Saturday, March 08, 2014

Cogito Igor Sum

Stravinsky in the 1950's
"The piano itself is the center of my musical discoveries. Each note that I write is tried on it, and every relationship of notes is taken apart and heard on it again and again." - Igor Stravinsky

For most listeners, Igor Stravinsky is associated with the brilliant and sometimes exotic orchestral colors of his three French ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, all composed before the twentieth century was two decades old. Despite his long life (he died in 1971, at the age of 88) and career, these works cast a long shadow over his oeuvre, and all of music ever since. A good part of this is due to the sheer pleasure of listening to these scores, with their visceral rhythms, indelible melodies and his masterful use of every instrument. There's also the fact that as time went on, Stravinsky's music grew ever more "logical" and abstract, and while still beautiful, presented a glassy surface that sometimes seemed as impenetrable and unknowable as the man himself.

This is one of the fascinating elements of Jenny Lin's expert and engaging new collection of Stravinsky's piano music, compiling as it does music from 1908 to 1967. This gives us an opportunity to take a tour, over the course of about an hour, through his entire sound world as heard through the sonorities of his favorite instrument. This is a sensible idea: as the quote above indicates, all of his compositions started on the piano. In fact, a good many people - musicians and others - first encountered the Rite in a transcription for piano, albeit for four hands.

Not surprisingly, a few of the works Lin includes are transcriptions or arrangements, two by Stravinsky himself, two by his son Soulima, and one by Guido Agosti. It's only in the last, a take on three movements of the Firebird Suite, itself a reduction of the original ballet music, that we feel another composer's hand. Agosti, a student of the great Ferruccio Busoni, somehow manages to make Stravinsky sound slightly old fashioned. However, Agosti does retain a good bit of the outlandish fun of the original and Lin dispatches its many challenges without difficulty. In fact, her playing is flawless throughout, with a dynamic sparkle that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The album is not ordered chronologically, beginning with the Sonata from 1924, at the dawn of Stravinsky's neo-classical period. There's a slightly collage-like, even schizoid, effect to the way the trills and flourishes of an earlier age interact with his inborn modernism. The second movement feels very intimate in Lin's hands, as if she is channeling the composer while he searches out notes and "relationships of notes." Though the Sonata is one of the lengthier works here, it is still barely 11 minutes long. Concision was never a problem for Stravinsky, but there is no paucity of ideas in the Sonata or elsewhere.

While there is plenty of variety in Lin's selection, all the music is infused with the character of Stravinsky's formidable intellect and gimlet-eyed wit. It's a time-traveling journey that anyone with an interest in modern music should take, with only a few listens needed to expand most people's perceptions of the composer. For example, the lushly melodic Four Etudes from 1908, especially No. 1 in C Minor and No. 3 in E Minor, might surprise a few people with fixed ideas about the man, while the alien jazz of Ragtime (1918) and Piano-Rag-Music (1919) might reinforce those same ideas. "My knowledge of jazz," Stravinsky wrote much later, "was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played but as written." It was easier to be a brother from another planet in the days before you could see and hear everything from the comfort of your broadband connection.

There's another new project engineered to help you hear Stravinsky anew. This one is from The Bad Plus, an avant garde jazz trio of long standing, who have taken on the entirety of The Rite of Spring for their latest release (out March 25th). Consisting of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King, the group is known both for their cerebral approach to jazz and for applying their style (with varying success) to covers of popular favorites by the likes of Nirvana, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and others. Put those two things together, plus the fact that they have adapted works by Ligeti, Babbitt, and even Stravinsky, and you would seem to have a group scientifically designed to execute an adaptation of one of the most popular classical works by one of the most cerebral composers. And, for the most part, there is life in this test tube baby.

The effectiveness of some of the most minimal sections is a reflection of both the ingenuity of The Bad Plus and the durability of Stravinsky's conception. For example, the penultimate track, Evocation of the Ancestors/Ritual Action of the Ancestors, has sections consisting almost entirely of quiet bass and whispered drums yet you always feel located in the heart of the Rite. Throughout the record, the trio fruitfully mines the "composed jazz" territory of Jimmy Giuffre, Kenyon Hopkins and Shorty Rogers, especially during the louder, more hard-driving sections. On the whole, The Bad Plus tackle this seemingly quixotic mission with aplomb.

The album is not an unqualified success, however. The first track features some slightly wishy-washy electronics augmenting the trio and the fact that the sounds never reappear on the album lends them even less conviction. Also, I wouldn't have minded a little more playfulness overall. While I'm not suggesting The Bad Plus go the full Ralph Font, the po-faced atmosphere starts to feel a little suffocating at times. After all, unlike the Stravinsky of 1918, The Bad Plus have actually heard jazz and it wouldn't hurt if they had made that a little more apparent on this accomplished effort.

Note: Quotes taken and photo adapted from Harold C. Schonberg's invaluable book, The Lives of the Great Composers, Third Edition.

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