Igor Stravinksy's Riot-Inducing Ballet and the Rite of Data Viz
No riots, here.
It's hard to imagine a ballet and orchestral work eliciting any more than polite applause or a nap today, but even from the dubstep-laden 21st century, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is a dissonant and difficult piece of music to get through. And it always has been; when it premiered in Paris a century ago today, it incited a riot.
The Parisians at the Théâtre Des Champs-Élysées that night were like those teenage girls seeing The Beatles, except the opposite—exploding with hatred and ire rather than adolescent adulation. It was the reaction to HBO's Girls played out in real time.
The perfect storm of pagan-styled dancing that was seemingly deliberately ugly, combined with the angular music and a story that climaxes with human sacrifice whipped the audience--bourgeois and bohemian alike--into a frenzy. Stravinsky began the night out in the house but retreated backstage to the wings after the opening oboe music was met with audible laughter. In his autobiography the composer recalls the crowd growing increasingly unruly as the piece went on, until eventually the choreographer was shouting the count to the dancers, who could no longer hear the music above the gnashing of teeth.
The American journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten had a box seat for the occasion, and famously wrote:
"A certain part of the audience was thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and, swept away with wrath, began very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make cat-calls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time"
To honor the event's century anniversary, programmer and music animating wizard Stephen Malinowski animated Stravinsky's [now-acknowledged-as-a] masterpiece using his famous, Björk-endorsed Music Animation Machine. In an interview with Malinowski, Motherboard's neighbors at the Creator's Project described the MAM as "an animated graphical interface that represents a musical performance. Instead of traditional musical notation, Malinowski’s interface uses geometric shapes on a bar graph to visualize sounds."
Malinowski answers the FAQ thusly:
Q: How was this recording made?
A: Jay Bacal performed and rendered this piece using virtual instrument software by Vienna Symphonic Library.
Q: What do the shapes indicate?
A: Each shape corresponds to a family of instruments: ellipse: flutes (also cymbals and tam-tam) octagon: single reed (clarinet, bass clarinet) inverted ellipse/star: double reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoons) rectangle: brass (also, with "aura," timpani, guiro and bass drum) rhombus: strings
Q: What do the colors indicate?
A: In this video, musical pitch (as ordered in the musician's "circle of fifths") is mapped to twelve colors (as ordered on the artist's "color wheel"). With this mapping, changes in tonality and harmony correspond to changes in the color palette. You can read more about this technique here: http://www.musanim.com/mam/pfifth.htm Unpitched instruments (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, guiro) are shown in gray.
Deviant musical notation—apart from the ol' staff 'n' bars—has moved toward the mainstream with video games like Guitar Hero ever since Malinowski first devised the Music Animation Machine in 1985. Combined with a century-old piece of music, though, the effect is once again new and stunning.
Reach Brian at email@example.com. @thebanderson