S is for Spring!

| February 27, 2014

The sense of a thing’s value as absolute rather than relative, a result of its features rather than a result of its relations, is the question that came to mind when I was listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in anticipation of the centenary celebration to be performed on March 2 at Skidmore College (http://www.troyrecord.com/arts-and-entertainment/20140224/pianist-jon-kimura-parker-to-celebrate-centenary-of-the-rite-of-spring).

The instinct that value is the work of recognition rather than infusion is surely one of the deeper grooves Modernism has worn into the minds of its constituents, one of the more exposed mechanisms of subject-object dualism. For if we had some handy idiom, some instinctive conceptual heuristic that intuitively grasped the way a piece makes its public and a public makes its piece, we might be audacious enough to declare Modernism truly over (however much we might accept Latour’s argument that we were never really there).

What is the difference between recognized and infused value? If we presume the latter to be more descriptively fruitful at this stage in history, how can we be prescriptive about it? How do we go about experiencing that subjective-infused reality? What do we make of it when we do? Is there an equivalence between the historical priority we’ve just encountered, and the Heideggerian/Marcusian notion of artistic agency—that sense of art as a “push” that enters history? Can such artistic agency thrive within a metaphysics of immanence, a conceptual context that explicitly implicates its own subjectivity in any awareness of its objects? Or would such agency perish in an imaginative context? Would we glimpse that ontological difference more readily? Might we even go so far as to ask if an immanent context is more or less change resistant? Does it inspire us collectively towards “performing the ontological difference” with greater aplomb? Or does it induce a steady regurgitation of familiar realities for comfort’s sake?

We can feel this Modernist mechanism at work in Western art  and music – this sense that it is convinced of its absolute rather than relative value. This framing has surely influenced the way the classical tradition has created and consumed its icons (composers and compositions) through much of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries.

It is fitting then that the premiere of ‘Rite of Spring’—the birth of musical modernism–plays out the tension of these different priorities (historical and social) so dramatically. Widely regarded as the most influential piece of 20thcentury music, its premiere is infamous for provoking the “Riot of the Rite”—fist fights in the normally demur aisles of the concert hall. Stravinsky was devastated, torn between social approval and historical priority, sweating the influence of the public while insisting he maintain a progressive relationship with music. A year later, when a remount of the work earned Stravinsky “a triumph such as composers rarely enjoy”, the message was clear. The historical priority along with the cultural evolution it provokes is the artist’s very reason for being. Over the coming decades, pursing music’s next great ‘discovery’ yielded decreasingly communicative music. Yet it is so deeply committed to a sense of its own destiny that any grumbling about ‘listenability’ is met with disdain as the historical priority becomes “the most sacred of all modernist dogmas” (Taruskin, NY Times, September 14, 2012).