Thursday, November 03, 2005

Liam Gerussi, Nov. 3, Paper #2 - Disney and Stravinsky

The initial reaction to Stravinsky’s Le Sacré du Printemps was one of incomprehension. A year before the outbreak of the First World War, the 1913 Paris audience expressed protest, outrage, and laughter at the ballet’s premiere. It seemed at the time that the composer’s modern rhythms, frenetic melodies, and unpredictable musical rhetoric were too much for the civilized, upper-class audience to bear. As the orchestra played on, the audience became degenerate, approaching the level of an in-theatre riot (Kelly 209).

Over the next thirty years, a similar breakdown would occur throughout Europe, but on a much larger scale. After experiencing or at least witnessing the Russian revolution, two world wars, and mass genocide, Europeans could hardly take so-called civilized cultures at face value any longer. With all its cosmic fear and sacred complexity, Le Sacré du Printemps would indeed have been appropriate background music for either the Nazi genocide or the Bolshevik revolution. In this context, it does not seem quite so outrageous of Stravinsky to have been writing about primitivism and pagan sacrifice using folk motifs and appropriately disorienting techniques for an increasingly disorienting modern world.

Stravinsky tried to construct a portrayal of primitive pagan Russia using recycled Russian folk songs as well as his own work, which was presented on modern instruments, with modern techniques and experimentation. While Stravinsky’s work was undoubtedly a milestone in modern classical music, this convalescence of new and old, primitive and modern, is nothing new. Walt Disney also combined the primitive with the modern: his Disneyland theme park, which opened in Southern California in 1955, was based on the combination of nostalgia for an earlier American way of life and a futuristic, consumer-oriented flair for visionary enterprise.

The Rite of Spring was also immortalized in Walt Disney’s mid-century motion picture experiment Fantasia, now a Disney cult classic. Disney’s film put animated sequences to well known classical works – the most famous scene being the segment set to Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, featuring Mickey Mouse. Walt chose The Rite of Spring – a symphony to dissonance and primitivism – for an animated sequence chronicling the dawn of time, from cells splitting in the primordial soup to the dinosaurs’ extinction.

Perhaps Disney’s choice of Stravinsky as the artist to underscore his dawn of time sequence was not entirely inappropriate. Stravinsky’s piece is, in essence, an imitation of primitivism: a theatrical enactment of an early pagan ritual, presented in a modern style. Disney’s work also takes modern stock of older and more primitive forms, from his animated features based on classic fairy tales to his presentation of classical music in Fantasia itself. Most significantly, the Disneyland theme park is, by definition, a theatrical, fantastic, and romantically modernized place. It is an iconic re-enactment of turn-of-the-century, middle-class American life, with an essentially modern look towards the future and technology. Both Disney and Stravinsky attempted to replicate something from the past, while presenting it with their own self-consciously modern spin.

Thomas Kelly, Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps, 290.
References to Disney’s Fantasia (1940):,; International Movie Database,

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Lizzie Vieh
1 November 2005
The Rite of Spring as a Return to the Jungle
“We carry the jungle with us.” So said C.G. Jung, Freud’s most influential disciple, in a prophetic statement that came to characterize the incredible violence and tumultuous change that took place in the Western world during the first half of the twentieth century. This era is characterized by intellectual giants who stripped bare the primitive nature of man: Freud, Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and, I would also argue, Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring renders the libido of the decade in musical form. In thirty-four minutes, Stravinsky strips away the bourgeois costume of civilization and lays bare man at his most nakedly primitive. He is a savage, pitiless, terrified creature, utterly controlled by forces beyond his control: those of nature, evolution, the power of the collective, and his own murky unconscious. The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, one year before the archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and Europe was plunged into the most bloody war the world had ever known. Death had never occurred on a scale like this. It was as though man had reverted back to a primitive archetype of the bloodthirsty savage bent on self-annihilation.
The audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was the very definition of “bourgeois.” Wealthy and well-fed, these civilized Parisians were as far-removed from prehistoric man as filet mignon is from a slab of bloody cow meat. Yet when the opening bars of Le Sacre began, this top-hatted crowd devolved into a primitive monkey-house. It was as though that primitive, relentless rhythm, and that frightening dissonance hit some deranged, primeval switch in the collective mind. They were outraged and horrified.
The Rite of Spring represents ancient concepts of sacrifice. The individual is subject to the collective. If the tribe demands the virgin’s sacrifice to ensure the return of spring, then she is bound to dance herself to death. She has no will of her own, no ego to protect, and no social illusions to uphold. She is driven by powerful, unknowable forces that delight in her self-annihilation and view atrocities and violence with a cool detachment. The melody of the music is warped and perverted in bizarre ways, but the rhythm beats on, steady and relentless. Both the subject matter of the ballet and the emotional resonance of the music reinforce the absence of self that characterized both ancient and modern man.
The Rite of Spring portrays the disintegration of the ego and how fluidly the primeval world permeates the present. The concerns of late industrial society – how the individual can maintain a sense of self when assailed by titan forces beyond his control – mirror those of prehistoric man. Freud argues in Totem and Taboo that just as the dilemma facing modern man mirrors that of his ancient ancestors, so is the modern neurotic a manifestation of ancient man. Prehistoric man did not understand the forces that governed his world, nor his tremendous sense of guilt and anxiety, but he tried to influence the forces and mollify his remorse through a variety of rituals. His behavior was extremely inhibited and governed by a variety of bizarre taboos. Failure to adhere to these rules and taboos resulted in tremendous guilt and hysteria. An actual representation of this phenomenon can be seen in Charcot’s “hysterical women.” In their frothing, writhing, screaming displays, they hark back to primeval man and his rituals of self-sacrifice and atonement.
The Rite of Spring offers a veritable soundtrack for these rituals. In its primeval rhythms and neurotic melodies, the piece is a compendium of both archaic and modern man. It infuriated Parisian audiences in 1913 because it showed them their true selves, buried under layers of fine manners and social conventions.

Stravinsky, Culture, and Play (paper #2, 11/1/05)

Stravinsky, Culture, and Play
Whit Bernard

I recently read an article for a 20th century theory class by Gretchen Horlacher, an American music theorist, who sought to contest Pierre Boulez’s assertion that Stravinsky’s music is “anti-developmental.” Citing Adorno and Schoenberg, among others, as critics who have time and again accused Stravinsky of “empty formalism” and “superficiality” because of the lack of a discernible inner structural coherence, a-la-Brahms and Webern, in his neo-classical works, she seemed to sense an urgency to put to rest the notion that such seminal works as Le Sacre and the Symphony of Psalms might in fact consciously skirt the edges of rigorous formal development. Her project was purely and simply theoretical: demonstrate the ways in which Stravinsky’s music actually does develop logically, and thus position him firmly within the predominantly Germanic cannon of post-romantic structuralism. The singular validity of that cannon, of course, is never questioned. After all, the narrative that gave birth to it features such heavy hitters as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, the greatest exponents of progressive phases of a basic, unquestionable axiom. In fact, the patently misguided assumption that Boulez’s characterization of Stravinsky as non-developmental is pejorative is not questioned either. If music does not develop according to a set of rational principles, it cannot be autonomous, and if it is not autonomous it is corruptible, contingent, superficial, and morally inferior. (Horlacher, 171-174)

I am projecting my own notion of structuralist thought, and particularly Adorno’s philosophy, onto this theorist, which is not fair. I have no way of attaching her to any ideological tradition based on such a limited article. Her project was narrow in scope, and while she did quite clearly misread Boulez, I think she was quite successful in demonstrating some of the hidden connections between disparate materials in pieces that often seem to shift arbitrarily from one idea to another, iterating previously stated ideas without “earning” them in the traditional sense of development. But the apparent cultural position of her argument interests me much more than its content, and so if nothing else I hope to acknowledge her role in the articulation of some larger questions: Is the universal value or validity of Stravinsky’s composition at stake here? Why, and according to whom? Does anyone care?

To couch the situation in Althusserian terms, one could argue that Schoenberg and Adorno, and perhaps even Gretchen Horlacher, are trapped within an ideological problematic that conditions its own blindness to itself. The staggering destruction of World War One, totally unanticipated by the positivistic empiricists of the early 20th-century mainstream, suggested to artists and intellectuals of all stripes that rationality itself had become a paradoxically closed, self-referential normative structure with no recourse to universality. Its substructures are not only subject to contingent relationships with one another, but also relationships to realities outside the paradigm of Western Reason, realities to which the Western thinker is necessarily blind, and which are thus necessarily repressed by the structure itself. It is thus the guiding delusion of early 20th century structuralism that “coherence” is by its very nature categorical. As Derrida suggests in his Grammatology, any concept, or for that matter any “structural parameter” in the normative Western European epistème is “always already” present, and thus demonstrated as true by virtue of its own presence within an overdetermined field. Meaning is manufactured out of itself, neither true nor untrue.

The paradox of twentieth century composition, a paradox that Adorno seems to have been fully aware of in his later, more angst-stricken writings on Schoenberg’s twelve tone music, is that the seemingly authentic, autonomous (and yet always conceptually ambiguous) structure that is meant to vindicate music from the corruptibility of social contingency and elevate it to the level of “true art” is not only unattainable, it is in fact as contingent and culturally determined as any parameter of Stravinsky’s playful formalism. In the realm of corruptible human constructs it is but another node in an endless field of malleable reference, with no structural depth from which to distill and anchor a moral hierarchy. Stravinsky is perhaps guilty of un-self-conscious superficiality and naively pedantic formalism as he waxes on about “good taste” in the Poetics, but a post-structuralist reading would reward him for being, at the very least, honest about his own particularity. He gives us nothing more than surface play, but it is surface without the pretense of depth. In a postmodern epistemological sense, Schoenberg’s impulse to universalize his art through a structural analogy with some other, extra-ideological dimension larger than himself is perhaps the more dangerous and insidious of the two. (Stravinsky,

As a composer who has, for better or worse, spent far more time over the past few years taking courses in cultural studies and writing analytical papers on the status of contemporary creative work than I have creating music myself, I have grown acutely aware of the reality that composition is, on a fundamental level, an excersize in cultural criticism, and thus intimately tied up in the world of representational play from which it struggles to stand apart as unique, and as somehow “good” for the world.

It is easy to get caught up in an obsessively conceptual and moralistic framework of aesthetic judgment, though. If we are hopelessly and irrevocably trapped within the realm of cultural play, I suppose a better angle for looking at the potentially positive achievement of a work of art, if only in a relative sense, is its position in relation to that culture to which it is hopelessly contingent. The tendency then becomes to argue in favor of the discerning consumer, and thus deny art the ability to oppose capitalist cultural production. As an example that resonates on a disturbing level for me personally, the genre of “contemporary concert music,” which arguably has roots in both Schoenberg and Stravinsky, has fallen far from its monopoly on Bourgeois-intellectual musical life in the pre-war years, to the realm of an obscure subcategory of classical music, acknowledged by a small group of academics, performers, and eccentric enthusiasts. It has alienated itself from the public, largely through an ongoing insistence on structural autonomy, to the extent that the idea of a new “academic” musical composition having the kind of immediate cultural impact of The Rite of Spring or even the Five Pieces for Orchestra is, as a member of my post-tonal theory class put it last week, “laughable.”

There are surely as many reasons for this ongoing alienation as there are explanations, and as many explanations as there are alienated composers and listeners, and so I will back off on that front. What I would like to say in a somewhat arbitrary move towards concluding this paper is that the only way to maintain cultural currency and further one’s own ideological vision of a better world through art, as far as I can see it, is to engage in the very field of contingent relationships to a broader culture that Schoenberg and Adorno looked upon with such anxiety, and in fact to make one’s work contingent, through strategic cultural reference, in such a way that it demystifies itself as a product, and emerges from the normative and politically neutralizing realm of the genre as a relatively unique, although entirely determinate, utterance. It was Adorno, after all, who gave rise to the notion of the critic as the actualizer of an artistic gesture. Music criticism for Adorno was not a means of making aesthetic judgments from a position of indifferent objectivity, but rather it was an enterprise that demanded getting inside the work, inhabiting its structure and furthering its development, and thus inheriting its autonomy and actualizing its potential to enforce a rigorous morality and challenge social structures through dialectical synthesis. Discarding the modernist universalism inherent in this approach we can retain it as a model for the composer as cultural critic. Rather than avoiding reference to cultures outside its own internal field, successful new music juxtaposes anachronistic references to the point where it begins to defy those references, to shape them into something just beyond associability. It engages dialectically with the broader field of cultural production in a mode Barthes might refer to as intertextual play. Without depth, there is no masterpiece, only intervention, however by inhabiting culture the contemporary composer retains her ability to make a statement.

Boulez, Pierre. Ed. Jean-Jaques Nattiez. Orientations: collected writings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Horlacher, Gretchen. The Rhythms of Reiteration: Formal Development in Stravinsky’s Ostinati. In Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Autumn, 1992)

Stravinsky, Igor. Poetics of Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Subotnik, Rose Rosengard
Why is Adorno’s Criticism the Way it Is? In Developing Variations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening. In Deconstructive Variations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996