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100 Years Ago this week…

It’s Tuesday May 28th. Tomorrow, Wednesday May 29th, will be exactly 100 years since Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, with choreography from Vaslav Nijinsky. The infamous riot (or whatever actually happened – look it up, it’s debatable that it was an actual riot) is now a part of our collective consciousness.

The stories & details of this event are numerous and can easily be found around the web, so I will not bother with reproducing or quoting them here. But I do want to speak briefly about my connection with the musical part of the work, which goes back to 1967. I was 7 years old, and my parents took the family to see Walt Disneys “Fantasia” – a film which had it’s original premiere in 1940 (Wikipedia Article). Why it was being shown again I can probably guess, but the seeds were sown: The now iconic footage of the formation of the Earth and prehistoric life – namely Dinosaurs – was the stuff of every boys dream.

My dad was an ametuer classical pianist, so there was a Chickering Baby Grand Piano in the house, and music was on the stereo. No surprise here: I wanted a copy of that music! I was given an LP of the complete piece. At the time, I didn’t know that the producers of “Fantasia” had cut and resequenced parts of the “Rite” so that it was considerably different from the original version. All I knew, at age 7 was “This isn’t it….it’s different”.  I put the record away; and while my memories of that first film experience still resonate, it would be years before I found myself in the company of the work again.

Fast forward: 1977-ish. I’m in High School.  There seems to be TONS of great music EVERYWHERE: The airwaves are flooded with tunes and everyday someone hands me something great to listen to. I’ve been playing piano now for 9 years or so, and have made some (what were to me) incredible discoveries about the music I liked and it’s history. Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was a big influence, and a big radio hit at the time. I asked my current piano teacher to help me learn it, and it sparked an interest in arranging which I realized by arranging some music for my HS Jazz band – in 9th grade. I was 13. Also during this time, someone gave me a copy of Mahavishnu’s “Birds of Fire”. I didn’t understand it, but… there was something about it, some kind of connection.

After that, as a keyboard player, it was a short trip to progressive rock where keyboards actually had some meaning. Bands Like ELP, Genesis and Yes were central to what I thought was “cool”. King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic” and Starless & Bible Black rounded up the hard edged composed music aesthetic. Soon after I rediscovered the Mahavishnu Orchestra – even more complex and exciting – and thru it Miles Davis. The whole of Jazz came flooding after, it’s complex harmonic language which I later learned was directly influenced by the “Rite Of Spring.”

Classical music had always been an underscore thru this time – Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky – some of the biggies. But it wasn’t until my late teens that I began to see the other stuff – Bartok’s String Quartets & concerto for Orchestra; Scriabin, Hindemith, Ives – and Stravinsky came Roaring back. And When I say Roaring… for several years the ritual was to point the speakers out the window on the first day of spring and play “The Rite” as loud as the system would go. Oh yeah, baby. It was AWESOME.

Fast forward again: 1982. Struggling in NYC; didn’t finish High School, didn’t go to college. Parents divorced. No family support. Just my music to hold on to…

During this time I received as a birthday gift a copy of the Rite for Piano 4 hands. At the time I had a fledgling interest in prehistoric culture, driven by a fascination with places like Stonehenge & Newgrange (in Ireland).  Suddenly I had in front of me the Complete Rite Of Spring – and its original scenarios and meanings captured my imagination.

I had begun to play for Dance Classes at NYU around this time; and while I didn’t really know much about the ballet – or that there even WAS a ballet – I quickly learned. I continued to work with dancers and choreographers. I learned of all the major version: Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and various balletic versions. But for my money, the Joffrey Ballet‘s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography is to me the most visceral, the most powerful. A fascinating documentary exists, “The search for Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring” that describes the reconstruction and ends with a video of the performance from 1987.

This whole situation strikes me as a sort of “fractal” – reconstructing the Rite, which is itself reconstructing things from Prehistory; and my connection with so called “progressive” & avant-garde music of which the “Rite” played such a huge part in both harmonically & rhythmically; and my subsequent work with Dance, that part of the premiere that is oft overlooked. It locks together music & events in my life into what is for me a startling mosaic.

 

My story from there is a little more well known, documented in press releases and reviews of my performances. All of this has culminated in my current “100 Years Of Spring” project, and I am thrilled to be performing this work in the year of it’s centennial. While I have no actual performance scheduled for May 29th, I will be celebrating with a trip to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in NYC. Nicholas Roerich has the distinction of working with Igor Stravinsky to create the sets and tableaus for the original storyline of The Rite – “Le Sacre Du Printemps” – in which a primitive  pagan russian tribe celebrates the return of spring, and ends with a sacrifice as a young maiden dances herself to death.

I hope to continue and “Dance the work to Life” as my performances continue into the next year, with my next show in Los Angeles on June 16th. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come join me in celebrating this masterpiece.

– Neil

 

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