Monday, May 16, 2011

More from the Ethan Iverson interview

This weekend (May 20–21), the jazz trio The Bad Plus comes to the Loring Theater in Minneapolis to perform their version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, commissioned by Duke Performances and the Kennedy Center. I wrote a preview for the StarTribune around an interview with pianist Ethan Iverson. Because print has word counts and column inches, the whole interview wouldn't fit into the final article. Here are more highlights and insights.

PLE: When did you first hear The Rite of Spring? Do you remember what kind of effect it had on you?

Ethan Iverson: I didn’t see Fantasia until my 20s. I definitely heard it as a teenager, when I began listening to classical music.

As far as my relationship to the Rite goes, I actually knew much of Stravinsky’s other music better than I knew The Rite of Spring. If you’re a Stravinskyite, it’s almost the odd man out, first because it’s his most famous piece, and also because it sort of concludes an early chapter of his music, which is still very Russian and thick and glittering. A lot of us who love Stravinsky might form a different kind of relationship with works after that period—like Le Noce, Oedipus Rex, the Octet. Which actually remains my favorite Stravinsky music.

One of the pleasures of this project was I have gotten to know the Rite very well, of course, and it lives up to the hype. It’s one of the great masterpieces.

Did you have a second choice for the Duke project?

Not really. We came up with a bunch of bad ideas. Another thing about the Rite: It’s so well known, and it’s been so appropriated everywhere. That made it appealing. It was not as problematic in our view to do a reinterpretation of it, since ours is one of many reinterpretations, thefts, whatever. To take on Les Noces would be a problem.

Even though everyone knows The Rite of Spring, not everyone has really listened to it all carefully and understands what it is. On the one hand, it seems almost suburban and safe to say we’ll deal with The Rite of Spring. On the other, we’re putting our music in front of an audience, our Bad Plus music, and saying, “Listen to this. You might think you know what this is, but you still have something new to experience.”

Stravinsky brought many innovations to this piece. The most obvious is rhythm. He has all these odd-meter ostinatos driving it in different ways. In a sense, that’s what The Bad Plus uses.

If we were to play a piece by Beethoven, we’d have to take into consideration, “What is Beethoven’s folklore? How does he create continuity?” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a drumset can fit in Beethoven. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But the issue of genre and continuity is problematic.

The rhythms that Stravinsky put into The Rite of Spring have gone on to have all sorts of repercussions in prog rock. You might not think that Genesis and Yes are too much like Stravinsky, but at the same time, there’s a common thread of celebrating an off-kilter meter in an earthy, direct, hard-hitting way. There’s something folk about Stravinsky’s Rite, but it’s not like Bartók. When Bartók writes his rhythms, he’s thinking of a certain Hungarian dance. Stravinsky’s more like a Cubist: “I’m going to put this stuff together, and you’re going to like it.” Sort of like the prog-rock ethos.

How did you decide who would play what? Did the parts fall naturally, or did you have to negotiate?

It ended up being pretty obvious. It was a lot of Reid’s choices. I deferred to Reid. Reid made up a part, and if he was playing that stuff, I didn’t have to play that, I could play something else. Both of my hands are playing pretty much nonstop. There isn’t too much space.

The movement that really could use something else is the last part of the first movement, “Dance of the Earth.” There’s a whole other level of counterpoint that really makes that movement go. There’s no way we can do it. But maybe, who knows, if we keep at the piece for ten years, maybe at some point I’ll take a deep breath and try adding that other layer of counterpoint. It’s theoretically possible that I could do it a bit, in a way. I’m timid at this point. I have so much to do already. I suppose that’s a fantasy goal—to add in a 16th-note passage. But it’s within the realm of possibility. You know what Ferruccio Busoni said about piano, “Always believe everything is possible, even if it is actually impossible.”

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t yet heard The Bad Plus play The Rite of Spring, and you’re planning to attend one of the performances at the Loring and you want to be totally surprised, stop reading.

Your version of the Rite starts with a mixed recording. There’s a heartbeat, parts Reid recorded of you playing the bassoon introduction on the piano, a gasp. What was your thinking about beginning that way?

The first movement is the richest in terms of counterpoint and has the most hard-to-realize harmonic texture. We didn’t know what to do with that, and it was going to be too thin. We ended up with Reid taping me playing four tracks—all the parts of the first movement, from the two-piano version. Then we added things because there’s no way two pianists can play it all. So there’s some extra stuff. Stravinsky understood it was all important. 

I did four passes, recording all the notes, on the out-of-tune studio piano, going for a feeling like it’s Stravinsky himself on his rehearsal piano, playing it for the dancers for the first time. Then Reid took the tape and did that magical transformation with his ear and concept. That’s what that is. Then we come in with the bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-BUMP-bump part, "Augurs of Spring."

You end with the last 30 seconds or so of The Bad Plus tune “Physical Cities.” It’s as if you took a big black magic marker and signed your name to The Rite of Spring. It’s fantastic. Whenever I hear you play “Physical Cities” live, it makes me crazy trying to figure out how you count it.

That was almost as hard to learn as the goddamn Rite of Spring. What makes it hard to memorize is it’s all on one note. It's like an advanced form of Tourette’s. But there are lots of metal groups that do all that stuff and more. [Eric] Fratzke has a band, Zebulon Pike. They play a whole hour of droney riffs on one note with complicated meters, really impressive, all without any sheet music. All you have to do is put in the rehearsal time.

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