Roger C. Miller (Mission of Burma) Talks the Bad Plus’ The Rite of Spring

I was fascinated with Igor Stravinsky's 1913 The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) long before I realized how radical it was in...

I was fascinated with Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) long before I realized how radical it was in its time.  Probably my first introduction to it was watching those volcanos explode and dinosaurs trudge to their doom in the animated classic Fantasia, though my father did have it in his record collection.

I was amazed when I later discovered there was a four-hand piano reduction of it, created by Stravinsky himself.  In 1983, I used it to arrange sections of Le Sacre for my band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, and it appeared on our Magnetic Flip album.  Our version was just under seven minutes long: obviously, we utilized only a few major themes, coupling those with a frenzied improvisation at the end.  After one show (opening for Echo and the Bunnymen) the comment was made that we did “The Reader’s Digest version” of The Rite of Spring.

On this new album, the Bad Plus have not done the Reader’s Digest version — they did the entire damn composition.  And this is no small feat.  I suspect that at least some of the music was deduced from the aforementioned four-hand piano version, but there is a lot more going on here than just that.

To show how wrong this can go, I attended the four-hand piano version during First Night in Boston in the mid ’80s.  The moronic pianists played it like it was Chopin, and after the first two minutes I was frantically looking for an exit.  But the place was packed, and I couldn’t get out.  Pure torture.  People gave them resounding applause when it was (mercifully) over — a clear example of not grasping the basic concept.

I never feel the need to leave the room when listening to the Bad Plus’ version, which they debuted in 2011, clearly anticipating the 100th anniversary of the piece’s groundbreaking, riot-causing performance in Paris in May 1913. They pay solid attention to the dynamics of the original and it is bona fide exciting — even though one knows what’s coming up (if you know the piece), one is always happily surprised by what they do, even if it’s not always exactly what might be expected.  Such that the interplay between expectation and disorientation is nicely balanced.

The most problematic aspect of the Bad Plus version is a given: they are a piano/drums/bass trio.  The lush colors of Stravinsky’s large orchestra — one of the best aspects of the composition — cannot possibly be recreated.  You can only trade a melody or riff so far in the Bad Plus.  But they aren’t trying to recreate that lushness, they’re stripping the piece down to its essence.  They compensate for the comparative lack of tonal color by their spontaneous jazz elements (though this takes a bit of mental gymnastics on occasion).  David King’s drumming especially gives much new information to the composition. (Stravinsky had nothing in his score for “drum kit.”)

If it definitely sounds on occasion like jazz, one might note that Stravinsky’s 1945 Ebony Concerto was written for Woody Herman’s band, and later recorded with Benny Goodman.  The connection between jazz and Stravinsky is not as distant as one might think.  When Birdsongs of the Mesozoic played the “Spring Rounds” movement of The Rite of Spring at the Channel in Boston years ago a friend of mine said, “I really like the Lena Horne-sounding piece you guys did.”  Curiously, this is one of the sections where the Bad Plus took the bass and drums farther out than usual.  Yeah, work it.

“Games of the Two Rival Tribes” was one of the few times I really yearned to hear a full orchestra: the tuba ostinato melody (technically, this is “Procession of the Sage”) played on piano added up to a loss to my ears — the deep, sustained tone just wasn’t there, despite Ethan Iverson’s excellent playing.  But if you didn’t know Le Sacre well, you’d never know there was an issue.  Generally, even though the sonic palette is so much smaller, one is perfectly content to go along for the ride.  The Bad Plus has obviously honed their ensemble playing, and this is clear in their seamless and lively performance of a very complex composition.  They ain’t just reading the notes, that’s for sure.  I could go over the entire composition movement by movement, but that’s not the point.  They dared quite a goal and achieved it.

To make even more sense out of the centennial, the Bad Plus are the house band for Spring, Spring, Spring, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s new choreography to The Rite of Spring.  It’s quite unlikely to cause as much of a ruckus as Stravinsky’s orchestral performance did along with the Ballet Russe in 1913, but I suspect it’s a great new interpretation, and well worth attending.

At this point, the composition no longer qualifies as revolutionary, but the audacity and abilities of the Bad Plus make this a very worthwhile excursion — and many people still find those knotty harmonies rather disruptive.  Like Birdsongs of the Mesozoic in 1983, the Bad Plus adds their own improvisational cadenza with a rock subtext.  It just makes logical sense: Stravinsky let it rip in 1913, and a new interpretation must let it rip whenever it’s made.  I feel a standing ovation coming on.


Roger Clark Miller is the singer-guitarist of the legendary Mission of Burma and also plays in Alloy Orchestra, which specializes in live soundtracks to classic silent films.  His composition Scream, Gilgamesh, Scream premiers on September 22nd at the New England Conservatory.  Miller is also a noted soundtrack composer. His website is here.