When I was a student, I challenged myself to listen to as many works by as many different composers as possible. Since I worked in the recordings section of my school’s music library, I enjoyed the advantage of free access to our vast collection of CDs and LPs, and I used to browse through these physical objects, seeking out all the collections of contemporary pieces that I could find. In this way, I discovered the music of Lachenmann, Shatin, Birtwistle, Wolfe, and many other composers whose works I continue to enjoy to this day. In addition, I used to participate in monthly listening parties with a group of similar-minded composers. We would have dinner and then one of us would play new recordings that might be of interest to everyone. These evenings were filled with fascinating discussions—through which I possibly learned more than in my course studies—and they also introduced me to Scelsi, Xenakis, and other creators of beautiful music.
Looking back on those days, the greatest predictor of future success among my contemporaries was the amount of time and energy individuals spent listening to music. Those students who remained open to the ideas they could glean from new artistic experiences invariably grew into the colleagues from whom I continue to learn.
Each new musical experience built upon all the previous ones, gradually and inexorably altering my aesthetic predilections. As my taste evolved, composers whose music I found to be too abstract in my first encounters often morphed into the center of my preferred palate. Conversely, I now eschew much of the music that initially grabbed me decades ago, believing it to be cloying and obvious.
My current problem is that my musical explorations haven’t kept pace with the changes in my personal taste, nor with the wealth of interesting music that contemporary composers continue to produce. I rarely encounter the sort of unstructured stretches of time that would allow me the freedom to explore music from among the dozens of new composers whose works friends and colleagues recommend as being aesthetically up my alley. Further complicating matters are the giants of the 20th century whose works I’ve found to be incredibly moving and yet have only experienced in small doses. Even as the internet has greatly increased my access to an incredible variety of music that’s available nearly everywhere and at a moment’s notice, my ability to take advantage of this abundance has diminished nearly as profoundly.
In order to stop this gradual erosion of my knowledge of the contemporary repertoire, I’ve embarked on a new listening project. Each week, I try to carve out blocks within my schedule during which I concentrate on experiencing a piece that is either new to me or that I’ve only heard in less than ideal circumstances. I’m trying to force myself to move beyond the paralysis that can set in as I face the infinite variety of sounds available to me at all times in order to choose one or two works on which I will focus during each session. I’m hoping that this venture might work over time to stem the deterioration of my listening skills, and that it will allow me to remain more current in my awareness of the wealth of music available to listeners today.
I have two indelible memories pertaining to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The first is an unquestionably embarrassing one. I was working on my first, flawed orchestra piece at a summer music festival and was showing my bare-bones sketches to our composition teacher there. At that point, those sketches consisted mostly of thematic ideas placed on the nearest convenient staff—there was little to no orchestrational thinking present at all, and what was there was pretty boilerplate. I fully intended to get around to fixing that eventually, but that didn’t stop the teacher from launching into a diatribe about creative orchestration that reached its apex with him singing to me that famous high bassoon melody that inaugurates the Rite: you know, daaah-dee-dee-dee-dah-dah-dah-daaaaah. I don’t know if it was the stress of the situation or his off-key singing, but I didn’t recognize the reference and stared at him blankly. The next day he told the assembled composition class that “a certain student from a prominent music school” didn’t know The Rite of Spring, in order to make some kind of point—I forget what. He avoided mentioning me by name, but I nonetheless felt humiliated.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always held a little bit of a grudge against Stravinsky’s magnum opus. Because it was true—I didn’t know The Rite of Spring, or at least not as well as I should have. When I finally sat down to really study it, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this all before. And I guess I had, not just in the piece itself, but in the countless pale reflections that composers all around me seemed to be churning out. As always, I couldn’t fault Stravinsky for the brilliance of his ideas or the unimpeachable precision of his execution, but it didn’t have the earth-shattering impact on me that it seemed to have on so many others. I was puzzled. Maybe I had come to it too late? Maybe it was like The Catcher in the Rye, and you needed to discover it at a certain point in your development to truly appreciate it.
It wasn’t until many years later that I actually came to fully embrace the Rite. I was at a live performance in an outdoor setting in a rural community, and enjoying it immensely. The natural setting, exposed to the elements, seemed particularly appropriate for the more primitivist aspects of the piece. There was a dirt road leading to the parking lot along the right edge of the performance space, and in the midst of the “Danse des adolescentes” (I think), a car drove by, laying on the horn for about five seconds on its way out.
Somehow, that incident made me infinitely more sympathetic to the Rite. I had glimpsed, for a moment, a shadow of the piece’s power to incite riot. There is something permanently radical about it, something deeply unsettling to some people even 100 years later. It serves as a kind of signpost, marking the boundary between the traditional and the avant-garde, and I have the feeling that it will always be there. Musical borders are changing all the time, but Stravinsky may have staked out that territory for good.
Still, a tiny part of me can’t help but resent its place as the piece of the 20th century, because I’m not sure its influence has been an entirely happy one. Some pieces inspire composers to strike out in new directions, but the Rite often seems to have the opposite effect on composers who want to duplicate its brutal majesty. The Rite of Spring has reigned unopposed for a century—maybe it’s time for a transfer of power?