Articles and Essays

Articles and Essays

The Rite of Spring Through a 21st Century Lens

Spring is days away, and the premiere of the Rite of Spring 100 years later.

If you explore some of the performances and arrangements of The Rite on YouTube you discover that it celebrates its edgy quality, when in fact the work is pastoral and tuneful in some sections.

The Rite is purported to be a Big Bang moment for the genesis of Heavy Metal (at least according to Gustavo Dudamel):

Here is a Metal arrangement reduced to guitar and drums that is impressively done, but is largely abrasive:

This has in a sense "cannibalized" or abstracted the work to its primitive or savage nature, and uses that as its primary inspiration. But to only experience The Rite for the riotous parts would be a great misconception about it. (It is after all a ballet, albeit about a girl that dances herself to death.)

Devolutional Effects

Noisy music is more typical of modernity. The Classical period has little relevance to modernity, even though the Enlightenment led to the development of the Industrial Revolution that would give birth to a darker and more complex art and music, more ragged and more fragmented.

There are several reasons for the attrition of classical and baroque styles, while new forms of romanticism seem to be alive and continuously evolving. Romanticism endures with the changing times as a "mirror" art form, reflecting the world in its current state and pushing against it. It is difficult to overlay the cultural values of 19th Century German society to a fully globalized world with virtual meta-boundaries or meta-geographies that the Internet has created. It simply has no immediate significance to life in 2013. That said, it will always have a selective significance as an historical touchstone. The past is relevant for comparison and contrast, and to have a reference point for what sounds "right" so we can make new "wrong" versions. Beethoven is even beyond the state of appropriation, i.e. there are no cultural elements that can be contrasted with contemporary society. The differences are so apparent so as to be tacitly implied. The Classical period can continue to be appreciated for its impeccable attention to detail and craftsmanship. To reverse engineer a Beethoven piano sonata is a wonder in itself.

Harmonic and melodic innovation in the 20th Century

Heavy Metal was particularly fascinated with the tritone (e.g. D-G#), using it as its primary compositional element. Bebop in the 1950s also used it melodically with completely different results. Tritones are supposed to resolve to a consonant interval but that is ultimately an artificial construct. In fact it could be seen as an "old normal" that has faded from practice but still creates cognitive dissonance: Some want it resolved and some don't. There's a natural power in the tritone that doesn't need a correction. There is no release necessary if a tension does not exist or has not been implied, or if the tension is "consonant" enough to stand on its own. Jimi Hendrix did the same thing with a recontextualization of it in Purple Haze. If you play the interval in a "classical" context, it resolves to a tonic triad, but as a riff it stands on its own. This is the type of sonic abstraction that arose in the 20th century, not so much about breaking rules but by breaking it from traditional context.

This piece by Black Dice has a caustic quality, but has certain similarities to The Rite in some respects. It is in an odd meter (13/8), and could even be orchestrated with loud brass, low strings and percussion. It is both contemporary and futuristic sonically, yet at the same time not shocking enough to cause a stir as The Rite did in 1913. The shifting baseline has gotten so low that it doesn't take much to tolerate dissonance, but again it is context that softens it.

Effects of Technology

We are now connected at many more levels than 100 years ago due to the different ways we can now use music, both to listen to and compose and/or appropriate.

Artists and musicians are typically hyper-aware of change and naturally use change to experiment with new technologies as a way to escape old styles and methods. Once an artist reaches the age of 25 they are in a perfect position to be very transformative and influential. (Stravinsky was in his late 20s when he wrote the ballets.) Stravinsky was not driven by technology per se and wrote with the usual instrument--the piano. But he was most certainly inspired by modernity and the new look it gave the world overall.

Follow the bouncing data point

Just as the industrial age reflected itself in art and music, so has the computer (silicon) age. It's not what the world looks and sounds like--it's now what the data show:


21st century technology seems to be more about taking vast amounts of amorphous information and shaping it into comprehensible forms. That's why visualization of information have become more important. In the 1910s the world had a solidity that has evolved over the last century Into the ethereal and the virtual.


Artistic behavior may be adjusting accordingly: the wonkish appears to have a primacy over soulfulness. It is probably no different that 100 years ago in the sense of the relevancy of the artistic response to the world and how we deal with it emotionally and intellectually. It is in some respects all about industry, productivity and efficiency, just translated into a new technological area. Useful (emphasis) Artificial Intelligence may become a way to forge ahead with new ways to be creative with sound and composition, but raises the question of whether we want everything to be smoothed out by algorithms. Augmented Reality will raise similar questions whether we want any more stresses on cognition, how that will affect our reptilian "codec" systems, i.e. how can we code-decode to the betterment of ourselves as individuals and as a society. As in 1913, the early works that spring from new technologies will be a shock to the system, then will ride the shifting baselines accordingly, with cognitive dissonance either fading into the background, or being incorporated into new realities. And I don't mean that figuratively--each generation is probably burned in by age 20 with the prevailing technology.

Primitive Power

There is something very compelling about any works composed by master artists and musicians that are intentionally primitive. There is the sense of something being "wrong" (cognitive dissonance) and is projected out into the world by artists. Picasso did it with Cubism, Duchamp with Dada, Lichtenstein with pop art, Basquiat with neo-classicism, and Stravinsky with the dissonant pieces. The Rite was quintessentially "wrong" for its time.

If you compare art created both intentionally and unintentionally "wrong", the effect is the same, with one huge distinction: knowing the "right" version creates even more cognitive dissonance, that provokes critical responses from viewers and listeners (at least initially) and then ultimately, a capitulation to dissonance as the "New Normal". New Normals are also never constant, and shift imperceptibly beneath our feet. When we do detect them, we typically make a 180-degree turn, with the requisite "neo" and "post" labels applied. (Even Stravinsky himself did the "neo" thing.) But The Rite did not "fix" anything, but rather reflected a state of disrepair and dysfunction, which is the most powerful tool an artist can use.

The importance of being wrong

There's nothing more "analog" than to make a "wrong" version of something. To the artist, a sharp sense of cognitive dissonance is crucial to finding what is interesting. Machines by default just fix what is seen as "wrong" whereas the artist seizes the opportunity to make something of it. There is a quasi spirituality in embracing randomness. The universe is almost all dark and random, so it would be foolish to even take that on as a civilization, or to assume that it has no effect on us. The more we surrender to dark matter in whatever way it manifests, the more we stay in a junior role in terms of our association with the universe.

Connection with Visual Art

The obvious connections The Rite had in the art world are Cubism, Dada and Surrealism all which shredded the established process of seeing and representing reality; with Cubism as a purely retinal phenomenon and the latter as conceptual.

Mid-20th century Pop art was also understood as being driven by a sense of reproduction and industry, disconnected from a spiritual or "sacred" feeling, which then became woven into the art-life continuum. This sense of spirituality has evolved and has a new life today.

From interview with Roy Lichtenstein in 1963 Art News:

"Everybody has called Pop Art “American painting", but it’s actually industrial painting. America was hit by industrialism and capitalism harder and sooner and its values seem more askew… I think the meaning of my work is that it’s industrial, it’s what all the world will soon become. Europe will be the same way, soon, so it won’t be American; it will be universal."

This in fact was a prediction that did materialize, especially in the work of Gerhard Richter in the mid 1960s, one of the first European artists to use a more mechanical approach to the look of painting, made to look like an out-of-focus photo, but were actually done in oil and swiped with squeegee. A sense of Ironicism engulfs them, and the cognitive dissonance is deafening (blinding) on first viewing, and begs the question of why an artist would do it. Not that the Rite was intentionally arch or ironic, but they were both reactive to the anomie of the culture at large--driven by technology. Air travel to all parts of the globe became more available in the early 1960s as well, with the Boeing 707 a significant factor in the spreading of ideas or memes. The Beatles' travels to India certainly made the music more profound and/or globally relevant.

Even in the not-so-distant late 1980s, pop music had gravitas and took on all kinds of political and social issues. Success for an artist assumes a responsibility to carry the weight of the world, with the common notion that artists are shaping our understanding of it. An artistic vision to only look outward would be a patently false vision. Artists that depict the world merely as decoration leave out a large part of the power of art. The effect of decoration has a tendency to fade into the background of everyday life if not properly put into different historical contexts. The work of Banksy and Ai Weiwei are 21st Century manifestations of Cubism and Dada in some respects through the infusion of socio-political aspects into visual art. Music now seems to be more Dada in that it is oppositional to the status quo and is shaped by generational effects: no one really wants to listen to what their parents listened to, and again goes back to the effect of technology. Music is now one and the same with a recording, with the composer in the role of an anthropologist, archaeologist, archivist, engineer, and so on. This is an exciting facet of growth and change, and how creative people can make new work in a protean culture. Visual artists follow a somewhat similar path, but is slowed down in some ways at the material level. Applying paint to a surface is slow compared to digital photography and Photoshop.

The realization is that even after a century, a piece of music can endure on a global scale, and serve as a testament to the power of art to bring world history and culture back into focus, and to project it into the future.

Lastly and most importantly, it is the composer as clarifier. Brian Eno was once referred to as a "drifting clarifier" (focuser) and that is what artists do well.

Lee Barry
March 17, 2013