Last night's performance of "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky at Benaroya was amazing. They opened up with Scriabin's "The Poem of Ecstasy" which I had never heard and is now in my heart. A truly dazzling and dynamic work.
Prior to intermission, we were treated to what the program listed as, “The Roots: Stravinsky’s Inspirations” in which a local folk ensemble called Juliana & Pava, dressed in traditional Russian clothing, played excerpts from folk songs that are believed to be the inspirations for several passages in The Rite of Spring. They would play an excerpt and the orchestra would echo with Stravinsky’s…well, echoes.
Not only was it delightful and educational, but I could have listened to an evening of music by this folk group alone. The instrumentalists took their place on stage left with balalaikas, a hurdy-gurdy, some wind instrument and other stringed instruments. Then the vocalists entered moving slowly through the aisles singing a single note, overlapping so as to create this constant drone. There was some dancing and hand percussion as well. It was mesmerizing.
Like most Slavic folk music, the vibe was haunting – not only because of its harmonic and tonal qualities, but because it seemed to call to some ancient part of me. It was simultaneously alien and deeply familiar. Because of the hat I was wearing as I walked back to my car, I was compelled to respond to a drunk patron of some cap hill pub patio (she wanted to pet the faux fur of the hat) that I was not Russian but do have Ukrainian roots. I do. And Polish. Both on my mother’s side. And Romanian on my father’s side. Do these roots have anything to do with me? I really only begin to suspect they do when I hear Eastern European folk music and the sounds of the Romani peoples.
Several moments in The Rite of Spring demand attention. Some bind you to your chair. Many call your body to dance, or even, like the young woman who sat on my left after intermission, bang your head a bit. I’ve heard it said that there were riots after its premier. Even with our modern sensibilities, I could feel a certain madness rise within me from the sheer magnitude of certain passages.
If my attempts at meditation are any indication, I am easily distractible. When you are really hearing something for the first time, what are you listening for? Are you trying to follow a thread of reason through this wordless story? Are you trying to just let it wash over you? Are you wondering if you, too, should explore old folk songs from your ancestors to rework into your own compositions? Are you thinking about how you'll never be a Stravinsky? Are you wondering if you should challenge yourself to create something so (seemingly) through-composed? Why are you are at the symphony alone? What must it be like to geek out with someone on these masterpieces the way some people geek out on Sunday's game? Why can't you stop thinking and just enjoy the music?
This collection of thoughts is just a small representation of my brain on fire. But the thought that was welcome among all of these others was this: Don't try to know the music. Assume that the music knows you, and make yourself open to its insight.
I wear a small talisman around my neck that is actually a USB drive and on it are some of my more “important” works. Just as I did for my other two visits to Benaroya this year, during intermission, I briefly placed the talisman on the stage. If it never comes to be that my music gets performed at Benaroya, I can still say it’s been on that stage. Three times. Who knows, maybe this ritual has cast a spell urging the cosmos to conspire with my desire.
I will end with a quote from T.S. Eliot that Leonard Bernstein made me aware of in his brilliant lecture series “The Unanswered Question.” Thanks for reading:
“…And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”