Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring debuted to a riotous reception in 1913. It is still an arrestingly strange piece, evoking lust, fear, and violence with a savagery rare in orchestral music. Lust, fear, and violence, of course, are mainstays of rock 'n' roll, which might lead one to believe that Robert Fripp, who once dreamed of a Hendrix interpretation of the 40-minute symphonic work, was on to something.
What Fripp surely knew, and what probably kept him from essaying Rite himself, is that the mental, emotional, and physical demands of a literal translation would be great. Dissect the piece. Arrange the parts of a 130-piece orchestra for a rock band. Learn to play the feral swoops and vicious trills, the harmonies and melodies and rhythms that exist outside any established framework. Stravinsky said of the piece: "I was guided by no system whatever....Very little immediate tradition lies behind [it]...and no theory." Rock and roll feints in the direction of Rite have been made--Birdsongs of the Mesozoic interpreted seven minutes of it on their 1984 LP Magnetic Flip. But nobody's been foolish enough to spend years getting the thing together in a small (never mind "rock") format just to find out it's impossible to do it justice.
However, no one told the Butcher Shop Quartet that a rock Rite would never work. "It's an amazing piece of music," says guitarist Rob Bochnik. "We just started arranging it--listening to it and writing it out to see if it was possible to break it down." Founding members Bochnik and drummer Dylan Posa, along with brothers Dan and Rob Sullivan (guitar and bass respectively), have been hammering out a new arrangement of Stravinsky's masterpiece over the last six years. The work is naturally subdivided: Part I has eight separately titled sections, Part II has five. "We played parts of it to see if it sounded like anything," Bochnik says. "When one part worked, we'd continue on from there."
The BSQ attacks the piece with the skill of trained musicians and the aggression of committed rockers, playing it whole, without irony. The crutch of deconstruction is absent, and any novelty value (which, let's face it, is what will bring in the crowd) is overrun by the force and conviction of the performance.
In performing Rite with affection and reverence, the BSQ not only comes to terms with the piece, but illuminates it--among other things, Rite is revealed to be secret roots music for modern rock. "For a while, a lot of rock bands were striving to get as weird and dissonant as possible," says Bochnik. "But it seemed like the final word along those lines had already been written, back in 1913 by Stravinsky, and that mastering The Rite of Spring might be a nice way to top off these attempts. It's funny to think of doing that with a piece of music that's almost 90 years old."
Section by section, the piece is filled with the seeds of more or less experimental rock music. "Harbingers of Spring" not only sounds like a Metallica title, the section actually sounds like Metallica: all minor-key brooding and heavily syncopated eruptions. Other impressions are more pervasive--the fractured swing of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band can be heard throughout, as well as the keen chime of Sonic Youth's alternate tunings.
It takes stones of some weight to tackle one of the 20th century's greatest compositions on its own terms, using tools foreign to its natural habitat. This interpretation isn't just admirable, it's accurate, which is to say it's as invigorating and jarring and creepy and inspiring as the usual arrangement. The BSQ necessarily lacks the dynamic range and tonal complexity of an orchestra, but these shortcomings are supplanted by a level of raw aggression that a symphony would be hard-pressed to match.
The Butcher Shop Quartet performs its Rite at 9 PM Wednesday, September 12, at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport. Tickets are $10; also on the bill is Sex Mob. Call 773-525-2508 or see www.schubas.com for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wyatt Mitchell.