100 years of punk

Punk turns 100 today. Reason enough, me thinks, to flout convention and follow your muse.

For me, that means, oh I don’t know, typing the remainder of this article with my fingers placed one key to the right of where ‘The Man’ says they should be.

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OK, I can see a downside to that approach. Just as Good Charlotte revealed the downside of punk.

Instead, let’s celebrate a century of punk (and the timely return of local punks — in the generic as well as artistic sense of the term — Werbo, who are poised to play two shows here this weekend) by reflecting on the moment of its birth. And for that, let us consult Marco Parisotto, Music Director for the Ontario Philharmonic and guest conductor for the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s recent revival of The Rite of Spring, the revolutionary work that first brought punk attitude to the masses.

This blogger met with the Montreal native following the first of five full rehearsals of the work at the NAC earlier this month. Stravinsky‘s masterwork, I explained, has long struck me as not merely the beginning of punk but, in a sense, the true beginning of the 20th Century. The amiable conductor nodded in agreement and enthusiastically offered his own thoughts on a work that 100 years after its debut invariably inspires enthusiasm in the listener.

“It’s a very big part of my life,” Parisotto stated. “It’s one of the pieces that got me into conducting, and into music.” He was, he recalled, 15 when he first met The Rite, and studying violin. “I didn’t really understand it at the time. Beethoven was a little easier to understand. But I was fascinated.”

He remains so. As do I. In The Rite of Spring, one can hear centuries of innovation enveloped in a single work, as the composer crafts an imaginative fusion of traditional folk melodies and modern sensibilities. One hundred years ago, society had seen and heard nothing like The Rite. Its subsequent influence on popular culture has been both subtle and profound.

“Many years ago it was really wild, wild music,” Parisotto mused. “Even I remember people thinking it was unbearable. Today, let’s say kids of teenage years, I think understand it way more than decades ago. They’re surrounded by that kind of music in the background, whether they like it or not – whether they’re aware of it or not – through cinema. You introduce kids today to The Rite of Spring, they won’t cringe.”

Likewise, once-wild punk descendents from Memphis Minnie to Hank Williams to Ray Charles to The Jesus and Mary Chain. All rest comfortably today alongside the provocative brilliance of mentor Igor Stravinsky.

“It’s one of the great masterpieces of humanity,” is how Parisotto views The Rite. “There are great thinkers, great musicians, great artists who have revolutionized their time and influenced their future. Stravinsky, with that piece in particular, is one.”

And, as it celebrates a century of pointing to the future via the past, The Rite continues to enthrall — even as it no longer enrages.

“A masterpiece is a masterpiece,” Parisotto concluded. “It’s there forever. It’s there for all humankind to enjoy. Forever!”

So now, to a column I penned for the Sun a decade ago to mark the 90th anniversary of the revolutionary work’s premiere — possibly the only time in the paper’s history that the word ‘propitiate’ has appeared in its pages.

An analysis of the influence and importance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring… in the Ottawa Sun! Who’d have thunk it?

Yes, sometimes I understand why the paper decided to dispense with my services.

The Rite stuff

by Allan Wigney

Shock and awe are back, as White Stripes and Marilyn Manson duke it out on the charts. Punk has arrived. Again. Just in time for its 90th birthday.

The year was 1913. Russian-born composer Igor Feodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971) was poised to unleash a new ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), with choreography by Pierre Monteaux and Vaslav Nijinsky, at Thêatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

“I was in imagination a solemn pagan rite: Wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dancing herself to death,” Stravinsky later said of his ballet’s nascence. “They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”

On May 29, 1913, the air of pagan sacrifice would extend beyond the stage and into the auditorium.

Incorporating unpredictable time signatures, unconventionality and dissonant harmonic passages, Stravinsky’s soundtrack would ultimately pave the way for contemporary classical composers from John Cage to Philip Glass. One of its more violent passages would later be memorably used in Disney’s Fantasia.

The music challenged the audience’s sense of convention, but it was Nijinsky’s shocking pre-La-La-La choreography – “With every leap,” on dancer claimed, “we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us” – that amounted to sensory overload for the refined people of Paris.

The unease began with the bassoon solo that opens the work. Stravinsky had provocatively called for the instrument to play well outside its standard range, prompting fellow composer Camille Saint-Saens to rise from his seat, loudly exclaim, “What instrument was that?” and walk out.

Once the pulsating strains of the orchestra joined in and, as Stravinsky put it, “the curtain rose on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down,” the voices of dissent grew louder. The din soon became so loud the dancers could not hear the orchestra and had to rely on a hoarse Nijinsky for their cues. The abuse soon turned physical, as a full-scale riot broke out in the auditorium. By the time the police arrived, a dejected Stravinsky had long since left.

The following day, two audience members would settle their differences in a duel.

For the record, it is possible that a minority of vocal patrons led frustrated supporters to unwittingly augment the disruption. I once witnessed similar hostility at Madison Square Garden in New York City, when booing from a handful of people combined with shouts of support ultimately prevented Sinead O’Connor from performing. IN a large hall, the sound of enraged supporters is not so different from the sound of enraged detractors.

This was not rock and roll. But it was revolutionary, provocative and defiant. It was, in a word, punk.

Sixty-three years later, when The Sex Pistols staged the first Punk Rock Festival in London, England, it was the slam-dancing and pogoing – i.e., the choreography – that irked a jittery social order as much as the music.

Stravinsky composed a number of other notable works, and in his lifetime saw new music forms like blues, jazz and country mutate into something called rock and roll. The Rite of Spring, meanwhile, would be recognized as a major 20th-Century musical and cultural force. The composer died in April 1971 in New York City, a few blocks from the site of a poetry performance by an upstart named Patti Smith.

It’s been 90 years since a young composer presented a new work that, in a stroke, altered the face of popular music. It was bold, brash and unsettling.

And on the eve of The Rite of Spring’s anniversary, we can thank him for nudging popular music down a glorious slippery slope all the way to White Stripes, Marilyn Manson and beyond.

Igor Stravinsky, the first punk rocker.

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