Thursday, January 17, 2008

Spring Forward, Fall Back

I tried to disregard it. I tried to hum pleasantly when it came on the air, to settle for rolling my eyes or inserting my fingertips -delicately- into my ear canals But after hearing the advertisement on All Things Considered for the 27th time, I snapped.

The snapping mostly consisted of eating more of a certain delicious something called "bacon jack" than I ought, but the radio ad is still lodged, splinter-like, in my brain. Why oh why must the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra incessantly flog its upcoming performance of "Stravinsky's controversial Rite of Spring?"

Euthanasia is controversial. Milton Babbitt is controversial. The Rite of Spring, a mainstay of the classical canon for decades now, is not. True, the Rite of Spring is harsh, spiky, and violent, but it swathes these qualities in cozy tradition. No one contests the Rite of Spring's place in the pantheon. No one is taken aback by its aural landscape. Have the ISO PR folks have been living under a rock for the past sixty years?


I still remember the delicious slap in the face I received that day in Music of the Avant-Garde when I was told that Beethoven, good old stuffed-shirt powdered-wig Beethoven, had been, in his day, revolutionary. That his ideas were bold, startling, and, yes, controversial. To listen to Beethoven that way, to let my shield of familiarity fall, was hear to something rivetingly raw.

Is the ISO cleverer than I think it is? Is the orchestra's designation of The Rite of Spring as "controversial" a goad to get us to open our ears? Is it a cue for us to reframe our listening, to cast ourselves back to a time when Stravinsky's subject matter, and to a lesser extent his music, was new and shocking? Is the ISO secretly promoting that bastard child of historical performance, historical listening?

I'm going to pretend it is.

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