Experimental Composition: Stravinsky and Stein

Experimental Composition: Stravinsky and Stein


As a student in Lisa Goldfarb’s Interdisciplinary Seminar “The Music of Poetry and the Poetry of Music,” I was especially interested in looking at the form of the poems and musical compositions examined as course readings. This interest peaked after reading “The School of Giorgione” by Walter Pater, in which he asserts that form in art is equivalent to meaning in art. Initially, I planned to write a final paper about Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music as an interpretive aid for analyzing The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky lays out a list of topographical directives for young composers to aid them in connecting form to meaning, which drew me to his ideas and his music. While reading his Poetics of Music, however, I realized how closely many of his ideas resonated with Gertrude Stein’s poetry collection Tender Buttons.

There is a deep connection between The Rite of Spring (1913) and Tender Buttons (1914), and both are representative of the experimental nature of the early twentieth century, in part due to their release dates closely coinciding with scientific discoveries like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Both also preempt the popularization of the twelve-tone composition style, and use many of the core ideas important to twelve-tone music even though neither actually incorporate dodecaphony or serialism. In Poetics of Music, Stravinsky offers his thoughts on contrast and similarity in art. He states that he views contrast in art as easy, almost facile, since it creates explicit emotionality and uses shock as a tool to easily affect audiences.1 Similarity on the other hand is more difficult, but according to Stravinsky, it is more satisfying and successful in the long run. Tender Buttons and The Rite of Spring both adhere to a strict sense of organization and repetition in order to convey a move away from artistic norms of figurative expression toward more literal representation, and away from melodic dominance and resolution.

The first aspect of these works that expresses this move is their form. In The Rite of Spring this means the compositional arc that the music follows, and the ways the different instruments in the orchestra are organized in relation to one another. In Tender Buttons, specifically in the “Objects” section, this means the interaction of each short poem with the others in the section as a whole. Stravinsky argues for organization in music over pure expression in The Poetics of Music. This is clarified when he writes of natural sounds and musicality, like birdsong or the sounds of rivers. He asserts that these musical sounds are not in themselves music, because they are unorganized.2 When a human takes these naturally given sounds and organizes them, that is when they become music.

In The Rite of Spring, the dominant melodies are based in either traditional folk songs or the natural sounds of animals in nature. In the first movement, “Introduction,” an oboe mimicking the calls of birds can be heard, as well as a bass clarinet impersonating the ribbit of frogs.3 The majority of this section lacks a constant pulse or definitive meter, which conjures the sounds of forests in nature as well, with various instrumental sections overwhelming and being overwhelmed by the calls of other sections creating a suspension of texturality. These sounds are clearly based on natural animal calls and forest-like characteristics, but they are highly organized. They have been laid out with specific purpose, evident in the building intensity and increase of tonal ranges throughout this section, and since it builds a beautiful contrast to the bassoon melodies’ rare prominence.

In Tender Buttons, the inspiration is not taken from forest sounds or animal calls, but instead of domestic everyday objects. Yet the attachment to a literal sonic representation of something inherently non-musical still stands. Stein represents her objects through prose poems that seem to reject any search for deeper meaning. Her work is like a still life in words, and since much of literature aims to use language to reveal deeper meanings and hidden truths, it makes sense that Stein’s work, with its unique intentions, would have a form just as unique. The sections of “Objects” that most clarified this for me were “A RED HAT” and “A BLUE COAT.” They appear one after the other, and their resonances and reflections of each other accentuate their need to be taken at face value. In “A RED HAT” the “dark gray” is repeated three times before the word red is written. Readers may be holding that dark gray color in their minds as it is being described, so that the red’s debut provides a sharp contrast.4 Red is paired with words like “everything” and “stretched out,” giving a feeling of expansion. In “A BLUE COAT,” “blue” appears immediately, followed by the word “guided” four times, twice in the phrase “guided away.” “Blue” has no width, and is barely more than a shadow. This is clearly a different picture than that which is painted in “A RED HAT.” Tender Buttons at first offers a facade of disorganization, but if looked at closely, it is clear that the order of words, and the order of sections, is purposeful and specific. But even though the poems can be interpreted many ways, there is not a deeper meaning or moral to be found. The sonic qualities and varying vibrancy of the words attempt to capture the literal feeling of the objects being described.

Rhythm is another important feature of both works, and both show a shift away from melody and meter and toward a kind of rhythmic dominance. In Poetics of Music Stravinsky describes how time can change according to one’s “inner disposition.”5 This means that time can stretch and shrink relative to the person. It also means art, especially time-based art like music and poetry, can exploit this relativism by leading listeners or readers to different inner dispositions, and therefore different internal clocks. The other interesting proposition Stravinsky makes about time is its relationship to meter in music. He describes the duration of each beat in meter to have a contrapuntal relationship to a listener’s internal sense of time. Both Stein and Stravinsky utilize these ideas in their respective works.

In The Rite of Spring, the section “The Augurs of Spring, Dances of the Young Girls” is one of the clearest examples of rhythmic manipulation. In this section, Stravinsky has repeated eighth-note chordal stabs played by the strings underneath the woodwinds and horn lines. This sequence of eight notes is written in a standard 2/4 time signature (two beats per measure, the quarter note gets one beat). Interestingly, however, the accents in this line make it hard to pinpoint the normal 2/4 feel. For example, in measures fifteen through eighteen, there is an accented note on the second eighth note in measure one, the first in measure two and three, and the second in measure four. The creates groupings of one eighth note, then three eighth notes, then four, then five, then three again (a grouping here is any number of unaccented eighth notes following an accented eighth note).6 In a standard 2/4 feel, there would be consistent groupings of four eighth notes for each measure, but in The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky pushes against this to create a constantly evolving rhythmic feel underneath the piece. The higher pitched lines on the tab of these eighth notes also fail to create a consistent time feel, since they often start and end on upbeats and rarely start on the first downbeat of a measure. There are a few instances where the melody line ends on the third (of four) eighth note, and the string then accentuates the fourth eighth note, making it feel like the downbeat of the measure is on the second upbeat, one eight note earlier than the true downbeat. Both of these techniques show that even within metered music the meter can change and shift in the ear of the listener.

Stein also works against the expectations of traditional poetic meter. In many poems, as in music, there is a tangible pulse that can be heard, and certain words are stressed or unstressed based on this pulse, which acts as the poem’s meter. In Tender Buttons, however, it is difficult to decipher the stressed words versus the unstressed words, and as I personally read it, I struggled to find any pulse to latch onto. One short piece in “Objects” that shows a certain rejection of meter is “PEELED PENCIL, CHOKE” which states “Rub her coke.”7 The length of this piece is analogous to a musical composition that lasts only a few seconds. Works of this length do not benefit from meters, since there is no need for a larger organization to tie the piece together. But even in Stein’s longer works this lack of meter is evident. In “A SOUND” there is an incredibly tangible sense of rhythm, since many of the words are very rhythmic sonically, like those that start with “b” and “p” sounds, aka “beaten,” “pops,” and “bolts.”8 But even in this poem, where there is rhythm and there are stressed versus unstressed words, a meter cannot be found. In other poems, the stressed words often fall on the downbeat of a line, but in Tender Buttons, there are no stanzas with contained lines; much of it feels more like a stream of consciousness than a rhythmic piece of music. This evokes a similar feeling of suspension in The Rite of Spring. Since there are very few clear downbeats, the pieces do not march forward but instead float on top of a rhythmic texture.

The last assertion Stravinsky makes in Poetics of Music encapsulated by both The Rite of Spring and Tender Buttons is in relation to dissonance. Stravinsky states that dissonance had been viewed as something that constantly seeks resolution. When dissonance was heard, in much of classical music history, some form of resolution was coming, a move toward consonance. But Stravinsky argues this is unnecessary, and that dissonance does not actually prepare or anticipate anything. If dissonance is the only aspect of a piece, the ear will accept that dissonance just as it would accept consonance.9 Both The Rite of Spring and Tender Buttons create unending dissonance and reject any resolutions in order to maintain a sense of self-similarity and confusion that lends itself to the subject matter of ordinary, natural objects and phenomena. Both pieces have sections that are deeply self-similar. In The Rite of Spring, each movement maintains similar feelings and structures, but there are no motifs that consistently find the spotlight in the composition. There are instead just multiple different dissonant sections that connect in instrumentation and in their connection to the plot of the ballet, but very little else (they vary in meter, energy level, key signature, etc). This use of variation is not new to the world of classical music, but usually classical pieces used some form of recapitulation to connect one part of the piece to another. Similarly, in Tender Buttons, each short poem on one object contains lots of repetition: certain words or phrases said over and over to heighten their importance or to stress their sonic qualities. But much as The Rite of Spring has few recurrent elements across sections, there is similarly very little recapitulation among the poems in Tender Buttons. Also, neither work feels attached to progression along an arc. In other words, neither accentuates certain sections over others, the beginning and end of the piece are no more important than those in the middle. All the objects in Tender Buttons are weighted the same, and each section in The Rite of Spring is self-contained and important in itself. This connects to Stravinsky’s thoughts on similarity over contrast. Each section is similar in its importance, and in its core values, even if there is contrast between sections. Both Stein and Stravinsky are able to use similarly and contrast, as well a rejection of resolution, to hold listeners or readers in a suspended state of dissonance, a technique which is still radical today.

These musical strategies are, in fact, central to much of present day algorithmic music. For example, the field of data sonification is deeply concerned with literal representations over metaphorical ones, since the music must clearly communicate findings with the listeners. Similarly, the burgeoning live coding community depends on the relativism of time to create, since much of live code uses mathematical cycles instead of musical meter to direct their pieces. Finally, the expansive genre of glitch music rarely if ever resolves, instead relying on discordant sounds to create a dissonant yet still congruent creation. It is therefore unsurprising that many of the core values of these works align with the shift toward serialism and atonality that would become popularized in the decade after their respective releases, and which form an important basis of much of experimental music today.

  1. Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl (Harvard University Press, 1947).
  2. Stravinsky, “The Phenomenon of Music,”  Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.
  3. Igor Stravinsky, “Introduction,” The Rite of Spring, performed by New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, (Urania Records, 1958)
  4. Gertrude Stein, “Objects,” Tender Buttons (Dover Publications, 1997), 8.
  5. Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, 30.
  6. Igor Stravinsky, “The Augers of Spring, Dances of the Young Girls,” The Rite of Spring, performed by New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Urania Records, 1958).
  7. Stein, Tender Buttons, 17.
  8. Stein, Tender Buttons, 15.
  9. Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, 34.
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