Jaron Lanier's comment on the Rite of Spring
March 16, 2010 1:01 PM   Subscribe

This question is about Jaron Lanier's comments on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in his book You Are Not a Gadget.

On p. 127, Lanier says:

It's easy to forget the role technology has played in producing the most powerful waves of musical culture. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, composed in 1912, would have been a lot harder to play, at least in tempo and in tune, on the instruments that had existed some decades earlier. Rock and roll--the electric blues--was to a significant degree a successful experiment in seeing what a small number of musicians could do for a dance hall with the aid of amplification. The Beatles' recordings were in part a rapid reconnaissance mission into the possibilities of multitrack recording, stereo mixes, synthesizers, and audio special effects such as compression and varying playback speed.

The examples about rock and roll and the Beatles make instinctive sense to me, but I don't know enough to understand the Stravinsky example (though I'm familiar with The Rite of Spring). Assuming that what Lanier says is true, what changes in the design of musical instruments occurred in the decades before 1912 that made a work like The Rite of Spring playable?
posted by Prospero to Technology (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For one thing, The Rite of Spring has a sarrusaphone solo. A metal-bodied double-reeded cross between a baritone sax and a contrabassoon. As in The Sourcer's Apprentice, it's usually taken by the contra bassoon today. Some of the changes happening to woodwinds around then were the addition of a single lower note, where the sound hole goes right through the cork that holds on the bell, and mechanisms that made trills between certain notes easier.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:30 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So the two things he addresess are the tempo & the "in tune"ness of the piece.

I'm not sure about the tempo, but equal temperament didn't really take hold until the 1900s.
Tuning with several checks, thus attaining virtually modern accuracy, was already done in the 1st decades of the 19th century. Using beat rates, first proposed in 1749, became common after their diffusion by Helmholtz and Ellis in the 2nd half of the 19th century. The ultimate precision was available with 2-decimal tables published by White in 1917. [ref]
Technology & music go hand in hand. The difference between Bach & Mozart (who have some overlap in their lifespans) is that Mozart favored the newly invented Pianoforte, while Bach preferred either organ or harpsichord - where were only capable of playing at a single volume.
posted by MesoFilter at 1:37 PM on March 16, 2010

Best answer: I think part of it is not necessarily the design of the instruments, per se, but the sort of thing that was considered idiomatic for existing instruments. The opening bassoon note, for example, which I think is a high C, was literally considered not in what was considered the standard tessitura of the bassoon. Now, of course, that opening melody is standard audition material for any high school senior going to music school.

I would also imagine - though this is unverified - that improvements in the mechanics and action of especially complex instruments that are featured in the Rite, like the [french] horn, made at least more possible some of the very difficult passages, especially the passages that require players to play very fast runs or strange ostinati, or to play very difficult and close harmonies.

And again, I'd have to go back and look at the score, but the bass having a low C is a fairly new addition, if I remember correctly. (needs citation).

Very interesting question.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:05 PM on March 16, 2010

Best answer: More:

I'm looking at the orchestration, and I've noticed a couple more things:

The piece uses a Trumpet in D, the Bach trumpet, which wasn't invented until 1890.

The piece employs a piccolo timpano - a high member of the timpani family - which I assume was a recent innovation at the time (seeing as the four-timpani set wasn't all that old at the time).

The piece uses an alto flute, which was new-ish - and is still rare (the instrument is actually usually associated with Stravinsky).

It also uses something called a Wagner tuba, which I was unfamiliar with, but it's a tuba that was designed specifically for the Ring Cycle, so it also was a rather new and novel instrument.

Also things like the tam-tam and the guiro, while used in non-western music and the like before, were new-ish to the Euro stage.

So yeah, it does appear that Igor used some pretty innovative instrument technologies in the Rite.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:22 PM on March 16, 2010

Best answer: Over the course of the 19th century violins changed -- steel strings came in towards the end of the 19th century, standard pitch increased with a concomitant change in volume and tone, neck angle increased allowing players to reach higher notes more easily. I can easily imagine that a string section from 1910 was very different sounding to one from 1860, and that a slack-stringed fiddle with a short unangled neck would be hard to use for the 1st violin parts in the Rite.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:25 PM on March 16, 2010

Best answer: I was coincidentally just looking at the display case in Symphony Hall (Boston) that holds the bassoon used in the Rite of Spring premiere (the bassoonist at the premiere went on to become principal bassoon with the Boston Symphony). According to the display, it was modified specifically to enable the high notes in the opening, which subsequently took Stravinsky by surprise when it came out better than he expected.

A Stravinsky story I've never been able to confirm (I like it so much I prefer to assume it's verified in one Robert Craft book or another): He came to Eastman to conduct the Rite in the 60s. The entire bassoon studio had to audition for the privilege of performing the opening solo, and when he arrived, Stravinsky walked through the practice rooms and heard, to his increasing consternation, bassoonist after bassoonist flawlessly executing the solo. "If I'd known they would get so good at it, I would have written it a fifth higher."

The oral history passed down from those original Russian and French orchestras, by the way, is that Stravinsky could himself perform each and every bit of extended technique he asked for -- the string harmonic pinwheel and "impossible" trombone glissando in Firebird being the prime examples.
posted by range at 5:02 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Holy crap--every answer is a good answer here. Thanks, guys!

At first I thought that Lanier's phrasing was somewhat misleading--it somehow seems to imply that The Rite of Spring was a piece that was waiting for the technology that would allow it to be played well, rather than one that was written to utilize what was then cutting-edge technology. But range's story of the modified bassoon implies that the piece actually inspired a technological advance that was necessary to realize it, which is fascinating.
posted by Prospero at 6:06 PM on March 16, 2010

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