Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rhythmic Urges and the Bass Drum Solo in The Rite of Spring

"Keeping Score" is a series of programs centered on specific works of classical music created by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony. The series is articulate, charismatic and fun.

The episode on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring includes a section that explores the role of the bass drum in the "Danse de la Terre (Dance of the Earth)" that closes part one of the Rite [3:03]:

Jack van Geem, principle percussionist of the SFS [3:12], says the bass drum solo "is used for every audition that a percussionist has to take, because it is the first time that the bass drum is used in this way; as a solo instrument. What makes this piece stand apart from anything written before is that rawness and vitalness of the rhythmic elements."

The bass drum establishes a rhythmic field of triplets in this "solo." At first it is completely alone in this division; all the other parts subdivide in duple divisions, or are parts of quick gestures that divide in fives and sevens. Gradually the bass drum triplets attract, absorb, parts of these gestures; as one can hear in the brass and winds at [3:54-3:58]. At this moment the tam-tam gesture (supported by horns, clarinets and flutes) cuts across the triplets, and the bass drum seems moving with the current for the first time.

[4:00] "There really are no themes here," says Thomas, "it is all just a bunch of rhythmic urges that have been set down into different parts of the orchestra. Later [5:05], as Thomas highlights the violas and horns playing triplets, this is yet another configuration that is pulled into the vortex of the bass drum.

The cross-currents in this passage are articulated with great clarity by the San Francisco Symphony. "Everything drives on," says Thomas [5:31], "building and layering until it is just so crazy that it just can't be sustained. The rest of the band gives up with a bunch of whoops and shrieks." (The film is layered over whoops and shrieks from a russian folk ensemble to show similarities).

"Party's over," says Thomas [5:48], "Blackout."

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