from Sunday, June29th of the year2008.
The Times of London asked me to write a short article about a song that was, for one point, the soundtrack to my life. The result is printed here, or, reprinted below.
The main struggle my teachers had with me was making me learn large-scale structure: you start at the beginning, you undergo a series of controlled transformations, climax, then bring it home to the barn. Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet Pétrouchka, as a narrative, is a fragmented procession of episodes inside a Russian country fair: a perfect vehicle to show off the different stuff that Stravinsky could, as a composer, perfectly execute, all the while resisting traditional (19th-century) structures. Think of a meal that is made up of 16 small dishes, rather than the meat and two veg to which we are all accustomed.
I first bought a CD of Pétrouchka in 1994; and, with it, the cheap and old-fashioned Dover edition of the score. Spotty and awkward, I spent hours on the floor of my parents’ house, obsessively studying the details of each episode. That modal melody a few minutes into the piece is played on cellos, way too high for their normal comfort zone, which is why it sounds like an accordion. The second large part begins with an explicitly flatulent contrabassoon. Sassy? Inappropriate?
I pressed my nose into those orchestrational decisions: a little flourish with English horn, celesta and some bizarre subcommittee of the second violins plucking three notes sent a shiver down my spine. The details of the score seemed more important to me than whatever the overall structure might be.
I listened and ignored the primary melodic material. What’s left is a latticework of patterns, detailed and repetitive, energetic from the distance of 60ft away in a concert hall, but pornographically mesmerising with a score in the hand and the volume knob turned up dangerously high. In my most narcissistic moments, I like to imagine some 14-year-old kid sitting on her floor in Russia, blissing out on the pointillistic bumps and grinds I constructed in a cabin in Vermont.
This isn’t to say that Stravinsky’s orchestration was the only thing that appealed to me; I began learning the piano reduction, which allowed me to prolong my repetitive obsessions. In the Danse Russe of the first tableau, a bassline walks down a fourth, then a fifth “” you hear this in Abba, you hear it in Beethoven.
A circular rhythm machine of oboe and bassoon twitters, and the bass comes in again. This time, though, it doesn’t hit the money note, but a terrifying, disorienting, evil f-natural. The oboe doesn’t care, and starts up the food processor again, merrily chirping along. The bassline comes back and plays the “good” note again. It’s a perfect cycle.
Not only does Stravinsky ignore the romantic notion of a small motive blossoming into a whole narrative, his material is already self-contained and self-realised, like the greatest and simplest folk art: the garland, the braid, the wreath, the woodcarving of a serpent devouring its own tail.
For most of my adolescence, I could only think about this kind of music, and it is still the music to which I return with the most familiar kind of relationship. Put on a recording of Pétrouchka and I’ll be there, even rooms away, swaying with the big rhythms and twitching with the small, seeing the notation swirl around my face like a cloud of birds.