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article imageBringing joy to a chaotic classic, an interview with The Bad Plus Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Apr 1, 2014 in Entertainment
The Bad Plus found fame with creative cover versions of rock and roll classics like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” With their latest release, however, the trio is tacklingthe work of Igor Stravinsky.
More used to exploring the works of Davie Bowie, Queen, Rush, and Aphex Twin, the trio found a new challenge in tackling a work steeped in controversial history, one characterized by difficult musical passages that daunt the best of many a classical player.
"The Rite of Spring" (or "Le Sacre du Printemps" as it was called) caused a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere in Paris. It was unlike anything that anyone had heard. The work of then-little-known composer, Igor Stravinsky, it was created as a dance piece for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company; the work featured original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and stage designs and costumes by Russian artist Nicholas Roerich. At the time, the work sharply divided both critics and the public, with Le Figaro critic Henri Quittard calling it "a laborious and puerile barbarity," and opera composer Puccini labeling it "the work of a madman … sheer cacophony." Still, it is widely considered one of the most important works within the classical music realm, to say nothing of its vital place in twentieth century art. The work has been adapted by various musicians numerous times in the years since its chaotic premiere, with versions by German death metal band Golem, chamber orchestra Metropolis Ensemble, and jazz musician Darryl Brenzel, whose big band interpretation (from 2012) was cleverly titled “The Re-(W)rite of Spring” (Innova).
The Bad Plus, formed in 2000 and specializing in a kind of avant-garde jazz populism (a term they enjoy), were co-commissioned by Duke University and Lincoln Center to adapt the piece, which premiered in 2011 as part of a multi-media program. Pianist Ethan Iverson, drummer Dave King, and bassist Reid Anderson had doubts about their version right up to the day of its premiere.
“We were wrestling with this issue," remembers Anderson, "how do we play this piece but still have it belong to us, in a way? We gave it a lot of thought and (decided) “Okay, this is what we can contribute based on what we do, and use our own folkloric language.””
Various types of language -- that of Stravinsky  and The Bad Plus themselves -- complement one anoth...
Various types of language -- that of Stravinsky, and The Bad Plus themselves -- complement one another nicely on "The Rite of Spring" (Sony Music Masterworks), recorded last year and released last month. Having toured the "Rite" extensively since, sometimes performing as a group, sometimes with the Mark Morris Dance Group, Anderson says they're able to perform the Stravinsky work now "with a bit more abandon."
Sony Music Masterworks
Listening to the album, it becomes clear the trio have found a way of of transferring Stravinsky’s energetically jagged score while keeping the flavour of their own jazz-leaning brand intact. The band had previously tackled a Stravinsky work in 2009, “Variation d'Apollon”, from the composer's 1928 ballet, "Apollo", on their release "For All I Care." Adapting “The Rite of Spring” was a very different matter.
“It's definitely a whole new level of concentration,” Anderson explains. “There's a lot of ways to get derailed on this piece: it's a lot of notes, a lot of details, a lot of intricate rhythms that don't really repeat, but kind of repeat." Iverson echoed that sentiment back in 2011, telling NPR that “(t)he concept is kind of like learning 28 little pieces of music that are all really different and don't repeat!"
The essential appeal of the piece, Anderson feels, is rooted in the primal heartbeat of its propulsive rhythms, which engage listeners in far deeper ways than even the most rudimentary music / theory knowledge ever could. It's something the New York Times' music writer Jon Pareles picked up on in his review of the album, noting how "the Bad Plus zeros in on the pulse that underlies the impact of Stravinsky’s ballet score."
“I think people bond to rhythm," Anderson notes. "As complex as this piece is, there's a kind of very primal pulse to it. You don't have to understand harmony, or understand atonality. or anything like that -- but you can still engage on that (rhythmic) level. I think it is very tuneful in a way as well. There’s something that gets in there, almost subconsciously.”
That subconscious integration of rhythm and melody powerfully expresses itself in several moments over the almost-40-minute listen. The Bad Plus offer a plucky, ambitious rendition of the work, providing deft rhythmic counterpoint as well as dreamy lines, creative instrumentation, intense levels of detail, and furious orchestral quality sweeps in a recording that works just as well for newbies to the Stravinsky work as it does for longtime fans of the work. “”Rite” is such a well-known piece, but the truth is, people don't really know it,” Anderson offers, “so if anything comes of (the album), in terms of turning people on to the real “Rite of Spring”, that's something we'd feel good about.”
The effort has been garnering mainly praise, with NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon writing , “(f)or such a loud orchestral undertaking, the Rite reduces surprisingly well to three dudes.” The Boston Globe’s Jon Garrelick noted how “(t)he work’s relentless, odd-accented, propulsive rhythms are a perfect fit for this band” while the Times' Pareles declared “Jazz-classical crossover is often a collision or a dilution. This is a true connection, one that makes the piece newly vivid.”
That isn’t to say the effort hasn’t courted criticism. The Bad Plus make use of electronic elements in specific parts of “Rite”; it’s a decision that was taken to task by Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene, who commented that “the electronics feel pat, and slightly obvious, and they signal that for the first time in their career, the Bad Plus are simply outgunned.” The brutal power of Stravinsky’s clanging orchestral score simply doesn’t translate to a trio, writes Greene, though he does observe how “(t)he feat is still impressive, in an athletic way.”
“I don't think of myself as a bass player, other than I like the role of bass function in music,” Anderson says thoughtfully, “but in the case of "The Rite of Spring", what I'm playing has nothing to do with the bass part from the orchestral score. It was more a matter of -- for all of us --this very dense, very complex piece of music, this instrumentation, and sorting out how to flesh it out in a way that is being true to the piece, rather than just a ready-made set of instructions. We had to intuit what our roles should be.”
As to what the band brings to “The Rite of Spring”, Anderson thinks it’s simple: experiencing a Stravinsky piece shouldn't be akin to eating your spinach --for listeners or performers.
“We have a relationship with this term we like that gets tossed around a bit, ‘avant-garde populism,’” he ventures. “That defines us pretty well. When we engage with things like the avant-garde, we're always thinking of it in terms of a pop sensibility. We don't try to say, “Well this is something that might be hard to understand” --we always play it with the energy of, “We like this, and you're going to like it too!” There’s a certain kind of positive energy and joy we bring to this type of music, if I say so. Why shouldn't you play “The Rite of Spring” with joy?”
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