.
Today we may be less shocked when we hear The Rite, but that doesn’t minimize its power or relevancy. To me, Stravinsky’s music feels like a musical realization of our crazy world’s current challenges. I’m struck by the gorgeous primacy Stravinsky conjures with the opening bassoon: the soul of the forest waking from winter. The life force of earth in spring insists on emerging. Life is beautiful. Still, I’m startled and unnerved when those undulations of sound crack wide into serrated, pulsing gashes. The relentless beats become the pounding hearts of the panic-stricken, or the merciless mechanisms of industry. I’m reminded of the forward crush of time and the inevitability of death. When the beat relents, languid sounds build and layer over each other, competing for my attention. I recognize the conflicting forces and responsibilities in my own life. The charging beat returns.
It’s too much to comprehend. It terrifies, thrills and challenges me. I hope I never get used to it.
The Minnesota Orchestra performs Stravinksy's Rite of Spring, March 31-April 1. Details and Tickets »